When I was a graduate student, I met with a professor I was collaborating with to talk about our shared project. “I know there was a paper at NIPS about this,” he said. My brain whirred. Nips as in… nipples? He couldn’t have said ”nips,” right? The moment passed, so I went home and googled it. Sure enough, there’s a conference called Neural Information Processing Systems, or NIPS for short. And just yesterday (Oct. 24), NIPS announced that after “extensive discussions,” they were not going to change their name.
Nips isn’t just a silly slang term for nipples; it’s also a racial slur dating back to the height of anti-Japanese sentiment, especially after World War II (short for Nippon, the Japanese word for Japan). Luckily, that word has fallen out of favor, but the nipple connotation still looms large. “Some respondents wondered whether the name was deliberately selected for a double entendre,” wrote the NIPS board. “It was not. The name was selected in 1987, and sources such as Oxford English Dictionary show the slang reference to a body part did not come into usage until years later.”
So what does an organization do when their acronym turns out to be inappropriate? Trends are hard to predict, of course. An acronym that was once benign can become problematic over time, and then, leaders are faced with a decision about what to do next. For instance, the International Society of Infant Studies (ISIS) formed in the 1960s, but as the militant group ISIS came into power in the 2010s, the group quietly changed their name between their 2014 and 2016 conferences to ICIS, the International Congress of Infant Studies. Their website, which used to be ISISweb.org, is now infantstudies.org. In this case, it seemed the board recognized the need for a swift, unilateral change, and it was embraced by members, who even began to pronounce the new acronym as I-KISS.
Another option is to just lean into a bad acronym. The Sioux City airport, FAA code SUX, has embraced its acronym, allowing merchants to sell shirts, stickers, and luggage tags emblazoned with “Fly SUX.” Of course, this is dependent on the acronym itself; ICIS would’ve had a hard time “leaning in” to their ISIS acronym.
In NIPS’s case, its leadership’s decision came after they polled 2,000 members about their support for a name change. Men were generally against the name change. This effect was especially strong among men in Europe and Asia, potentially because the acronym doesn’t mean much in other languages. One member pointed out that with the world’s many languages, any acronym might be offensive in one of them: “I think a randomly generated hash code is the best way to avoid collision with any offensive terms. What about 27fb380bc013f01262acf6b2518d08bd?”
North American members were more receptive to the name change, especially women—but even women were split on the change. “As a woman, I find it offensive that the board is seriously considering changing the name of the meeting because of an adolescent reference to a woman’s body,” one women writes. “From my point of view, it shows that the board does not see me as an equal member of the community, but as a woman first and a scientist second.”
Another implored the board to change the name, pointing out that nips is not only a reference to nipples, but also a racist slur. “I’m embarrassed every time I have to say the name of the conference.” Around 500 members have signed a petition pointing out shortfalls in its survey methodology and asking NIPS to reconsider its decision, and the hashtag #ProtestNIPS is gaining steam. The petition also points out that some members have tried the “Fly SUX” method of leaning in to the conference’s bad acronym:
The acronym of the conference is prone to unwelcome puns, such as the perhaps subversively named pre-conference “TITS” event and juvenile t-shirts such as “my NIPS are NP-hard”, that add to the hostile environment that many [machine learning] researchers have unfortunately been experiencing.
As the AI and machine learning fields grow, NIPS’s profile has grown, too, becoming an important conference for researchers looking for jobs or new collaborations. That name recognition is why some argue its name shouldn’t change. At the very least, one hopes conference attendees will keep it professional and knock it off with the crude jokes.