"Welcome to Obfuscatore," the waiter says. "As you see, we offer a multiculinary dineware platform that supports a variety of cuisines. Would you like to perform the consumption of liquids?"
"I'll have a vessel of transparent carbonated fluid," you say.
"Put a piece of sweet vegetable matter in mine," adds your companion.
Later, when the waiter returns with these, you inquire about the evening's specials.
"Tonight we are featuring several objects," the waiter says. "Our roast object is very good. It comes with spice and costs $15.95. Our broiled object comes dipped in a viscous substance and costs $16.95."
"Are any of your objects Cajun-oriented?"
"Yes, we have several blackened objects on our menu. The range-fed object is very tasty, and the milk-fed object is quite tender. Those are my personal favorites."
"Maybe I should have something a bit less meat-related."
"You might like our botanical choices. The steamed versions are very good."
"Well, give us a minute to access the choicebase."
Later, after taking your order, the waiter says, "will there be anything else?"
"Yes. We don't want to be interrupted during our meal."
"Of course. I'll cancel the customer-state repetitive inquiry routine."
It is amazing how a business that is so good at creating new technologies is so lousy at describing them. Words fail even the best of speakers. At Esther Dyson's most recent PC Forum conference, Bob Epstein, the brilliant Sybase executive, regretted not having a better expression than "extended enterprise client server" to label a capability he described. To see if anybody in the audience knew exactly what he was talking about, I asked a number of attendees who had enjoyed Epstein's speech if they remembered the phrase in question. Most could remember that the phrase was a procession of buzzwords, but none remembered the phrase itself.
This is because "extended enterprise client server" is composed entirely of TechnoLatin, a vocabulary of vague but precise-sounding words that work like the blank tiles in Scrabble: you can use them anywhere, but they have no value.
The Chinese language distinguishes between "full" and "empty" words. If English did the same, TechnoLatin would be much easier to discourage, because TechnoLatin takes perfectly meaningful words and empties them. If language is a living organism, TechnoLatin words are like those pods in the movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." They look real, but they're not. They are Bad Things.
And they are winning. TechnoLatin is now so pervasive in the computer industry that clarity is the exception when it should be the rule. Today we no longer make chips, circuit boards, computers, monitors or printers. We don't even make products. Instead we make "solutions," a fatuous noun further bloated by empty modifiers such as "total," fully," "seamlessly," "industry standard" and "state-of-the-art."
Equally vague and common are "platform," "open," "environment" and "support" when used as a verb. A veterinarian using TechnoLatin might say that a dog serves as an "platform" for sniffing, an "open environment" for fleas, and that it "supports" barking.
This isn't language. It's camouflage.
Ask yourself: what does "solution" really mean? As a pod-word, it has robbed the original of its meaning (literally, the solution to a problem) by serving as camouflage for something else, which I suggest is the word "product." Try this synonym test: substitute "product" every time you see "solution." See? It works just about every time.
What opened our brains to this pod-word? Two things: 1) the natural urge to glorify the ordinary; and 2) the failure to find a word more precise than "product."
TechnoLatin has turned a failure of imagination into a true discipline, with rules so strict that two years ago Ray Miller and I built a software program around them. BuzzPhraser randomly generates buzzphrases from a "generic description table" of the computer industry's most over-used and (therefore) least-meaningful adverbs, adjectives, nouns, adnouns (nouns that modify other nouns) and "hyphixes" that join by hyphens to the other words. A single keystroke produces "seamless client operation context," "tactical application leverage interface," "directly committed function-dependent cross-environment protocol shrinkage" and "globally phase-efficient access resource." With BuzzPhraser, the invasion of the word-snatchers achieves full victory by automating an already brainless exercise.
My perfect example of TechnoLatin's triumph is a press release several years ago that heralded the change of Xymos' name to Appian Technology.
"Over the past two years," the release said, " Xymos has been repositioning itself. No longer a typical semiconductor supplier, the company has focused on its ability to integrate advanced technologies that use innovative system architecture and software, into high performance system solutions for PC's and workstations."
If communication had taken place here, we would probably know what Appian Technology now does for a living. But because the release is written in TechnoLatin, it offers no such clues. While Xymos was at least "a typical semiconductor supplier," Appian Technology isn't even a noun. Instead it is "focused" on an "ability" to "integrate" a pod salad of "advanced technologies," "innovative system architecture," "high performance system solutions" and so forth.
Since "Appian" was first a famous Roman highway, you'd think this might be a clue to Xymos's new identity. But the release says "Appian was chosen for the name because it represents the ability to use leading edge technology and innovation, integrated into solutions that provide differentiation and competitive advantage." I'm sure that's just what the Romans had in mind.
The obligatory quote from Appian's president & CEO (the kind that all press releases include and no magazine ever prints) really hits the nail on the board: "What we have done at Appian Technology is couple leading-edge technology with innovation, and integrated it into high performance system solutions which provide customers with differentiation and competitive advantage."
This took two years?
John Barry, author of Technobabble (The MIT Press, 1991), blames this kind of blather on a shortage of character as well as imagination. "To paraphrase Billy Crystal's `Fernando' character," Barry says, "in the computer industry, it is often better to sound good than to be precise. In an effort to appear more important than it really is (and it really is important), the computer industry has fallen victim to the habits of polysyllabic palaver and euphemism." The real victim, he says, "could well be the industry itself, which is in danger of sliding into the same semantic swamp in which wallow lawyers, civil servants, military officers, sociologists and politicians."
Pulling the industry out of its semantic swamp is a job for industry insiders: not just because insiders are the worst offenders, or in the best position to change their ways; but because things that are easier to understand are easier to buy. Sooner or later, it all comes around to money.
If our work has real value, so should the words used to describe it.