Language and Assumptions

It suddenly seemed odd to me that we are still using terms today for which there is no longer much relevance. I was asked by my son recently what “cc” means in an email.  Answering what “cc” implies was easy enough but after I explained that it stands for “carbon copy”, I was caught in web of questions which eventually led me having to describe how a typewriter works. 

I tried to describe the mechanics of the typewriter, including how pressure created from the upswing of the keys imprints ink from a dual-coloured ribbon onto the paper, and of course the part the carbon paper played in the whole scheme of things. It must be difficult having to imagine something in the abstract (much like KM initiatives).

The same thing happened again when I was helping him in his schoolwork and had to explain what “a pot calling a kettle black” meant. Connotations explained, the idea of a black kettle was strange to him. Perhaps this might still make sense in some parts of the world, but for some children it just seems odd because they have not seen anything but an electric kettle. Yet, they are expected to continue to use the language like it makes sense. I could help him understand these concepts because I lived in the typewriter and black kettle days. It would be more and more far-fetched with generations to come.

I figure the same happens in organisations. Assumptions remain unquestioned and the same language used a couple of years still echoes through the hallways – do more with less, outsource, innovate, manage knowledge and so on. While these terms might still be in use, the context would certainly have shifted. What assumptions are we making that really do not hold true anymore?

In a BPR study done before, the librarians in the selection department were at first reluctant to allow others to select books for the libraries. They were the professionals and this was professional work. Yes… but only in the days when information on published material was available to a limited number of people.

It was a harder to accept having library assistants, the people who tidied the books at the library shelves, to provide inputs on books required. It turns out the library assistants were the ones library users approached more for books they could not locate. Only a small number of users would take the trouble to fill up a book recommendation form. What is more startling is that the library assistants could locate the most specific of books, particularly when it came to children’s literature. Ask them about a children’s book on single-parent families or how to handle a child bully, and they will pull it out for you. The metadata in the library catalogue will never give you that level of detail. It’s too much tagging work for a collection of millions of books, what more children’s books.

So what words/phrases do you know that has outlived its time? I’m interested to know.

PS: Recent updates to contextualize terms – blamestorming, mental blog, …

4 Comments so far


‘Like hunting for a needle in a haystack’: these days, discarded needles are associated with drug abuse and one would not, therefore, hunt for one anywhere, at least without wearing full protective clothing, including thick gloves - it would probably be left to ‘public waste disposal operatives’. In addition, haystacks have been abandoned due to severe penalties under European Union regulations dealing with the storage of bio-degradable animal feeds and the hazards associated with climbing high, unstable structures without the appropriate training and safety equipment the French burned all theirs in protest). In any case, why hunt for such a thing, when you could easily Google ‘needle’ or simply order a replacement online through Amazon…

Posted on March 01, 2007 at 09:42 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

LOL! Nice one, Martin.

There’s an idea for the folks in education - include in the English lesson, history, economics, social regulation, civil rights and use of information technology! The children wil enjoy it and it will stick better. smile

Posted on March 02, 2007 at 09:57 AM | Comment permalink

Greg Timbrell

Just jump into a car and open the ‘glove box’.  If you don’t know where that is I will ‘show you the ropes’ (a term associated with the training of new sailors on tall ships). But really, why must we call our hard disk a ‘hard disk’ - all disk media is hard these days so its no longer necessary to distinguish it from a ‘floppy disk’. 
Email was an old firm in Australia that made refrigerators.  20 years ago they would send solicitors letters (cease and desist) to our newspapers every time they used their trademark to refer to electronic mail thereby requiring them to insert the dash in the term i.e. e-mail.  I think they gave up this battle.
But enough of this skylarking (a game of tag played by ships’ boys in the rigging).  I must now leave this ‘screen’, a term appropriated from the original mode of projecting an image on to a dressing partition made of cloth, and do other things.

Posted on March 03, 2007 at 08:52 AM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Thanks for visiting this screen, Greg. Sometimes, we need them to “spell out” how they “coined these phrases”. Certainly meant that “tongue in cheek”!

Posted on March 05, 2007 at 12:09 PM | Comment permalink

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