In Our Great Tech Leap, We Forgot English

Photo credit: iStockphoto/AaronAmat

With apologies to the Francophone Society: English is the lingua franca of the planet. Like a grease-stained adjustable wrench, it's not the shiniest or prettiest tool in the box. French remains fluid and polished ― handy in diplomatic situations or when ordering breakfast. But English gets the job done.

Pedantic professors postulate that the Internet and other tech phenomena degrade the English language. It depends on your perspective.

Shakespeare might blanch at “wyd rn?” but is that more scandalous than typing out “what are you doing right now?” The beauty of English is that it can be broken badly yet still function.

However, technology spawns buzzwords, buzzphrases, and a self-expanding portfolio of acronyms. If the primary goal of the language is communication, tech and its sprawling lexicon seem more antagonistic than helpful at times.

Tech enters the mainstream lexicon

As technology becomes intertwined with traditional business processes, language itself evolves. Terms like “apps” (short for applications), “blog,” and “wi-fi” are no longer “tech-y terms” but coffee shop parlance. Of course, we use technology to improve our productivity and our working lives, but the decentralization of the Internet means that terms like “hacker” and “firewall” have also become commonplace.

Tech has also created colorful additions to the English language. For example, the verb “to doxx” didn't exist until it was needed. Essential dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster regularly add new words as the language is a living thing and can incorporate new words.

But as tech increasingly dovetails with business evolution, CDOs and marketing departments alike need to examine their use of the language. English will tolerate radical reworking: witness the BBC's pidgin service, or learn more about Singlish, described by Wikipedia as “a fully-formed, stabilized and independent creole language.” Many of the expressions used in these dialects are amusing. Still, when the Singapore government wants to make a serious point about safe computing practices, they'll often work in some Singlish to help communicate better to its audience.

On the other side of the spectrum are made-up tech terms, which should be discouraged as they dilute or obscure the intended message.

Spindled nouns, mutilated adjectives

Take a recent article in The Register about actions taken by the Wikimedia Foundation. According to The Reg, “The Wikimedia Foundation has revealed efforts to gather personal information on some Chinese Wikipedia editors by entities opposed to their activities on the platform and likely to threaten the targets' privacy or well-being.”

The article quotes Maggie Dennis, the foundation's vice president of community resilience and sustainability. Dennis is serious, as is the subject material. However, part of her statement reads: "We have banned seven users and desysopped a further 12 as a result of long and deep investigations...”

What is ”desysopped”? It's a Frankenstein's Monster of a word. To dissect this portmanteau requires a look at both technology and etymology.

“Sysop” crashes together “systems” and “operator”―add a “de” prefix (deconstruct? Demobilize?), and the artificial verb “to desysop” appears. “Desysopped” then is the adjectival form of this regrettable stitched-together verb.

You don't need an English degree to see how this made-up word destroys the flow of the sentence and its meaning. A savvy reader will simply skip over it, but a non-native speaker may despair because she can't decipher the “clever” word that serves as a speed bump to comprehension.

Don't verbify your nouns

Turning nouns into verbs used to be the province of sportscasters, who would exclaim things like “he 'cheapshotted' him!” Unfortunately, no referees were available to hand out yellow cards for language abuse. And soon, this practice crept into tech writing as well.

Casual speech is one thing, but nouns or adjectives pressed into service as verbs fall flat in official communication. There's no need to "offline" discussions; just take them offline. There's never a need to stitch together something like “to desysop.”

Merriam-Webster lists “verbify” as a word but that doesn't mean it's the best tool for the job. Clunky words act as speed bumps to readers, so don't clutter your written communication with them.

Always polish your text

Chief digital officers must define their terms to get their message across. Of course, the English language isn't the only tool tech-savvy executives have at their disposal, but it's the most important one. Whether it's documentation or public statement for media consumption, the published records of an organization are part of its brand image.

Do terms like “advertainment” or “gamification” help explain your value to your stakeholders? Is there a better way to describe your outlook and business practices?

Respect your communication tools. Don't be dazzled by the advance of technology into new (and often fascinating) areas. The best approach is to communicate as effectively as possible ― a maxim unaffected by the latest and greatest in tech buzzwords.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Photo credit: iStockphoto/AaronAmat