Archive for June, 2009

New Words, Old Words.

June 29, 2009

Not so long ago, I wrote this. To summarise, it was about new words adopted into the English language by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, most of which had their genesis in online culture. So it was with great joy that I came across this article which outlines some of the words that the internet has succesfully killed. It’s a lovely piece of work, I suggest you read it. My very favourite is at the top of the list – “friend”. Once a word meaning ” someone you knew, had a personal relationship with, occasionally spoke to, and frequently drank beers with” it now, according to the article, means “someone who found your email address and typed it into Facebook and/or LinkedIN. You may have met said person at a conference once, and possibly even conversed with for 5 or more minutes”. Of course, my second favourite is in there too – “startup”. Once, it meant “a company with a novel idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company into a successful, profitable entity”. Now, it means “a college graduate and three friends who have an incremental idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company such that it gets acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo (in that order), preferably within 18 months for at least 9 figures.”

The article is tongue-in-cheek – and readily admits it – but there’s a whole lot of truth in there (albeit disguised nicely behind humour). Language is evolving, and the major vehicle for change is that thing that has become so pervasive in our lives – the internet – and the culture that goes with it. Not only have new words entered – “w00t” and “mondegreen” instantly spring to mind – but ‘old’ words have had their meanings modified to fit the new medium. I maintain that it’s not a bad thing, it’s progress (whatever definition you choose to use for ‘progress’). Sometimes it seems like backwards progress, but it is nevertheless the direction we are heading. Don’t like it? That’s OK – the new generation do. And when they’re all grown up and complaining about the “young ‘ens”, well, that’s OK too. Their kids will be busy picking up the slack by then.

Originally Posted at On Writing, Tech, and other Loquacities


Neologisms and Localization

June 25, 2009

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Merriam-Webster – Bringing the Mondegreen to Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere

June 24, 2009

Spotted this one on Slashdot today. Reading the comments, I came along quite a few that expressed what appears to be complete and utter dismay at the introduction of new words into the language. For example, this one:

“Even if you can guess what it means, it’s always good fun to pounce on neologisms and jargon and grill the user why they are using them instead of a more traditional word.”

And then there was this one:

“my old boss used to love these damn things and every time he’d say the word “webinar” a peice [sic] of me died a little inside”

It reminds me of a time I was driving around Brisbane with a friend, it was Christmas time, and I noted a sign in front of a church that stated something along the lines of “Christmass Services”. I made an offhand comment about the mispelling, and my friend pointed out that the origin of the word indicates that it should, indeed, be spelled “Christmass” (as it derived from the Mass for Christ). The main point of her comment though was the fact that language is an ever-changing and constantly evolving beast. Wordsmiths – myself included – are often very quick to point out that something is not a word, or is a neologism, or just isn’t right for some other reason.

We all use language in different ways every day – the language we use to speak to our friends is not the same as we use to speak to our children, or to authorities. The language that we use to write emails to our friends is different to the language that we use to write a complaint to the phone company. In my case, the language that I use to write technical documentation is different to the language I use to write fiction, and is different to the language I am using to write this blog post. The most interesting thing about that is the language that I use to do all those things has changed – as I’ve gotten older, as my opinions have changed, as my knowledge has increased, as my tastes have changed, and as I’ve come across new words.

I was working on the latest fiction project last night, writing very short snippets in first person for several different characters, and consciously trying to alter the ‘voice’ of each section to suit that character. Not as easy as it sounds, but I’m reasonably pleased with the results, so far.

Language, in all its forms, shifts and changes with attitude and society. While I’ve never considered Merriam-Webster to be authoritative, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it for any of my work, at least we ought to give them credit for trying to document the language as it is used, rather than how it ‘ought’ to be. And for that reason alone, it has a place in the world.

Originally posted at On Writing, Tech and Other Loquacities.

In the beginning…

June 23, 2009

In the beginning was the word… and it was so wrong. It was in the passive voice, so I had to rewrite it.

It had been written by a developer^H^H^H^H^H^H^H I mean, a developer wrote it. A lovely chap, and a brilliant software engineer – but more suited to writing code than documentation. His documentation was more notes than finished product, and that’s fine and to be expected. It’s my job to take these notes from developers and turn them into something easily digested by users. I’m a technical writer.

Passive is weak. Active is powerful. Empower your writing, and your readers, by using the active voice.

In a passive voice construction something is done to something. If an actor does make an appearance, it does so attached to the construction through a clause. For example: “It had been written” is a passive construction. The actor, in this case a developer, is indicated by the clause “by a developer“. However, the sentence is grammatically correct and complete without the presence of the actor: “It had been written“. Sounds very epic, doesn’t it? Which may be why it is a writing style favored by academia, and drilled into students in universities around the world.

A friend of mine, currently completing his doctorate in Psychology, explained to me that in the rarefied academic atmosphere he moves in the passive voice “is seen as being more objective” – a passive construction if ever I saw one. After some thought, I realized that the relative objectivity of the passive construction is illusory in nature. The passive voice is not objective, it merely obscures its subjectivity by omitting the subject.

This is a problem when you’re writing user documentation and the subject of your writing is the user.

Documentation needs to be served fresh, hot, and ready to eat, steaming on the plate. Nobody reads the manual until they need to, right? Frequently, when a user picks up the manual they are already facing a situation of overwhelming complexity. If they have to then chew the documentation until it’s digestible, they are going to get indigestion before they can satisfy their intellectual hunger, or maybe they’ll starve to death first (am I taking this metaphor too far?). The likely result is that in the future they will eschew the manual.

The point is that without anchoring the user in the material by using the “strong language” of the active indicative voice (“after you do this” vs “after this is done“) readers can be lost at sea: “I was lost and confused before I picked up the manual, now I definitely have no idea where I am“. The manual is a map; it is going to lead the user from their lost predicament to the other side of the woods – use the active voice to give them the reassuring message: “You are here.”

Remember: Active voice rocks.