Half & Half Cream with mug

The day is April 4. I extract the half-and-half cream carton from the work mini-fridge and prepare to unscrew the cap when I notice the expiration date printed at the top. “MA 14.”

Does “MA 14” mean March 14 or May 14?

I stop. Is that March 14 or May 14? Both months begin with the letters “MA.” Both dates seem plausible when I consider that it’s early April. This half-and-half cream might have gone bad two weeks ago or it might have two weeks of quality left in it. Which is it? Is this going to give me a tummy ache or not?

Fortunately, I have not exhausted the backup plan. I have used only a fraction of my power. I unscrew the cap and hold the carton to my nose. Sniff. Seems okay. The half-and-half plops into my coffee.

Afterwards, I ask my co-workers in the office what they think “MA” means. My Canadian co-worker is confident that it’s May.

Quickly I get to wondering about what a clearer abbreviation might have been. “MY,” perhaps? March doesn’t have a “Y” in it. Maybe a number scheme would have worked better – the carton could say the number of the month (“05”) instead of its name. But without context, that digit is simply data, not information. It’s too vague to mean anything. Even if the user knew that number signified a month, it is still probably easier to more quickly recognize a month by its letters than by mentally retrieving the other half of the key-value pair “fifth month.”

Then I remember that being a product of Canada, an officially bilingual country, the month abbreviations surely must have been carefully chosen to fit both English and French spellings. After all, it would have been even more confusing had the carton contained two month abbreviations, one for each language.

Curious, I later poked Google for anything that had been written about Canadian month abbreviations to see if I was right about the labels needing to accommodate both official languages. Yes, turns out that is indeed the case: the two-letter abbreviations were designed to contain only letters that show up in both languages’ spellings of each month.

Two-letter Canadian month abbreviations

“Canadian Month Name Abbreviations,” a minimally styled HTML page from 2014, explores the topic in a satisfying level of detail. The author ruminates on other possible abbreviations for each month and realizes, as I begrudgingly did, that “MA” was literally the only possible option for May given the constraints on the naming conventions for this information.

The author reverse-engineers the information architecture in detail:

The abbreviation starts with the first letter of the English or French name. (By chance, English and French always agree on the first letter. Not true with, for example, English and Spanish: January/enero.)

The second letter has to be in both the English name and the French name. Consider the month April/avril. It can’t abbreviate as “AP”, because there’s no “P” in “avril”, and it can’t abbreviate as “AV” because there’s no “V” in “April”. But both “April” and “avril” have “L” in common, so they can (and do) abbreviate as “AL”. (The other possible solutions: “AI” and “AR”.)

As a user of the half-and-half, “sniffing” for information about the expiration date of the product, this particular labelling scheme failed me. I was unable to discern meaning from the two letters I was provided. And yet, my Canadian colleague could immediately tell what that abbreviation meant. The fact that the two-letter code must accommodate both English and French was a “a-ha” moment to me, a recent immigrant from the United States, but it was obvious to her. A mere abbreviation on a carton reminded me that I was a foreigner.

However, given the bilingual constraints of this labelling scheme, I think the information architects at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did the best they could given what they had to work with. I put this new information into the back of my mind, and the half-and-half carton into the back of the office mini-fridge.