AT LARGE: Wordsmithing

AT LARGE: Wordsmithing

Dictionary in hand and pedantic attitude at heart, ARN's Matthew JC. Powell delves into very risky territory . . .

Before you read on, be warned that this column touches a bit on the situation that has arisen between Microsoft and the United States Department of Justice (DoJ). It may well be that you've had about enough of hearing about this scenario, so I will well and truly understand if you elect not to read further. The thing on the next page about "training with a difference" is pretty interesting, really, and you might want to have a look.

Still with me? Good. Please don't get the idea that I'm obsessing about Microsoft. It's just that I've always been an avid watcher of the IT industry, ever since I was a lad knee-high to . . . I don't know . . . something short. Microsoft's showdown with the DoJ is the most interesting bit of the show right now, so it's on my mind. And as I said a few weeks ago, people keep asking me about it.

I offered a warning at the beginning of this article because I, too, have noticed an awful lot of words being spent on the subject. Improving on an idea from another tech writer, I did an AltaVista search with the terms "+Microsoft +DOJ" and found 3429 documents matching my query. That's more than a few. It is slightly overshadowed by "Millennium Bug", which returns 4770 documents, but well and truly overshadows "+Beleaguered +Apple", which I would have expected to give me more than its measly 65 documents. Maybe Apple's not beleaguered now?

Anyway, back to my point. It's a lot of documents. Every day I read at least three or four separate discussions of the same situation, and I imagine you read a few too.

What intrigues me about this flood of unfettered verbiage is the choice of words used to describe it. Being not only an IT type of person but also a words type of person, I obsess about that angle too.

Here's what I've found: most tech writers have no real idea of what is going on between Microsoft and the US Government. I know this because they can't decide on a word to use for it.

Obviously, they don't like "trial", because it implies a criminality to the proceedings which hasn't emerged (yet - I'm waiting). But they also don't seem to be very happy wearing "suit", although it's more accurate, especially in the last few days. They're also reluctant to invoke Perry Mason or the Hardy Boys by calling it a "case".

"Conflict" and "dispute" are used in fairly wide measure, but they do seem to be fading a little with overuse. The other one that's out there a lot is "DoJ action against Microsoft", which sounds very exciting and action-like. You picture hundreds of operatives abseiling into Bill's office in Redmond, like the end of the Bond film You Only Live Twice. Cool image, but it doesn't quite sum up the brinkmanship and 11th-hour negotiations that have typified the situation.

The word that's in fashion at the moment is "imbroglio", and I love it. Unwittingly, the IT press has hit on the perfect word for the MS/DoJ thingy. It's used because it sort of sounds like "embroil", which means "to involve in conflict or difficulties", but it has the advantage of being a noun. "Embroilment", if it's a word at all, just isn't right. It's one of those things like "wonderfulness" that may be right and all, but really ought not to be used.

So we're popularising "imbroglio" instead. Great. Before it goes too far, though, I'd like to do my bit to see it's used wisely. Few things annoy me as much as perfectly good words being hacked by sloppy usage. "Fulsome" for instance. It means "cloying and insincere", but I still hear people using it to mean quite the opposite. A pasta restaurant near my home offers spaghetti bolognese in a "fulsome sauce". Why would I want to eat that?

So anyway, "imbroglio". First thing is, the accent is on the second syllable, not the first. Second thing (and I can't stress this too much), you don't say the "g". It's such an ugly word if you say the "g". And I have heard it with the "g". Ugly.

Finally, semantics. According to the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, it means "a confused or complicated situation". It doesn't mean a battle, a dispute, a conflict, or any of the above. But more than any of these other words, it sums up the MS/DoJ whosit perfectly. It also happens to sum up the reportage on that very same whatchamacallit.

Incidentally, I just read a statement from the G8 conference about what the most powerful economies on the planet intend to do about the "millennium bomb". That's a good improvement.

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