A cow in Willesden

Public psychotherapy for a veteran auditor

Plane English

Did you ever see that Harrison Ford movie with all the headscarves? Well if you believe it, the Amish in the US refer to people living outside their communities as ‘English’ – probably related to the pioneer days, but now meaning people who embrace technology and forego traditional values and lifestyle. Well if I can strain the link a little further, I want to pass some remarks today about the English language and how it has been savagely beaten down by technology in recent years, while making no reference whatever to the almost total lack of germaneness of the preceding introduction to that subject matter.

Thanks again to dictionary.com for that one, and please note the possible etymology of that word in the northern European tribes, from which also were drawn the Amish people’s ancestors.

So anyway, what brought this to mind was a training course last week. I was a little bored, so I started paying attention to what the instructor was saying. And I noticed a heap of stuff that I haven’t spotted before, enlightening my hitherto subliminal resentment towards the style of language that accompanies most of the technical training I’ve received.

A small handful of the phrases the instructor was using were pure jargon – not meaning much to anyone outside the technical field, but fairly precise within that field. Like Configuration Management Database – you might not know what it is, but you’re unlikely to get it confused with something else. Its often hard to know if you fully understand terms like this, but that is not the problem I want to address.

The bigger chunk of what he was saying was like jargon, but not really. That was the bit that has always irked me, and now I think I understand the cause of my irk. It was normal, natural language, but given a strict meaning within the field. It makes the whole thing sound fluffy and intuitive, as if its building on what you already know, as an alternative to giving you a lexicon of neologies to memorise.

So “Event”, for example. That has a particular meaning in the course I was taking, and its part of the course to learn the definition and the criteria for whether something is an event of not. “Problem” is another one. Perfectly ordinary, common word, but on this course it has a distinct meaning, which is similar-but-not-that-similar to the natural, established meaning of the word outside the confines of this training course.

I’ll show you how this works in practice. Imagine calling the IT helpdesk because your computer has broken.

Caller : “Hi – I’ve got a problem with my computer. It’s broken”

Helpdesk : “That isn’t a problem.”

Caller : “well it’s a problem for me. I need a computer to do my work”

Helpdesk : “Still not a problem. To be a problem, it has to have happened more than once”

Caller : “What are you talking about?”

Helpdesk : “You don’t have a problem. You have an Event. Because it’s the first time it’s happened.”

Caller : “Yeah. Whatever. Are you going to help me?”

Helpdesk : “No, I can’t do that. I just take calls and type up the details in the database.”

Caller : “But aren’t you the helpdesk?”

Helpdesk : “Nope. We’re the “Helpdesk” – in our field, the word help doesn’t mean what you think it means either.”

So there it is, jargon that isn’t jargon. It looks like it should be better than jargon, more accessible. But I’ve decided this week that it isn’t. It’s just lazy. If you need a word to describe a distinct, specific thing within your specialist field, make one up! Don’t just pick the first word that pops into your skull and then try and change its meaning to fit what you want. That isn’t right. Have some respect, put in some thought, some creativity. Continuing the German theme, when you’re on holiday and you go down to the pool, you can’t just take the nearest deck chair and make it yours. Its got a towel on it. There’s a pina collada on the table beside it. That chair is clearly occupied already, it is not free for use. Go and get another chair, or better still, make a chair (well, you see what I mean anyway).

So what I mean to say is, to all technologists out there, as Kelly MacGillis might have said, HEY ENGLISH! GET YOUR GRUBBY HANDS OFF MY LANGUAGE!

Now here’s Tom with the weather.

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