Say what it means
You know what has been really pissing me off this week?
Rhetorical question, of course you don’t. But if you hang on a sec, I’ll tell you.
It’s when terms, important terms, are used incorrectly so often that people believe the new meaning.
Let’s start with a simple example: chaise longue. This means “long chair” in French. People started mispronouncing it “chaise lounge” because they didn’t know any better and were apparently suffering from mass dyslexia. Rather than be correct, manufacturers of chaises longues changed the names on their product boxes to match the error (I’m not making this up).
Why is this a problem? Because when I say chaise longue and some bozo corrects me, it causes me to grind another layer of enamel off my teeth. Pick a language — If you don’t want to speak French, just call it a lounge chair.
Okay, maybe I’m making much adieu about nothing. So let’s look at something more important: Y2K, the abbreviation for “year 2000”. More specifically, it has come to mean “the computer glitch that almost ended the world in the year 2000”.
Since the world didn’t end in Y2K, the news media commonly refers to Y2K as a “hoax”. In fact, you don’t even need to say “hoax” anymore, it’s implied.
Well, I can tell you as someone who spent two years on a Y2K project for a big telecommunications company, Y2K was not a hoax. We found lots of stuff. It was mostly cosmetic stuff, but it all needed to be fixed.
Why is this a problem? Calling Y2K a hoax is wrong, and frankly, insulting.
It’s safe to say Y2K was overblown, but in 1998 we had no idea how bad it was going to be. Plus once the Y2K ball got rolling, companies were charging huge bucks to go through your code looking for problems, and COBOL programmers were emerging from IT gulags to fill ridiculously lucrative programming contracts. Thus lots of people had incentive to exaggerate the problem. This does not mean it wasn’t a problem.
Here’s another example: UFOs. What does UFO mean? No, it doesn’t mean “flying saucer”. That’s exactly my point.
UFO means unidentified flying object. So when someone asks me if I believe in UFOs, I say, “well duh”. Any object that is flying that I can’t identify is by definition a UFO.
I see UFOs all the time. Are any of them alien spacecraft? Probably not. But I don’t know. They are unidentified.
Why is this a problem? Because you can’t describe unidentified flying objects as UFOs anymore. So now you say, “I saw this thing last night, it was in the sky, I don’t know what it is, and it was flying.”
“Was it a UFO?” your listener asks, with a smirk that says, You’re an effing loon.
“No, no,” you respond quickly, “it was just a thing in the sky. It might have been flying, or not. I don’t know what it was. Stop looking at me that way. It wasn’t a UFO. Forget I said anything.”
Bugger that, it was absolutely a UFO. Check the definition.
Another example: global warming. It’s the hottest topic around right now. No other term causes more heated arguments. This one gets me steamed too, but for a different reason.
Global warming means the world is getting warmer, and this is a fact. The Earth’s temperature has been going up and down ever since it grew an atmosphere, and we happen to be in a warming period. A few thousand years ago, the Earth was in an ice age. Since we started keeping accurate temperature records in the last century, we have seen the Earth’s temperature rise over one degree. We can compare pictures of glaciers from decades ago with pictures now, and they are unmistakably smaller. Some are almost gone.
However, even the biggest deniers aren’t blind or stupid (I hope). They aren’t denying that the world is getting warmer. They are denying that humans have had an effect on it. However, the media no longer makes that distinction, and so neither does the unwashed masses.
Why is this a problem? You can’t have a debate on something if you can’t agree on the terms you will use.
People are confusing their hatred of Al Gore with rising sea levels. One is an opinion, the other is a fact. You can argue until you are blue in the face that your SUV isn’t contributing to global warming, but in the meantime, Venice and Tuvalu are drowning, and Miami is next. Whether you should junk your Suburban for a Prius is a completely separate argument.
You can say climatologists are crying wolf so they will get bigger research grants. Possible, but don’t you think the loudest deniers (e.g. energy companies and business friendly politicians) also have their own agenda?
Astute readers will have noticed I’m still using the term “global warming” over its latest incarnation “global climate change”. Why? Because that is another debate. Does a warming Earth cause more hurricanes in summer and random cold snaps in winter? Most climatologists say “yes”, but putting the two together means the unwashed masses see them as the same and throw them both out.
Damn, it’s good to get all that off my chest. I feel better now.