Words & Stuff

jjj: Leveraging Core Competencies

(9 May 1999)

The terms "jargon," "argot," "slang," and "cant" all refer to nonstandard language used by particular groups. Loosely speaking, the terms are interchangeable; if I were to make usage distinctions, I would say that "cant" most often refers to criminal slang, "jargon" to technical or professional terms, "argot" to language used only within the given group, and "slang" to informal terms that have entered wider usage.

A surprising variety of groups have their own jargon. I wouldn't have expected that door makers, for instance, would use much jargon, until I received email from a co-worker about a broken door. It read, in part: "They need to re-mount the left closer frame pivot footing so that the arm has complete inward travel tendency -- or replace the closer. But instead, they simply turn down the hydraulic damping adjustment..." Social scientists, too, have jargon; a "measure-zero event," for instance, is something so unlikely as to be essentially impossible.

Computer programmers use a vast array of jargon and slang terms, many of which are defined in the New Hacker's Dictionary, also known as The Jargon File. To confuse matters, that dictionary uses the term "jargon" to mean "hacker slang," and "techspeak" to refer to formal technical terms, what linguists would call "jargon."

The huge number of technical and slang terms used by computer professionals only makes it more amusing that most technical people are extremely put off by "marketspeak," which is the technical and slang vocabulary of product-marketing professionals. Of course, most technical folks would say that this is because computer slang has useful meanings, while marketing slang is composed largely of meaningless buzzwords meant to impress potential customers.

One entertaining response to buzzwords came at Cygnus, where the CEO used the phrase "strategic inflection dynamic" in a presentation. At the next all-company meeting, employees wore T-shirts bearing paraphrases of famous lines from movies: "Throw me the whip and I'll give you the strategic inflection dynamic." "That's no moon, that's a strategic inflection dynamic!"

Tom Davis, one of the founders of SGI (the company formerly known as Silicon Graphics), got so tired of hearing terms like "leverage," "going forward," "leading edge," "proactive," "skillset," "win-win," "utilize," and "signage," that he created a game called Buzzword Bingo. He wrote a computer program that printed out bingo cards containing a random assortment of 24 buzzwords (with a free space in the middle) chosen from a long list, and handed out the cards at meetings. Each time someone used one of the terms in the meeting, you could mark it off on your card; when you had five in a row, you could call out "Bingo!" So if someone at a meeting says, "...so we can leverage the massively-parallel functionality solution to dialogue with our mindshare skillset and impact user-specifiable throughput in the market positioning timeframe," the correct response is "Bingo!"

I was tickled by the idea (so much so that I dropped Scott Adams a note describing the game; it showed up in Dilbert shortly thereafter), and even more tickled when David Huddleston suggested a variant, to be called Post-Structuralist Buzzword Bingo. Instead of using marketing and management terms like "incentivize," PSBB would use Literary Criticism Theory terms like "abjection," "Foucaultian," "hermeneutics," "demotic," "phallogocentric," "semiotics," "transgressive," and "agency." I collected a long list of such terms from various people, including a Critical Theory grad student. But it slowly dawned on me that anyone likely to encounter these terms was unlikely to see the humor in the game. The original Buzzword Bingo game succeeded because the people hearing the buzzwords weren't part of the culture in which the terms made sense; PSBB would probably only be enjoyed by people who encountered a lot of Theory terms without themselves being involved in Theory. To Theory grad students, these terms aren't buzzwords; they're technical jargon, used to improve communication within a group at the possible cost of alienating outsiders.

Here are some examples of Silicon Valley buzzwords and their meanings. I'm disturbed to discover that "functionality" actually means something different from "function" to me; I've apparently been listening to marketspeak for too long...

TermMeaningExample
functionalitythe set of stuff a product can doMaking coffee isn't part of this product's functionality.
dialogue withtalk toWe're going to dialogue with Sun to leverage our combined mindshare.
going forwardfrom now onAll carbonated beverages are to be caffeinated going forward.
offlineoutside of a meetingLet's take this issue offline.
solutionset of products that can be used together for a taskThis is our integrated desktop-accounting / coffee-making solution.
reference (v.)refer toBe sure to reference the documentation when you're telling them how to utilize our solution.
skillsetabilitiesWe have to leverage our team's skillset.
leverage (v.)take advantage of, make good use ofLeverage that mindshare into a win-win situation, okay?
utilizeuseUtilize that coffee-maker, willya?
sign off onagree toWe have to get the CEO to sign off on this idea before we can begin to leverage our team's skillset.
timeframeapproximate timeLet's offline this issue until the June timeframe.
signagesignsThe coffee-maker area will have better signage in the hell-freezing-over timeframe.
impact (v.)affectLack of signage will impact negatively on our ability to leverage our team's skillset.
mindshareintellectual resourcesWe need to leverage our mindshare and come up with better functionality.

If you want more terms, see the list of Buzzword Bingo terms, and the list of Post-Structuralist Buzzword Bingo terms.


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>