Make no mistake: words matter

It is difficult for this part-time writer and full-time IT professional to avoid being influenced by the events of September 11, 2001. On the practical side, if you haven’t noticed the effect this terrorist attack has had on the IT industry you must be on another planet. Business in the high-tech market was under pressure before the World Trade Center (WTC) towers were destroyed. We all are wondering how secure we are professionally and personally. And we should be; complacency played a role in producing the security holes that the terrorists used and we need to think things through.

There are lessons to be learned. For example, how many IT system security professionals did not think about the vulnerability of those systems under their care? How many of you wondered if your company’s disaster recovery plans either existed or had been tested?

As a writer, I learned lessons about words. How can people at this time be so strangely detached from their use of language? The most tremendously insensitive phrase in current use is “ground zero”. I did a Web search and I am amazed at how many people from pop musicians to astronomers have been using this term to mean any intense impact. But, in the WTC context, it has a strange meaning. First, it’s misused because – according to my back-wrenchingly heavy Random House dictionary – the term was coined for the point of contact of a nuclear bomb blast.

Second, the only people to have dropped such a bomb (twice) on people were the Americans. Third, the UN declared the attack on the WTC a crime against humanity because it was directed at civilians. Anyone else but me detect a sick irony? Could those responsible for this word usage (like the media) not have chosen a better term?

Of course we can’t forget how insensitive George W. Bush was using the word “crusade” in his public speaking, until his keepers finally beat it out of him. There are arguments that the Crusades, which began in 1095 with a bad edict by Pope Urban II to free the Holy Land, were the initial cause of Middle East conflict. The first Crusade was about 900 years ago followed by numerous sequels.

In addition to usage problems there are strange adjustments that people are making to their language that makes even less sense. A heavy pop band called (humorously in this case) Bush, had released a single called Speed Kills. They decided to rename it to The People That We Love, lyrics from elsewhere in the song. Why did they bother? My understanding of the term “speed kills” is as part of campaigns to reduce speeding on the roads – either that or a really inept use of amphetamines.

And since when was war a good or necessary thing? The need for the U.S. and its allies (that includes us by the way) to feel like they were at war with someone, somewhere, was incredible – a particularly odd situation seeing the war was to be inflicted on identified persons. Weren’t we listening to the hippies? Give Peace a Chance; Make Love not War. These slogans and the notions behind them were supposed to have permeated our culture.

So what does this have to do with IT? All I ask is that you choose your words carefully as you write e-mails, work with people in meetings and discuss current events. This isn’t just political correctness; everyone has feelings and it’s in your best interests to respect them through your use of language.

Ford is an IT consultant in Vancouver. He can be reached at