I’m always taken aback when, at the end of a long flight, I’m asked to “deplane.” I hadn’t realized that “to deplane” was a verb until I started flying again about six months ago.
But like it or not, this rather awkward word has wormed its way into our vocabulary and it highlights the fact that our language continues to evolve.
This is a reality that the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) doesn’t want to accept. It wants to prevent people from using the words “engineer” and “engineering” in new ways.
The CCPE is concerned about universities which are offering computer science courses in software engineering. Only courses offered by, or in conjunction with, engineering departments can rightly be termed software engineering programs, the CCPE claims.
Its concerns are not without some merit. Just as those who haven’t graduated from med school and served their time as an intern should not refer to themselves as medical doctors, so those who haven’t gone through the proper educational process shouldn’t call themselves professional engineers.
But what the CCPE fails to recognize is there’s a difference between the title “Professional Engineer” and the word “engineer.” The former is a designation earned through a rigorous accreditation process, but the later is a word which, like so many others in our language, has a multitude of ever-changing meanings.
Once upon a time, an engineer was someone who operated a train. Now there are professional engineers, software engineers (who may or may not hold P.Eng. designations), Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers, sanitary engineers, and, believe it or not, even “sales engineers.” People not only engineer new software systems, they also engineer political manoeuvres.
The evolution of language is a natural process, and no group, organization or government can or should try to stop it – no matter how worthy they believe their intentions to be.
As our society changes, we create new words and sometimes borrow from old ones, re-crafting them to reflect our times, changing habits and new landscapes.
Nowhere is this more true than in the IT world. Windows NT no longer has a lot of bugs in it – it’s buggy, and some operating systems are buggier than others. People no longer continue conversations after meetings, they take their discussions off-line.
Sometimes we may not like the way words e-volve. I for one would be happier to see fewer Es used in our e-language, which we in the IT industry are overly-fond of placing in front of our e-words e-frivolously.
The CCPE’s concerns are, of course, much more serious. The council argues that if the public becomes confused about what the words “engineer” and “engineering” mean, it could be a threat to public safety.
But the idea of a group of people dictating which words are and are not acceptable to use in which context could also be a public threat – to the freedom of speech.
And, anyway, our language is much too ephemeral to control. If Chaucer and Shakespeare were to travel forward in time, they would wonder what strange language we were speaking. And if we ourselves were to travel forward 500 years into the future, we would no doubt scratch our heads at some of the words we heard.
Our language ain’t always going to change in the way we’d like it to, but there’s just no way to stop that change from happening, and the CCPE should acknowledge that.