Sunday, July 1, 2012

Word problems

Two of the books that helped me see the world during my college years were "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis and "The House of Intellect" by Jacques Barzun.  Lewis is well known throughout the Christian world but Barzun is less so.  That is a bit odd since Barzun wrote on a very wide array of subjects and did so with intelligence and wit.  In one of his books, he reviews the use of the word "plastic", which meant "flexible" or "malleable" over the years but has also come to mean "inflexible" as in "my glasses frames are plastic".  Thus, the word means a property and its opposite.  He attributes this development to the burst of concepts, substances and materials being invented or discovered in a short time, so short that word inventions don't keep up.  We get the same word being used for very different things.

The books of Reis and Trout emphasize the importance of the name being used for a new product.  In "Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind", these two experienced admen tell what helps to get a product noticed and sold.  The most important single element, they say, is the name.  So, when the new fashion of companies offering to take my computer files and hold them on their servers for me, the name for that is "storing in the cloud" or "cloud storage".  Amazon, Apple and Google all vy to get my business for such a service.  So, there is the cloud this and the cloud that.  But, all of these cloud names confuse the mind of a customer.  It is like going to a party to find that every man there is named John.  

I can just imagine what they would have to say about the restaurant being  renamed with a name that begin with "@".  They say that a clue to good communication about the product is that the question "What's a P ?" (where P is the name) has a simple answer.  Here the new restaurant name can't be pronounced!  It doesn't appear in several lists of restaurant names.  When it does, the usual translation of the "@", which is "at", is spelled out!

When you have confusion over how to say the name, it gets said less often.  When it is said, it is stated in different ways so the fact that we are talking about the same restaurant gets obscured.  

We definitely need lots of terms for today's world.  I read decades ago that English has freely borrowed terms from many other languages, resulting in a large vocabulary and giving it an edge worldwide.  It's hard to have free speech, which seems to be a linchpin to a capable and evolving society, which out words to speak.  Which puts me in mind of Lisa Brown, the Michigan legislator, who was banned from speaking during recent discussion of using the word "vagina" in a speech from the floor.  From Brown's web site:

"State Representatives Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) and Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) were not told why the ban was put in place, but it is widely believed it stems from their opposition to radical anti-choice legislation that passed the House yesterday."

I read that in discussing an attempt to require women to get a pelvic exam to qualify for something, Rep. Brown said something like "I appreciate your concern for my vagina but 'no' means 'no'".  There has been a big disturbance over the whole incident and there should be.  But regardless, if something can't be talked about, that seems like a red flag indicating danger, ignorance and confusion.

To be continued....

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