One of my fellow writers tweets the gems she uncovers while editing docs, marking them with the hashtag #docfail. (I leave it as an exercise for readers to track her down and stalk her if they are so inclined).
A recent tweet read:
#docfail “Parameterized”. Sadly this is an official term.
“Parameterized” is actually not a neologism, one of the subjects of this post. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for parameterize, it’s been in the authoritative (according to the Merriam-Webster) english lexicon since 1940.
A “neologism”, a term that entered into the English language in 1803, again according to Merriam-Webster, is “a new word, usage, or expression“. New technologies give rise to new terms, obviously, so information technology is a major source of contemporary neologisms.
Since developers develop new and innovative technologies and ways of doing things, they routinely coin a new word to describe a novel method or application. An excessive proliferation of neologisms by developers can make them begin to resemble the second definition that Merriam-Webster gives for “neologism”: “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic” (at least to people tasked with translating them).
Neologisms pose particular challenges for technical documentation, especially when a document is translated (localized) into languages other than the language in which it was originally written (mostly, and for the purpose of illustration in this post, English).
Often an reader of a technical document can infer the meaning of a neologism from its context; because it is a compound of previously existing words; or because it is a novel transformation of an previously existing technical term.
“Parameterize” is a classic example of the “turn a noun into a verb” method of neologism generation that is favored by another goldmine of contemporary neologisms – business-speak. “Aspectize” and “Annotationed” are two examples of taking a specific technical definition of a common English noun, turning it into a verb, and then going postal with it.
While English readers can infer or deduce the meaning of these words, translating them into another language is problematic. To do it properly a technical translator will have to accomplish the following:
- Find out if this neologism already exists in the target language. This involves researching the subject area by reading related existing documentation in the target language (if there is any), or trawling through message boards and mailing lists to see if people are talking about this, and if so, what terms they are using.
- If a term does not exist, the technical translator must coin a term in the target language. To do this they have to understand both the intended meaning of the term, and the already existing terms in the target language. Will the translated term by generated through a similar process of grammatical Frankensteinization in the target language, or will it be a modification of another already existing native term?
This process is repeated for every target language. When a technical document is localized into 26 different languages, as Red Hat Enterprise Linux documentation is, that adds up to a whole lot of friction – costing time and money.
A recent example I observed: last night I watched the opening of the 2007 movie “Transformers: The Beginning” subtitled in Spanish. The translators of the movie opted to use the term “La Matriz”, a term which carries the sense of “The Original (Source | Form)” (or literal: “The Matrix”), as their translation for “The All Spark”. The “All Spark” is an esoteric item at the center of the battle between the Decepticons and the Autobots. Interestingly, while the “All Spark” is a neologism in English, its equivalent term in Spanish “La Matriz” is not. If the translators were to translate it literally as “La Chispa de Todo” (“The Spark of Everything”) it would be an unfamiliar term in Spanish, when it doesn’t have to be. Sure, in English the name conveys that it’s an esoteric item, but to convey the sense of what it is in Spanish does not require the invention of a new term. Sometimes a neologism doesn’t have a need to exist beyond satisfying a developer’s desire to underscore that they are doing something COMPLETELY NEW!!!!!111
Neologisms also come into use as a form of short hand. As new technologies are constructed by aggregating previous technologies, the complex aggregate then becomes one of the building blocks for something else. To reduce complexity, new terms are coined to refer to these complex structures. A Central Processing Unit becomes a CPU. The whole CPU, hard disk, monitor, plus input devices becomes a computer. A bunch of computers becomes a cluster, and so on. Especially in the software world, which is all about the rapid aggregation of complex elements, these ever-more-encompassing terms appear frequently and regularly. In helping us deal with increasing complexity by encapsulating it in linguistic terms, neologisms serve an important purpose.
When editing we try to reduce the vocabulary of technical documentation as far as possible, running it through the lexical equivalent of an mastering audio compressor. Whenever and wherever possible we replace unnecessary neologisms with “plain English” to clarify the meaning and assist translation.
Technical writing is not about creativity – it’s about communicating information as efficiently as possible.
We need to be wary of the human tendency to create a new priesthood of the elite that distinguishes itself by an incomprehensible dialect. Sure it’s always cool to belong to a group that converses in a form of “leet-speak”, but if the goal is to be understood, then in documentation it’s important to relate the unknown to the known. When neologisms do appear in a document they benefit from explanation, or from the inclusion of a glossary. Always think of the audience.
And developers – please think twice before coining yet another new word to go with your technological innovation. Is it really needed? Can you explain it in plain English? Does a new term reduce complexity more than it increases it?