Chasing the Jargon Jitters

Steven Pinker

 

 

Steven†† Pinker†† isProfessorandDirectoroftheCenterforCognitive

Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, andauthorofThe

Language Instinct (HarperCollins, 1995).

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RAM, ROM, MIPS, FLOPS, CPUs,IRQs,asynchronousfloating-pointmultitasking

initialization delimiters -- why do computers breed so much godawful jargon? Is

it all a bunch of incantations muttered by thewireheadstoinitimidatenew

users(or,asthey call us, lusers)?Will digital argot corrupt the English

language,leadingfuturegenerationstomumblein†† the†† acronym-clotted

gobbledygook of computer manuals?

 

Negative.Computer jargon is inevitable, even welcome.As far as jargon goes,

it's not so bad, and English will be the better for it.

 

Jargon, like cholesterol, comes in good and bad kinds. One of the bad kindsis

governmentdoublespeak:pacification(bombing), inoperative statement (lie),

revenueenhancement(taxes),energetic†† disassembly†† (what†† happened†† at

Chernobyl).Anotherissocial-sciencebafflegab:high-falutin'lingo like

strategized†† interpersonal†† programmaticsand††† ameliorative††† contextual

interactionsthathidesthefactthattheacademicianistalking about

banalities or nothing at all. Then there are the rapidlychangingshibboleths

andcode-wordsthatseparatetheelitefrom the rabble, the cool from the

dweebs.

 

But sometimes sincere, plain-speakingfolkssimplyneednamesforthings.

Knitting,golf,cooking,fly-fishing,bridge-- every specialized activity

evolves its own jargon. Just as Adam had to give names to everybeastofthe

fieldandevery fowl of the air, the first person who wants to identify a new

gizmo to a listener has to figure out what kind of noise tomaketogetthe

idea across.

 

Languageprovidestwooptions. One is to cobble together a phrase describing

the gizmo. When biblical Hebrew was revived in Israel and had to be embellished

tomeetthedemandsoftwentieth-centurylife,thefirst translation of

"microscope" was the device that makes the hyssop on thewalllooklikethe

cedarsofLebanon. It's clear, poetic even, but if you imagine a conversation

among harried lab technicians you immediately see the problem.Theoptionat

theotherextreme is to coin a nice simple word, like flurg. That's short and

sweet, but unless you are a member of a cliquewhoisincontactwiththe

dubberand have memorized the coinage, it's gibberish. Clarity and conciseness

trade off; you can be either clear and verbose or concise and opaque.

 

Most jargon starts off near the clear-but-long-winded end of the tradeoff.New

wordsaremanufacturedbygluingoldonestogether,adding prefixes and

suffixes, thinking up metaphors, and borrowing words from other languages.But

aspeoplebecomefamiliarwith a term, they try to save their breath and to

keep the attention of their listeners byabbreviatingit.††† Frequentlyused

wordsinexorably slide towards the short-and-opaque end of the continuum. Just

think of the jargon of everyday life.If Benjamin Franklin were transported to

thefirsthalfofthiscentury,hecould make educated guesses about the

meaningsofrefrigerator,television,†† and†† even†† fac-simile†† telegraphy

("make-similar""distant-writing").But were he to arrive in the second half,

fridge, TV and fax would leave him baffled.

 

Computer jargon has its share of theunwieldy-turned-unclear.DiskOperating

SystembecomesDOS,modulator-demodulator becomes modem, multiplexer becomes

mux. And like the rest of language, it preserves fossils of extinct beingsand

deadmetaphors.††† Noonethinks twice about plastic silverware or dialing a

pushbutton phone, and few pause to notice that the clich@act[h] bringing things

toa head is a disgusting allusion to the life-cycle of a pimple. Likewise few

people realize that bootinguptheirmicrocomputerisnot,metaphorically

speaking,givingitaswiftkick,butlettingitlift itself up by its

bootstraps. The verb is a souvenir of the bootstrap loader tapes in the dawn of

computingwhosefirstfew bytes were instructions for reading in the rest of

the tape.

 

But computer lingo alsohasmanymetaphorsthatarenotonlyalivebut

downright cuddly -- mouse, floppy, handshake, bug, shareware, number-crunching,

snarfing, and readme files, for example.†† Wholetthemin?Toanswerthe

question,youhavetoknowtwomore jargon words, which identify the main

cultures of computing: the hackers and the suits.

 

Contrary to media usage, "hackers" are not pranksters who break intomainframecomputersand accidentally start World War III, or worse, the loathsome creeps

who devise and spread viruses in real life. Those are crackers. A hackerisa

memberofan unofficial meritocracy distinguished by their ability to program

quicklyandenthusiastically.††† Theydonotfitthestereotypeofthe

pasty-faced,polyester-clad,pocket-protectedneed-a-lifes. Rather, they are

literate, articulate quasi-hippies, and their cultureesteemsprecise,witty

wordplay.

 

EricRaymond'sNewHacker's Dictionary (MIT Press) provides a glimpse of the

vast lexicon that supplies the friendlier examples of our computerjargon.By

analogytoatypo,absent-minded hackers can make a thinko or a braino, and

clumsy ones can make a mouso, especiallyiftheysufferfrommouseelbow,

unlessofcoursetheyareambimoustrous. Exiting a window on the screen is

defenestrating; leaving off the page numbers at the foot of a printeddocument

isdepeditatingit("cutting off its feet," by analogy with decapitating). A

poorly-designed program might be barfulous (nauseating) or bozotic (reminiscent

ofthe eponymous clown), or display a high degree of bogosity. Such bogotified

programs can be detected by the bogons they emit,whichfollowthelawsof

bogodynamicsandcanbedetectedwiththat hypothetical but indispensable

instrument, the bogometer.Bogometers arealsousefulinthepresenceof

astrologers,politicians, professors with a Theory of Everything, and, most of

all, the dreaded marketroids or suits.

 

The Hacker's Dictionary defines suit as follows: "n. 1. Ugly anduncomfortable

'business clothing' often worn by non-hackers.Invariably worn with a 'tie', a

strangulation device that partially cuts off the blood supply to the brain.It

isthoughtthatthisexplains much about the behavior of suit-wearers. 2. A

personwhohabituallywearssuits.Seeloser,burble,management,†† and

brain-damaged."Hackersareexasperated by the suits' breathless promises to

customers of features that are extremely difficult to program orthatviolate

thelawsofphysics. They are even more contemptuous of their buzzword-laden

adspeak(synergy,interface),†† their†† inelegant†† neologisms†† (prioritize,

securitize),andtheirtechnicalmalaprops(such as parameter referring to

"limits" rather than to "dimensionofvariation.").Atleasttohearthe

hackerstalk,themoreawfulcomputerjargoncanbeattributedto the

management.

 

But putting aside who is to blame for all that lingo, what's apoorluserto

do?Theansweris certainly not to sit down and memorize a glossary as if it

was high school Latin homework.Instead, think of the circumstancesinwhich

you actually welcome jargon.You are at the parts counter at Sears desperately

pantomiming and circumlocuting, begging for the long rubberthingummybobthat

keepsthesoapywaterfromgettingalloverthefloor. If only you had

remembered that it is called a gasket! You are sharing a culinary creation with

afriend,andwouldsave a bundle on long-distance charges if you both knew

what it meant to bake, barbecue, blanch, boil,braise,brew,broil,brown,

coddle,decoct,deep-fry,devil,escallop,fricassee, fry, grill, pan-fry,

parboil, parch, percolate, poach,pressure-cook,reduce,roast,saut@act[e,

scald, scorch, sear, seethe, simmer, sizzle, steam, steep], and stew.

 

Necessityisthemother of vocabulary. Most people learn what RAM means when

they first discover they need more of it.†† Thetricktomasteringcomputer

jargonisfirsttomasterthecomputer. As the widgets and rituals become

second nature, they turn into mental pegs upon which to hangthewords.††† Of

coursethehackers and manual writers have a responsibility, too: to pick apt

metaphors that keep the lingo both transparent and concise, and to allow lusers

to get work done needing as little of it as possible.

 

And†† what†† about†† the†† English†† language?†† Likeitornot,dozensof

computer-inspired words havebeenco-optedintoeverydayconversationand

writing:bellsandwhistles,bootstrap,debug,down (not working), flame,

(fulminate self-righteously),hack,hardcopy,hard-wired,interactive,K

(thousands),kluge(aclumsy but serviceable solution), mega-, on-line, real

time, snail-mail, software, time-sharing, and virtual (simulated).††† Language-

lovers, relax; this is what the hackers would call A Good Thing.

 

ForcenturiesEnglishhasbeensnarfingup the jargon of various cliques,

cults, guilds, and subcultures.Thedictionaryhasthousandsofexamples:

countdownand blast-off from the space program, souped-up and shift gears from

the automobile, trip and freak out from drug-users, boogie and jamfromjazz,

front-runner and shoo-in from horse-racing, and so on. Go back even farther and

you find that thousands of currently unexceptionable wordswereatonetime

denounced as corruptions -- sham, banter, mob, stingy, and fun, for example. In

fact, when you think about it, where else could words come from but slang?Not

from some committee! The breathtaking half-a-million-word vocabulary of English

is built from the grass-roots contributionsofcountlessslang-slingersand

jargon-mongers.

 

If you ever find yourself longing for a language with a more orderly admissions

procedure, I give you French. They have had the AcademieFrancaise

andthe General Commissariat of the French Language and the High Committee for

the Defense and Expansion of theFrenchLanguageandtheFrancophoneHigh

CouncilandtheComputerTechnology Committee, all charged with keeping the

language"pure"(sometimeswiththeauthoritytolevyfinesand†† jail

sentences).Originally concerned with finding replacements for le cheeseburger

and le weekend, the committees have become increasingly anxious aboutimported

computerjargon.††† Computer,software, data-processing, kit, video clip, and

bufferhavebeendeemedlinguisticallyincorrect;leshackersmustuse

ordinateur, logiciel, informatique, prÍt a monter, bande video

promotionelle, and memoire tampon].

 

Where has it gotten them? Their own technology commission estimated thatusingtheFrenchwords take 20% more space. And check out an English-French/French-

English dictionary some time -- the English-French half ismuchthickerthan

theFrench-Englishhalf.††† Centuriesofguardingthe purity of the French

language have left it with verbose expressions and a puny vocabulary. Butthen

what can you expect from a bunch of suits?