As someone who’s not in a corporate environment, I’m always struck when, on assignment for a story or some such, I enter this world — whether it be Wall Street or Silicon Valley — and immediately become aware of curious forms of dialect. Sometimes it’s words used in ways I never heard them used before — weird verbs like “transition” or “architect” or “blue sky.”
Other times it’s some humdrum word used in a novel way, and used so often that I figure it must have been distilled from some recent management bestseller. Take, for example, “bucket.” I came across this yet again in a Sunday New York Times piece about Ford CEO Alan Mullally, who said, “So I don’t have separate buckets of my life, like my family life or my personal life or my work life.” Well, I for one am glad to hear that; one’s life really shouldn’t be in buckets. But I hear “buckets” all the time, as if I were at a farm, or in a sinking boat — some place in which buckets might truly be, er, actionable. Another favorite, which I heard out in California awhile back at a computer company, is “we don’t play in that space;” meaning, we have chosen not to enter that market (or tried and have failed). The whole undertone is we’re loose, we’re creative, we’re not buttoned-down, hell, we’re barely working! — even if those kids at Google probably work longer hours than the young marrieds at Sterling Cooper (and they got to go out for three-martini lunches).
I recognize that jargon can be useful as a shorthand in a field, as a mark of authority, or a sort of signaling device (hey, we get it), but it also strikes me that it often represents an intellectual laziness, a way of saying essentially nothing, instead of thinking up something more original. And it can also be used as a cudgel, of course, on outsiders who don’t speak the language.
As all professions seem inevitably to inculcate their own jargon (or corrupted language, if you’re being less charitable), I’m curious as to how this shakes out in the field of transportation. Walking in Savannah recently with Michael Ronkin (who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, also questioned “pedestrian”), I used the word “signage,” which brought a jovial rebuke. “Why not just say signs?” Ronkin asked. I had to laugh; I’ve absorbed that over time. I tried to think back to some recent conferences and the terms that had floated this way and that. “Stakeholder” is one I hear a lot, and while it at first glance sounds like something you might buy at Williams-Sonoma, I suppose it makes sense; the problem was, however, I heard it used in situations where the “stakeholders” were, essentially, everyone (but maybe it sounds better than the simple “people”). I always flinch a bit at “vulnerable road user.” The spirit of it its perhaps well-intentioned, but as Gerald Wilde once pointed out to me, most people killed in traffic in the U.S. are killed in cars — so who’s vulnerable?
And then Dom Nozzi pointed me to this page, which lists a whole scad of seemingly innocent words (e.g., “level of service”) that are, in their way, politically loaded. “Road improvements,” for example. “The word improvements is often used when referring to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered improvements by other constituents of the City.”
One might stretch this further to think of a term like “mobility.” Who could argue against it? (actually, John Adams has questioned “hyper-mobility”). But, to take my local street as an example, one form of mobility — the car — runs against another form of mobility — walking. The more mobility in the first mode, the more my mobility is constrained. So mobility should too be questioned: Whose mobility? What kind of mobility? Mobility at what expense? Mobility from where to where? As commenters here have pointed out as well, “traffic” tends to take on a homo-modal (I’ve just invented that piece of jargon) sort of meaning — cars; and as I point out in the book, it has come to have instinctively negative connotations on the road (but not elsewhere, as on the Internet, where my inbox is flooded with spam promising ways to “boost traffic”).
In any case, I’m curious as to what those of you in the transportation professions might see as odd turns of phrase, lingo that baffles people or conceals some kind of ulterior meaning, words you yourself are trying to purge from your vocabulary.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2009 at 2:11 pm and is filed under Traffic Culture, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.