Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Language is confusing
By Giles Emerson 24/11/12

About 20 years ago a revered client in a government scientific laboratory up in East Kilbride told me about two scientists keenly discussing a project. Talking in the language of their discipline they inevitably used shorthand in the form of acronyms and mutually understood jargon to make themselves clear, one to the other.

We have all slipped into acronyms and tribal or cultural jargon in our language: from ‘radar’ to ‘posh’, from ‘OMG’ and ‘ROFL’,  from ‘value creating propositions’ (sic) to ‘delivering deliverables’. As technology struggles in vain to slow down to meet the current ‘temporal mass’ of the human psyche’s ability to cope with flying words (the point where it has some commercial or other application, however temporary), far too often these terms are confusing, even between scientists having a banter.

According to my client, “one of the scientists referred to MAP, meaning Manufacturing Automated Protocol but the other took this to mean MAP, or Microprocessor Applications Program.” I was then told that the mistake was an easy enough one to make at the time but the confusion compounded when, in the course of the conversation each scientist all but simultaneously realised his own mistake and, out of courtesy, adopted the other’s MAP reference.

When I heard this story, particularly given the nice idea of the loss of map references in communication, I was triggered to write an article called ‘Trapped in the Word Jungle’, which was published in The Times. I subsequently wrote several articles on the subject for The Times and The Independent. Most of them were tongue in cheek, but some of them were quite angry.

In the mid-90s one section of an article I wrote for The Independent’s ‘Glossary’ section (when holiday-sitting for journalist/broadcaster Thomas Sutcliffe) went thus: ”How did we get to the state in which we no longer flinch at expressions such as ‘natural wastage’? There must be a kinder and more grateful way of referring to people who are retiring early or leaving a job for other reasons. Natural wastage is probably as welcome a term to the naturally wasted, as ‘ethnic cleansing’ is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.” That was written in about 1996. Ouch!

Looking at what’s happening today, you will forgive me for not trying to evaluate the numbers of confusions that abound in all parts of our life – inevitably, therefore in business and government attempts at good communication. There’s just too much mess of words and poverty of expression around and it is richly compounded by laziness and a dependence on emails; all of which is mounted from the rear by the weakest of all e-animals, otherwise known as ‘social media’, a source of confusion that is already muddling itself up with a plethora of activities loosely embraced in ‘digital communications’.

Thankfully, the monuments of our age that I feel sure descendent historians will keenly examine as representatives of our strange period of history, will be the things that actually remain: some buildings in the mud, some books in casks.  It’s an interesting subject to chew on or to dally about in a hangover debate.

I wonder whether anything of a digital kind will remain, however cleverly we store it for future reference. ‘Ether’ and online communications, and the servers that support their distribution and storage, are as ephemeral as a sneeze in terms of the passing of time. And they have a way of getting up our nose only to block it until the next sneeze occurs.

To return to the slippery present, I am of an age myself where I am angry enough to write about things in a way which might, hideously, be called ‘passionate’. Yet I’m young enough to be truly hungry for the next paid work and have a longish way to go before I can retire sufficient to enjoy a few things that are genuinely left to enjoy in the retirement sense. What’s age got to do with this, you might ask?

Well, when I think of my continued gibbering at the stupidity of things, I wonder at how so many old people manage as well as they do. Perhaps they live on adrenalin fired by anger. If not, how do they sustain themselves, intellectually and otherwise on the poor fare that is served up to them in the form of modern (or relevant and accessible modern) communications?

Just as I revere my long-since otherwise employed former client, I hope that old people can just about get by revering their memories, giving and unwritten two fingers to the world at large. Fortunately for us all, we do have some contact with old people who still have the energy and optimism to be angry out loud. These prize exhibits will usually find the chance to tell us things about the past that have shaped and liberated all of us: free as we are to wander into our own wimpish and unnecessary fires.

But how many of us less-wrinklies truly listen, or have time to listen, or to ‘do’ the imagination that goes with good listening when the email in-tray is, once again, “tipping its bucket into the maelstrom”.

Having said all of which, thank God for weblogs!

Copyright: Giles Emerson 20th November 2012/also The Times (dtbd)

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