On Burnout, Decompression, Re-entry Syndrome– and Calling It a Day
Still mulling over the words of Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, who described plans by the UK Government for a general relaxation of COVID-protection policies in ten days time as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, I was invited to join a discussion on London’s Voice of Islam radio station about the notion of ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ and its implications.
The full discussion is here, with my contribution beginning at 44 minutes…
We can see then, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ can sometimes be a useful, neutral, technical designation, and this is how the WHO itself presented it in 2020…
We can become aware, too, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is a very conflicted term: although used by the WHO and by ‘ordinary’ people to describe their very real exhaustion, it has also been used, like ‘compliance fatigue’ by authorities to blame the public for disobeying…
Despite being locked down myself, in exile for the moment, this was another busy day, with long, mainly heated and indignant discussions taking place on Twitter of what ‘indigenous’ might mean in the context of the UK, triggered by the assertion by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen that the ‘indigenous’ population of the UK will not tolerate immigration. The offending word is an ambiguous and context-dependent term currently. Recent examples have referred to Canada’s First Nations in the harrowing context of deaths in schools where indigenous children were confined. I don’t think it has been used by any reputable specialists in or about the UK, and its use at a time when an England football team of very mixed origins is being celebrated seems crass and provocative. (We don’t know who the ‘original’ inhabitants of the British Isles were, because there was no written record until 55 BCE, but they certainly immigrated, or invaded and colonised as did all the subsequent settler groups.)
On BBC Radio Bristol I once again answered listeners’ queries on the the etymology of popular expressions. This time, perhaps aptly in present circumstances, the phrase was ‘call it a day.’ First recorded in 1838 by US writer Joseph C Nolan in hisCharcoal Sketches – A Study in the Humor of the Old Northeast, it was in the form ‘call it half a day’ and seems to have reflected the mixed feelings of weariness and resistance on the part of workers from the Philadelphia slums, deciding to knock off early or to award themselves a half-day holiday. By 1919, as the USA wearily emerged from war, the usage had mutated into ‘call it a day’: in 1938 ‘call it a night’ was first recorded.
I called it a day myself, at nine o’clock on a warm evening, pleased to have been awarded nine out of ten in a facetious Twitter competition for a photo of my hand, and recalling the louche philosopher Gurdjieff’s realisation that he had progressed from drinking from glasses to drinking from “what are called ‘tumblers'”…
There are several articles on jargon elsewhere on this site, and in 2018 I wrote about the proliferation of acronyms and their effect on listeners and readers too (that article is here*). Now in 2021 the cult ‘appointment television’ crime series Line of Duty has reignited debate on the status of codes and abbreviations as a mainstay of officialese and the private, exclusive languages that both fascinate and intimidate the public. The long-running hit police drama The Bill is due to return to screens very soon, no doubt introducing civilians to some updated terminology and slang of its own.
In March I spoke to Amit Katwala, who was researching this topic for Wired magazine, and the resulting article is here, followed for any students, teachers – and fans of Line of Duty – by a list of links to sources of both real-life and fictional acronyms and discussion of them…
While the Sun satirises them, the Guardian has perceptively gone beyond the linguistic challenges and plot contortions in Line of Duty and detected underlying references to current political realities…
In trying to make sense of their new circumstances, under lockdown, in social isolation or distancing, ‘ordinary’ people are at the mercy of, and must come to terms with new language, some of it unfamiliar and difficult to process, some pre-existing but deployed in new ways.
I am using the shorthand #coronaspeak for all the novel expressions that the crisis has generated (US linguist Ben Zimmer coined the alternative ‘coronacoinages’, but my examples are not all new coinages, some are adaptations or existing terms). Phrases such as ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ have become familiar, even if their meanings are still to some extent contested. But in a society in which, we are told, around 5 million UK citizens cannot even access the internet, how are we to negotiate this rise in ‘lexical load’, this ‘lexical overload’?
I’d like to consider first the ‘medicalisation’ of everyday language: the way in which technical terms from the jargon of sciences and healthcare cross over into popular usage. Some of these words and phrases seem transparent, even if their histories and implications are actually complicated. ‘Social distance’, for instance, was previously employed in sociology and psychology for, in the words of Dr Justin Thomas, ‘how close we are happy to get to members of an outgroup, e.g. would you be happy to marry a [insert outgroup here]’ and many, including the World Health Organisation – WHO – with hindsight have proposed that ‘social distancing’ (also criticised for being an oxymoron) be replaced by the more literal ‘physical distancing’ in present circumstances. A phrase like ‘test-vacuum’ can seem ambivalent or opaque, but in the current context refers specifically to the failure of the UK authorities to emulate Germany in carrying out mass testing of the population. Even the most basic concepts like testing, tracing are actually very difficult to unpack, especially as the official narrative on these pivots constantly – at times, it seems, deliberately.
There are, unsurprisingly, regional variations in the preferred terminology: quarantine in official and popular usage and shielding in place describing a policy protocol are heard relatively rarely in the UK; cocooning likewise, though it is a central plank in health policy in Ireland. There are also novel and forbidding coinages which at first defy interpretation, even if they describe something otherwise indescribable: I was recently warned against ‘epistemic trespassing’ which means, in the words of one Twitter contact, ‘when some idiot second guesses a specialist, e.g. when a cartoonist pronounces on epidemiology’
Some other examples of words which have transitioned into the national conversation, moving from technical or specialist registers into general usage are listed here with comments…
Pathogen – an organism that causes disease, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi
Antigen – in immunology a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies
Viral load – the total amount of viral particles that an individual has inside them and may shed
Respiratory – relating to the organs of the body responsible for breathing. When pronouncing, the word used often to have the stress on the first syllable, but more recently the stress is usually placed on the second (‘pir’)
Ventilation – the use of artificial methods to assist breathing
Proning – requiring intensive care patients to lie on their front to reduce their need for oxygen
Incubation period – the time between being exposed to a virus and becoming aware that one is infected
Intubation – the inserting of an endotracheal tube (ET or ETT) through the mouth and into the airway of a patient to assist breathing: extubation describes its removal
Pandemic – an epidemic – a quickly spreading disease – which has spread very widely and infected a high number of individuals
Vectors (of transmission) – agents such as infected individuals that transmit infectious pathogens into a population
Contact tracing – identifying, then assessing and monitoring those who have come into contact with an infected individual.
Flatten the curve (popularised to ‘squash the sombrero’) – to slow the spread of a virus, for instance by social containment measures, so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time. The term is epidemiologist jargon, but has been criticised as being a euphemism
PPE – personal protective equipment used to shield the wearer from work-related hazards
Palliate – means to make (a disease or its symptoms) less severe without removing the cause. hence ‘palliative’ care where no cure is possible. Ironically, ‘palliate’ can also mean to disguise the seriousness of (an offence)
Psychoneuroimmunity – the desirable state achieved by way of ‘preventive strategies of healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, quality sleep and a strong connection with people’
Furlough(ed) – appearing in English in the 17th century, the word is related to Dutch verlof, leave, and refers to the granting of a paid leave of absence. The term was employed in British military jargon during WW1 but until now was generally considered an Americanism
Mitigation – the reduction of the severity of symptoms
Immunocompromised – having a weakened immune system, hence less able to fight infections and other diseases
Comorbidity – one or more illnesses or diseases suffered by a patient at the same time as a primary condition
Harvesting effect – a temporary increase in the mortality rate when secondary factors such as underlying health conditions add to the number of victims of an epidemic
Patient zero – the first case or the first documented patient in an epidemic
Red zone – a geographical area or location classified as having the highest levels of infected individuals and which should be placed under quarantine
Super-spreader – an infected individual who transmits the infection to a higher than average number of others
Asymptomatic – displaying no symptoms of an infection. Infected individuals who are asymptomatic are sometimes known as ‘silent carriers’. The term began trending again in the light of the second wave in October 2020, sometimes in the variant form asymptomic
Hot spot – a cluster of, or a location showing a concentration of cases of infection
Petri dish – literally a shallow dish in which biologists culture cells in a laboratory. Now commonly referring to an enclosed environment in which infections can spread unchecked
Cluster effect – the result of concentrations of people at social gatherings, often in public places, enabling an accelerated spread of infection
Shielding – by or for the most vulnerable individuals, this means taking the most stringent measures in order to minimise interaction
Shelter in place – a US security protocol whereby citizens are warned to confine themselves, originally in the event of chemical or radioactive contamination
Crisis triage – emergency short-term assessment and assignment of treatment of individuals suffering from sudden overwhelming medical or psychological symptoms
Peak surge – a term properly used in relation to power surges in electric circuits but used now to describe the maximum level reached in an accelerating increase in cases of infection
Fomite – an inanimate object contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents (such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi), which can transfer disease to a new host.
Zoonotic diseases – infections which spread from animals or insects to humans, also known as zoonoses
Donning, doffing and disposing – putting on, removing and disposing of PPE (personal protective equipment) in official medical parlance
R rate – R0 (‘r-nought’) is a mathematical gauge of the reproduction rate of a contagious disease
Behavioural fatigue – a supposed reluctance to adhere to social conduct norms, should imposed strictures, such as containment and confinement, continue for too long
Seroprevalence – the number of persons in a population who test positive for a specific disease based on blood tests, a measure of cumulative infection
Anosmia – loss of the sense of smell, and in some cases also taste
Pod – a self-contained unit of confinement such as an isolation pod in a medical facility, a social contact or family pod providing space for personal interaction during quarantine. Bubble is used in the same sense in some settings
Immunity passport – a proposed certificate issued by national authorities confirming that the bearer is free from infection
Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) – actions, apart from vaccinations and medicine, that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of contagious infections, also known as community mitigation strategies
Aerosol transmission – the spread of infection via tiny, lingering airborne liquid particles rather than by exhaled droplets or fomites (contaminated objects)
Long COVID – the experience of those who have recovered from initial coronavirus infection but continue to suffer from a range of significant symptoms
Transmission advantage – the ability of a mutant strain of a virus to spread more quickly than the prevalent version of the infection
Zero Covid – a strict containment strategy or policy typically involving total shutdowns
Surge testing – additional community testing offered and encouraged in areas where mutations of the coronavirus have led to a sudden increase in cases of infection, even by asymptomatic individuals
I am still appealing for contributions to my lexicon via this site, on Twitter or by email, and will thank and credit contributors where possible. My next posts will look at slang and colloquialisms and newly invented expressions related to Covid-19.
For the terms considered here I am very grateful to, among others, Professor Carmine Pariante, Alan Pulverness, Nigel McLoughlin, Gail Jennings and Julian Walker
There is a comprehensive glossary of coronavirus-related technical terminology, published in Canada and updated weekly:
I belatedly became aware of the important response by linguists to the pandemic in China, and to the novel concept of emergency linguistics. More details of the role of language in that context can be found here:
One year later and abiding problems are covid-denial, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal. Professor Elena Semino continues her research into the framing and metaphorical features of pandemic-related communications:
I talked last week to New York-based journalist Zoe Henry about the worst buzzwords of the year so far, and her article for Inc.com follows.
Here, first, are some of the points that came up in our conversation.
‘I think we can and should distinguish between business or corporate buzzwords (like ‘disruption’, ‘digital native’, ‘pivot’), political buzzwords (‘libertarian’, ‘alt-right’, ‘antifa’, ‘fake news’ in the US; ‘brexiteer’, ‘remoaner’, most recently ‘mutineer’ in the UK) and lifestyle buzzwords (‘side-hustle’, ‘woke’, ‘influencers’). There are however some words that overlap these categories: ‘resilience’ is one that is still trending in the UK in 2017, ‘storytelling’ and ‘holistic’ are others. I think it’s especially significant that examples of political/sociocultural discourse like ‘weaponize’, ‘elite’, ‘toxic’, and slangy terms like ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’ or ‘libtard’ have dominated the conversation on both sides of the Atlantic in 2017. These are expressions that both reflect and evoke the unprecedented conflict and division in society that have been witnessed since the US election and the UK’s EU referendum.
Tedious buzztalk has increasingly involved generational or generationalist categorisation, conflict or prejudice: ‘Generation Z’, ‘parennials’, ‘centennials’ – ‘snowflakes’ again – are examples of the terms in use: opinion pieces listing millennials’ supposed failings or misdeeds are commonplace. This kind of language is evidence of commerce, politicians and the media trying to stage and exploit imagined or real ‘disconnects’ between babyboomers, millennials and the intervening Generation X, not for the common good but for their own devious purposes.
A word like ’empathy’ – an existing word and concept which suddenly starts trending -may be annoying when it’s over-used but points to something important happening in society. In this case the need to refocus on this quality in a divided, hypercompetitive and often uncaring environment.
Nearly all buzzwords follow the same trajectory:
A buzzword appears and catches on because it defines some important innovation (‘AI’ for example or ‘fintech’, ‘blockchain’, ‘cryptocurrency’, ‘algorithm’ or ‘internet of things’) – a new device, process, way of behaving, a fashion or fashion item or fad. The ‘buzz’ comes about naturally if the new concept is truly significant, or artificially because it is hyped by the media.
People who want to appear up-to-date or ‘cool’ adopt the buzzword (whether they fully understand it or not – ‘digital’ or ‘mindfulness’ are often cited, ‘portability’ is another offender) in order to impress – or if they are part of the corporate sphere, to assert their power, to dominate. The user of the jargon presents themselves as an informed progressive insider: those who don’t use the jargon are excluded or subordinated.
The buzzword is over-used and becomes a cliche: the phrase ‘reach out’ and the word ‘craft’ are cases in point. It may be ridiculed and mocked by sophisticates, castigated by self-appointed guardians of traditional language (but some people will go on using it nevertheless).
Buzzwords eventually fall out of favour but this doesn’t happen quickly. Terms like ‘think outside the box’, often singled out in surveys as a recent irritant have actually been ‘on trend’ for a decade. ‘Frictionless’ has been around for some time but is just now at peak popularity, while one of Macmillan’s Dictionary’s words of 2017, ‘maximalism’ featured in Shoot the Puppy, my dictionary of buzzwords published in 2006, (which also listed the by-then-ten-year-old metaphorical meaning of ‘bandwidth’, on Zoe Henry’s hitlist and discussed today by Merriam Webster’s word-watchers: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-the-new-meaning-of-bandwidth)’
(On a personal note I must admit that there are some labels or catchphrases that, however contentious or ludicrous they are, don’t especially upset me: both ‘centrist dad’, coined in the UK to deride middle-aged males who are too liberal either to embrace the left or attack the right, and ‘hand-wringing metropolitan elitist’, a slur beloved of conservatives, if I’m honest seem to describe me perfectly.)
Here, then is Zoe’s article, with her own selection of 2017’s worst buzzwords:
…Coincidentally, 24 hours after the above was posted, Andre Spicer, castigator of ‘business bullshit’, writes in The Guardian. He makes the rarely made historical connection between jargon and the terminology of therapy, but his condemnation of all ‘management speak’ is not nuanced enough to my mind:
Business jargon – the buzzwords, catchphrases, clichés and mantras of corporate life – manages to be perennially fascinating and endlessly irritating. Many of the better-known expressions have an air of novelty despite being in existence for many years, and survey after survey lists the same serial offenders as the triggers of office rage, headdesking and facepalming. The very latest take on this subject, visualising the metaphors we take for granted, is provided here, courtesy of Citrix ShareFile‘s illustrator David Doran, writer Kevin Hill and by kind permission of Search Laboratory’s Senior Media Specialist Jennie Lindehoff…
Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…
In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.
25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.
The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.
Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.
Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.
At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.
You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries:
There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)
President of the European Commission, Eurocrat par excellence and Brexiteers’ bugbear, Jean-Claude Juncker raised a laugh in Florence a couple of weeks ago with his public provocation, opining that post-Brexit the English language would lose its status as the EU’s de facto lingua franca. IMVHO he’s probably wrong: even in his native Luxembourg (first language Luxembourgish, a Mosel-Franconian dialect of German) one fifth of the population currently claim to use English for everyday communication and three quarters say they speak it fluently.
In the wider EU 46m Germans and 23m French citizens are estimated to have a good command of English, 38% of the remaining nationalities, too. Only 12% over-all claim fluency in French and 11% in German. In Brussels and Strasbourg, the cities where EU business is primarily carried out, English is, in the Eurocrats’ jargon a relay language, an intermediate code used in meetings, in corridors and in cafes by those for whom it is a second or third language. This is especially the case for those coming from the more recent member states who are generally reluctant to embark on learning French or German when English is already familiar from school, university and from exposure to popular culture.
In fact, the language actually used beyond the formal speeches and official documents is an odd sort of English-based hybrid sometimes known as Euro-speak, laced with ‘continental’ usages (alien to native speaker English but common to other European tongues) whereby terms like subsidiarity, conditionality and conventionality are exchanged and standard English words shift in meaning so that control comes to mean check, assist means attend, execute means carry out, actual replaces current and resume can mean both re-start and sum up. Perhaps in time it is this dialect which will come to dominate in practice while the official languages remain as they are today. Well-meaning attempts to introduce an alternative common language have so far come to nothing. A petition calling for the artificial language Esperanto to be added to the official list has received only 12, 383 signatures to date – in an EU population of around 450m.
In the Guardian this week Tess Reidy has been considering the fate of English post-Brexit and pace Juncker, with the help of experts and some contributions by me. Her article is here…
Keep abreast of ideas and innovation in the commercial, corporate and digital spheres by tracking the language generated by professionals. Here is another batch of – depending on your stance – picturesque neologisms, amusing buzz-terms, sinister obscurantist jargon…
CREATIVE DIRECT MARKETING
The marketing profession, obsessed as it is with sophisticated digital strategies, has woken up to an uncomfortable truth: significant groups of potential consumers are either hard to target via electronic channels or temperamentally resistant to its tactics. Older children still in the family home (aka fledglings), students living in flat-shares, young couples who have only just moved in together and empty-nest pensioners all represent life-stages and demographics who are susceptible to a radical new way of promoting brand engagement. Creative Direct Marketing or CDM is the fancy label for a strategy more simply defined as putting envelopes through letterboxes. For younger digital natives an old-fashioned letter is an intriguing novelty while a door drop is the best way to reach groups of students who may not show up on official registers, young partners on tight budgets who welcome offer leaflets, coupons and vouchers and nostalgic empty-nesters, for whom the postal service remains the most familiar and trustworthy way to receive information.
Sometimes the oldest tricks are the most effective, like the psychological technique familiar to salespeople, but to very few consumers, known as anchoring. The anchor effect (sometimes also known as focalism) works by introducing a striking piece of information (a financial opportunity for instance) or powerful memory (of a previous desire for something or a sense of satisfaction with ownership for example). This then dominates the subject’s subconscious thinking, pushing aside all the other factors that should influence their decision-making, while they are exposed to a real-life opportunity. At its simplest you present potential customers with a much-too-high figure – a spectacularly overpriced car or TV set for instance – then offer them the opportunity to buy at a lower price which may still be more than they could normally afford. ‘Setting the anchor’ (skilled practitioners can gauge its success by checking the purchaser’s body-language) exploits a so-called cognitive bias: humans tend to rely much too much on the first piece of information, or induced state of mind accessed when making subsequent decisions.*
Industry-agnostic, meaning associated with no particular branch of business, is term du jour for opportunistic investors who take advantage of perfect storms of economic and internal turbulence to put money into distressed assets; high-profile but vulnerable companies. These people talk about moving from value investing (i.e just- for-profit) to values investing (i.e still-for-profit, but focusing on projects with social aims), but crucially have no personal attachment to whatever branch of business they have selected. Adjectival industry agnostic or sector agnostic typically appears in marketing pitches (‘Industry Agnostic Practices for 360 Degree Business Consulting and Execution Facilitation’) or on the cvs of those – in IT, HR, finance – claiming universally applicable skills. Agnostic itself dates from 1869, then meaning unattached to any particular religious creed, formed from ‘a-‘, not and ‘gnostic’, believer in esoteric knowledge. In the last year or so, though, it has caught on right across the commercial spectrum in its new, broader sense. Cloud computing is said to be location-agnostic, applications are touted as platform agnostic, display agnostic, device agnostic. In just the last couple of days I have come across battery agnostic in the case of an electric car, not to mention vendor agnostic, storage agnostic and silicon agnostic. A rarer recent synonym, BTW, for this sense of agnostic is atheist.
Send your exotic new terms to email@example.com
All informants will be gratefully acknowledged in print – unless they prefer anonymity.
* Anchoring and other cognitive biases are described in this article from Mental Floss:
It’s officially Spring now and we are emerging from the gloom induced by short days and long nights (or, from another perspective, by disruption to circadian rhythms and melatonin levels). The darkness (adjective ‘dark’ is from Old English deorc, used also as a noun from the 13th century) clears – literally – but metaphorical darkness is pervasive…just after posting the paragraphs below I became aware of dark money, defined by The Observer as ‘an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor’ (see below) and Dark Justice, a group of anti-paedophile vigilantes who pose as children online…
We have marvelled at the notion of the invisible dark matter said to permeate the universe and physicists have supplemented this with the concept of dark energy; not directly detectable either but necessary to explain expansion and the appearance of life in the multiverse.
On a slightly more mundane level there are in 2017 consultancies advertising their services in uncovering dark data (information collected during business operations but not actually used) and helping organisations to exploit it. The d-word has been trending for some time. The dark web (aka the deep web or darknets), we are nervously aware, is inaccessible by standard searches, a mysterious zone where illicit products and services are traded and illicit vices practised.
Most professionals have heard by now of dark pools, (the image is of hidden areas of liquidity) where off-market trading of stocks, also known in banking jargon as internalisation, takes place, where large blocks of shares can be bought and sold anonymously and prices are only made public after deals are privately concluded. But other kinds of opaque transaction, though quite legal, also threaten to distort markets, masking true levels of market scarcity or surplus and hiding real levels of indebtedness, thus creating information asymmetry between insiders and outsiders. A more recent buzz-term in the fields of finance and commodities is dark inventory (shadow inventory is sometimes used for real estate), describing assets placed off-balance-sheet. These may be equities, contracts, undeclared hoarding – of metals, for example – or other pre-sold commodities which may or may not actually exist (fictitious quotations of steel and nickel are ghost inventory) but which remain beyond public scrutiny. The same term can stretch to include toxic, debt-encumbered or otherwise sinister elements in a portfolio. Dark social, meanwhile- the term was coined in 2012 by former deputy editor of The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal – refers to information exchanged in the workplace by private individuals via channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps and email rather than on public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This so-called outbound sharing alarms the corporate world for two main reasons: it sidesteps company restrictions on the timewasting or subversive use of social media at work, and it so far isn’t possible to track, analyse or turn into marketing opportunities.
Far more disturbing is the notion of a coming digital dark age (not to be confused with the techno music and futuristic/fantasy artworks dubbed dark digital) which some pundits have been predicting. This refers to the potential loss of huge quantities of culturally important data, particularly old manuscripts, memoirs, mementos and images preserved electronically, if technological advances make their storage-formats obsolete so that they are no longer recoverable.
In 2018 overheated enthusiasm for blockchains and bitcoins gave way to fears about the sustainability of cryptocurrencies and the ways in which they could be manipulated. At the same time financial data-reporting on a national scale can be deliberately subverted, or can be skewed by the sheer complexity of the processes involved. One result is the phenomenon of dark GDP: economic activity not captured by current estimations. This is said to amount to 10% of US GDP, and who knows how much in secretive, bot-infested Russia?
Back in the everyday ‘Mr Slang’ Jonathon Green reminds me that from the 1990s dark has also featured in multiethnic youth vernacular in the UK. As with some other key slang terms it can have contrasting meanings, pejorative and appreciative, in this case signifying both ‘harsh’, ‘unfair’, ‘unpleasant’, and ‘impressive’, ‘edgy’.
*Latest updates: May 17, from George Monbiot, on ‘Dark Money’…
I wrote this back in 2009 in an attempt to explain a novel term that was puzzling British professionals at the time. Little did I know…
US cook-speak baffles Brits
Reader N. S. (he prefers anonymity) was irritated by a message announcing an upcoming ‘spam-filter bake-off’. ‘I’m pretty sure I know what it means, but I wish they’d write in English, not American. What exactly does it mean, and where did it spring from?’
Sometimes an obscure slang term, the property of a tiny clique, a microniche or microscene, is first adopted by other groups of specialists for their jargon, then crosses over and becomes a respectable technical term – burn, meaning record onto CD or DVD is an example of this, and mashup, denoting a feature edited together from samples, is moving in the same direction. If it fills a crucial gap in the mainstream language such a word might eventually become part of everyday speech – blog is one such. Occasionally, though, this process is stymied by cultural difficulties along the way, as seems to be the case with bake-off where Brits are concerned.
In techno-jargon a bake-off is more properly described as a real-time interoperability testing event and refers to live testing of the functioning and/or compatibility of similar technical products or systems. This may involve, in engineering-speak, threat modelling, identifying and handling edge cases – problems that occur only at extreme operating parameters – and popping the hood (ie revealing the inner workings) of black-box products.
In the USA it can also mean competitive bidding by securities traders for investment banking business, while in media jargon: a script bakeoff takes place when a number of rival writers compete to rewrite part of a flawed movie or TV programme (often contributing ideas for free in the process).
Bake-off is actually a trade-mark whose owners, US food giant General Mills’ Pillsbury subsidiary sent ‘cease and desist’ notices to Columbia University and several software developers in 2001, forbidding them from using the term on their websites. Since 1949 Pillsbury have sponsored a nationwide recipe competition under the title Bake-off, but Columbia riposted that the term had already been in use as engineering jargon for twenty years.
The fact is that baking off just doesn’t feature in the UK’s cooking culture, such as it is, and so the expression continues to sound alien. Baked-off as adjective is slightly different. It’s used in automotive production and furniture design to mean finished off, inspired by the various heat processes used to laminate or seal.
(This first appeared in British Airways‘ Business Life Magazine)