Irritable vowel syndrome

By Hugh McKellar, KMWorld executive editor

I’ve got to get something off my chest that has been bothering me a long time. I’ve been working in the technology arena as an editor and writer for nearly 25 years, and for some reason folks in the business just can’t help themselves from taking liberties with the language.

Some of the blame can be directly laid on the Internet, which fostered what I called irritable vowel syndrome, the annoying and all-to-common habit of putting an “e” or an “i” in front of an otherwise perfectly acceptable word. One can excuse companies that took an early leadership role in electronic business and in so doing called themselves “e-this” or “i-that.” But I can’t forgive the folks who recently introduced themselves to be me as an “e-sistant” to the non-executive director (whatever that is) or an “e-lance” writer. Sheesh.

I can’t fault it all on the Internet, though. Here are some samples from recent correspondence: “I think the following will effeminately fit into your publication.” “[Company X] has its figure on the pulse of the content management space.” “ ... harnessing isolated islands of client touch points.” And, get this: “Announcing the declaration of Entreployee Interdependence.” Holy smokes.

Then there’s the jargon I hear at trade shows or during briefings: Win-win situation (or, if a partner is involved, win-win-win). Pain points. Choke points. And, one of my favorites: value proposition. At a large conference last spring, I made a bet with a friend on how many times I’d hear that on the trade show floor. She guessed 24 VPs in three days of meetings, I guessed 45. The final figure was 56. No wonder I’m a little jaded.

It’s not only software marketeers who take these liberties. Engineers are notorious—especially aeronautical engineers. I worked at Boeing (the outfit we referred to as “the company that puts the zero in being”) as a technical editor for a number of years. Mind you, that was in the days when pocket protectors were a fashion statement, but I don’t think these guys ever change. One engineer had developed a cargo pallet that, when damaged, could still be loaded into the belly of an aircraft. It was then in the fully fail operational forkliftable mode configuration.

It gets better. I had the opportunity to work with the FAA on a document about human survivability in air disasters, the most obvious of which were referred to as inadvertent terrain strikes. I called the author of the report, commenting to him about the dark humor and suggesting he might want to lift the veil of irony from his terminology. But, no; he had no intention of making any changes and insisted he had chosen his words quite carefully. I should have known, because this was the same fellow who wrote the following caption to an illustration: The maximum survivable impact forces on a padded, deformable surface. The illustration was of a human head, with arrows pointing to different parts of the skull. I’m not making this up.

So unless we run the risk of having minds like cement (all mixed up and permanently set), we should all strive to impart our knowledge clearly and unambiguously

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