The Word of the Month

Alphabet soup photo

Back in the early 90s, Kara Swisher decided to leave The Washington Post to write about the internet. Since then, she has interviewed every tech leader you could think of, whether at the Wall Street Journal, at the website she later cofounded, Recode, or lately at her New York Times podcast, Sway. This week she sat herself for the “Brief but Spectacular” PBS series, and she said that going into an interview, she always tries to figure out what people “are lying to themselves about:”

You can see how Swisher’s approach gets her into insightful conversations. A couple weeks back she talked with author Dave Eggers about his new book, “The Every,” and the topic of how the tech industry lies to itself came up. Swisher mentioned that Eggers’ new book seemed funnier than his previous work, and quoted this passage back to him:

“You’re disobedient and we strive to be too. Disobedient was a recently favored word replacing mutinous, which had replaced insurgent, which had replaced disruptor, which is, of course, the one they use now.”

“The Every” by Dave Eggers

Disruptor Interrupter

Eggers agreed:

I love the language of Silicon Valley. There’s always a word that is the word of the month and I can’t believe “disruption” is still out there. It’s been there for six, seven years or something and people are still using it. And everything for that period is measured against that word. Is it disruptive or is it not disruptive? Is this taco that I’m ordering, is that disruptive? I don’t know. And so — I had a lot of fun trying to think of not just the words that exist now but what would they invent or use in the future. And if you’re on the bleeding edge of that next word, the next “disruption,” you are seen as, I guess, a visionary in some way. But the words are kind of, they’re always — nouns used as verbs is always an easy thing to go for. But they’re always kind of awkward words. A little bit muscular but awkward and ungainly. They make conversations so clunky and strange, almost like you’re talking in a second language in translation. Because so often you’re like, well, that word doesn’t at all belong there. It never meant that before, but here we are using it.

Dave Eggers

Translate This

Picture your team at Verb head banging like we were at a rave while we listened to this answer. Because haven’t we fought against tech talk. And lost countless times. Verb editor Ivan Rothkegel pulled this video that describes how we feel about that pest, acronyms:

At Verb we often work on actual translations, and sometimes the opportunity presents itself to translate the jargon back to regular talk together with the language translation. But not always. This week was translator day, and they shared the story of how once the German publisher of Terry Pratchett took the liberty of inserting a paragraph promoting a brand of soup in the middle of their translation like it was part of the text:

There are limits to what you can translate into sanity. We’d much rather have everyone in tech follow George Orwell’s tips for when to use jargon.

Never

“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

George Orwell

More to Eggers’ point about groupthink:

“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

George Orwell

As Orwell says, you want to use your words to paint a clear image in the minds of others. You don’t want them to think of the words, but of the meaning you want to convey. If Verb’s own Avo Hadjian could give us nightmares with his 800-page Armenian history tome, you can sure make your tech press release a little more vivid.

At its worst, using jargon can put you in such a different place that others can no longer understand you, like you’re from a different planet. You might end up explaining “What Our Research Really Says About Teen Well-Being and Instagram,” like Facebook did this week after the Wall Street Journal published some of their documents about teen suicide. No matter how hard you try, parents will still be terrified of teen suicide, so you want to start there. You are lying to yourself if you think that what you said before matters more.

Dwell Time

At its best, using your own words can help you lead. For example, Verb customer BitTrap wants organizations to think about what hackers do once they are inside their network. They could have talked about “zero trust” like everyone else, but instead they picked the expression “dwell time” from an industry blog. This is a powerful expression because it conveys how hackers stay inside a network, sometimes for months, without anyone noticing. And it got BitTrap its first foothold in the market:   

Where will you lead the public? Wherever that is, make sure it’s not into alphabet soup like Terry Pratchett’s old German publisher.