What’s in a word?

wordcloud

Do the words we use matter?

In my world they do quite often because there are a number of technical terms which have to be used correctly or else Chaos Will Ensue. A recent example was a colleague who kept asking for a “radio buttons” on a web page. What she actually meant was just a plain button you click for “Next” but she had in her head the term. I don’t expect people to know all the technical lingo but it needed correcting before the developer got hold of it otherwise instead of this:

nextbutton

 

 

she would have got this:

radiobutton

and that would not have worked at all. Oh dear me, no, it was not what she was after.

Anyway, that’s how I earn my crust. I catch those kind of misunderstandings. I need to pay my mortgage.

Jargon has a role to play. It’s a valuable shorthand for people working in the same field (by which I do not mean agricultural labourers, or “ag labs,” as genealogists call them). It is useful and it only gets a bad reputation because people use it inappropriately, often to try and seem superior, or because they have no communication skills.

I work in IT and I use jargon when I am talking to technical people. I once made the mistake, some years ago , of doing it in front of someone from HR. I was going over a server issue with an engineer and we started talking about dirty cache buffers and hot fixes until my colleague spluttered a bit. So we took our dirty caching outside. Never wash your dirty caches in public.

Jargon has a special place and should be used correctly. For the rest of the time there’s just language.

Do we need to be careful of language? What I have in mind is the kind of language which doesn’t fit the rules but nevertheless communicates its meaning quite clearly, at least to those involved.

Teenagers are best at this. They invent new language all the time and I think it’s great. I love that language is squishy. In this I am quite schizophrenic. I am a complete grammar nazi about all kinds of things including the greengrocers’ apostrophe. I also enjoy the use of a good Oxford comma, which is a little controversial in some circles. Yet I love playing with language. If you understand me then it has achieved its purpose, and it really doesn’t matter if my sentences wobble all over the place like a drunken hen party at 2 am on a Friday night in the West End.

I write long and cumbersome sentences quite frequently. My brain just rambles on and my fingers scramble over the keyboard trying to keep up. I’m not great at editing, particularly for blog posts, so you are subjected to the end result without warning or immediate access to pain relief. I suspect anyone who visits regularly keeps their painkiller of choice close to hand. Admit it, the best way to read this stuff is after a large glug or several of vino or a couple of Mother’s Little Helpers, or both.

I admire compressed communication. It’s so efficient and clever. Again, teens are the experts here. Those coded grunts that teenage boys emit are incredible. You know the conversations I mean:

“A’right?”
“Gnnh. Urgh?”
“Eh.”

The girls achieve a similar level of data exchange in a slightly different format, let’s call it Venusian Chat. It’s a little more physical than Martian Grunt.

“Yeah, like.”
“Y’know?”
“Totes.”
“Eek.”
* eye roll *
* elbows *

If we could capture that level of data compression for IT we would be able to stream HD video over 14.4k modems. It’s absolutely awesome.

The Offspring process information so differently from me and Sigoth that it makes our brains ache. They work in multiple streams simultaneously with little attention to detail but an overall grasp of the whole that is utterly impressive. The problem is that I am culturally unprepared for this, so often it appears they are being rude because they split their attention across the streams. Well, EBL, what an old fogey you are and no mistake. Lawks.

Our means of communication across generations is unpredictable. Blogging can seem like a way of imprinting ourselves upon eternity, or at least upon the lifespan of collective human intelligence. Hello, future, lok at me! Yet we only have to read Shakespeare or Chaucer, or even Dickens or Hardy, to know that words and meanings are as fluid as the dunes of the Sahara, ceaselessly shifting in the winds of change. What then is the point of worrying about Oxford commas or misplaced apostrophes? I can only catch glimpses of meaning in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and even less in cave paintings. Broad concepts are possibly understood, but usually imposed by my own cultural and time-bound perspectives.

I am therefore determined to enjoy being present at the birth of new languages, celebrating new words (“Selfie,” anyone? Omnishambles? Simples?).
While language lives and evolves and flows into new meanings, we are also alive and evolving which gives me hope. The alternative: Orwell’s MiniTruth and the shrinking dictionary.

Words matter, more than I can say.

Namaste.

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