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Author's profile photo Jerry Janda

Defining the Future

Shakespeare once famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While that may be true, I’m glad I’ve never had to go into a florist and ask for a bouquet of manspreading.

In the name game, a rose became and remains a rose. Manspreading, however, is one of the latest words to find a place within the Oxford Dictionaries. Not sure what manspreading means? Then you’ll forgive me if I mansplain (one of last year’s entries). Manspreading is a noun defined as the “practice whereby a man, especially one travelling on public transport, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.”

My first reaction: “Does that practice happen often enough that it warrants its own definition?” I honestly couldn’t say. I don’t use public transportation regularly. But it must be widespread enough (pun intended) to deserve recognition.

And so language goes. Necessity breeds new words. Slang becomes acceptable, words join forces to create a new definition that its individual pieces could never possibly convey. (“Manic pixie dream girl” anyone?)

Business, like language, evolves, and in many cases, business and language evolve together. They have to. The introduction of revolutionary technologies requires the introduction of terminology to describe them. New words arise, existing words gain definitions, mismatched word strings give birth to monstrous corporate speak.

The latter example of language evolution is likely the one that insults its mother tongue so sharply. There are plenty of generators online that will automatically spit out corporate babble. Most of these sites have naughty names, so I won’t cite or link to them. They’re easy enough to find though. Think of the unwanted byproduct of a bull’s digestive system, type it into a search engine, add “corporate,” then “words” or “jargon” or “speak.” You’ll get plenty of hits. I sure did. On the first site, I randomly generated “efficiently strategize ubiquitous architectures.” I laughed. Then I realized that it didn’t sound so farfetched. That killed the humor.

Not all corporate terminology is so ludicrous. As with the additions to the Oxford English dictionaries, business adopts words that, through stubborn survival, become part of the vernacular. Think of cloud computing. Our forebears would describe a cloud as a white puffy thing in the sky, nothing more. “If there aren’t many clouds,” they might add, “you can enjoy a blue sky.” (Imagine their shock to learn what blue sky might mean in a corporate meeting room.)

So why does cloud now mean more than a white puffy thing in the sky? Why not? If not cloud, then what? Somehow “software and hardware that ain’t installed on-premise” doesn’t have the same ring. And is its origin all that important? Did its usage come from the fact that an assembly of servers might resemble cloud formations? Is it because clouds are things that we don’t physically touch? Did Johnny John Cloud coin the term?

Does it matter? Not really. What matters is that I understand what it means, you understand what it means, and over the course of recent years, everyone else in business understands as well. And both cloud computing as a system and as a term has gained ground — if clouds can be said to gain ground — to the point of becoming disruptive.

As a brief aside, I must admit that the use of disruptive in this context still sounds odd to my ears. If my teacher called me a disruptive student, that was a bad thing. But disruptive technology is a…um…game changer.

You get the point.

Cloud only co-opted a single existing word. Other examples of new definitions come from combining words (but not to the point of achieving dreaded corporate speak). Generations ago, what would “Big Data” make people think about? A huge number? Would they have predicted that the term would one day refer to an ocean of information that should be analyzed quickly to gain valuable insights? And even if you could have gone back in time to explain that definition to them, would they stare at you, their mouths agape, reminding you of that time your awful literature professor forced you to read Beowulf?

There lies the rub. (To refer again to Shakespeare…and to wonder where he got that phrasing. Maybe I should ask your awful literature professor.) New technology can forever change the way we work and live, but its acceptance depends heavily on how it’s explained. That explanation requires words, and these words can spawn even more words, and on and on, until you have a new dialect that demands an initial understanding of the overall topic. (Good luck explaining rage-quit and pwned — two other new words in the dictionaries — to someone who was never introduced to the basics of online gaming. It’s an easier conversation if he’s a fanboy or the new female equivalent, fangirl. Next year, I predict the rise of “fanperson.” In 2017, we’ll shorten to “fan.” Imagine that.)

Technology that dramatically alters our lives also changes our way of thinking, and we share our way of thinking through communication. So it’s impossible to separate breakthroughs from language.

Put another way: Without mobile phones, butt dialing wouldn’t be a thing.

I suppose some word snobs bemoan the annual addition of new definitions (particularly for something such as butt dialing). Then again, they may be the same people who resist technological advancement. I guess that makes them Luddites. (Thank you for the word, 19th century English textile workers, who may or may not have taken their name from Ned Ludd.)

At the very least, they’re a bunch of randos.

Fear of technology and fear of language is fear of progress. Sure, there may be missteps along the way with words (the 21st century also gave us “fatberg,” a definition I discourage you from looking up) and technology (no offense to the guy who invented the Goldfish walker, but why?), but that’s how evolution works. We have to accept the bad with the good. I mean, why throw the baby out with the bathwater when you might end up with an idiom that stands the test of centuries, such as…uh…”don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”?

I think I’ll leave it at that. I’m pretty sure it’s time to shut down for the day anyway. Which must make it wine o’clock.

Or maybe it’s beer o’clock.

Mic drop.

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      Author's profile photo Jonathan Becher
      Jonathan Becher

      Nicely written, Jerry. As much as I believe that 'words matter', language is constantly evolving and there's even evidence that language influences culture.

      I recommend you read Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare

      Author's profile photo Jerry Janda
      Jerry Janda
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for the compliment, Jonathan -- and for the recommendation. I'll definitely check it out.