Kearns column: It's all just a bunch of words

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland

How important are words and their precise meanings to your everyday activities of supporting the network?

Recently, on an e-mail discussion list that I monitor, someone started venting about television's Weather Channel -- specifically regarding the fact that many times an hour the viewer is encouraged to "log on to" for more information.

What's really meant, of course, is, "Access our Web site, com". If we accept the definition of "log on" to mean "to establish an authenticated interactive session with a computer or network", then it's true you can't log on to a Web site.

Then there is the case of District of Columbia bureaucrat David Howard, who was forced to resign because he (correctly) used the word "niggardly", meaning stingy, but which some partially educated person took to be a racist remark.

Precise use of words is important to me as a writer, but is it important in day-to-day living?

My wife, who's fairly technologically savvy for a nongeek, still occasionally confuses RAM with disk space ("I get an out-of-memory error, but I've still got 90Mbytes of disk space!").

I've railed against vendors of so-called "meta-directories" that are simply selling another directory service, rather than a rules-based application that accesses other directories. This is the correct application of the term "meta".

On the other hand, I've noticed that many people above you in the chain of command glaze over whenever you attempt to correctly use networking terms.

Frequently, you have to choose between using the correct term and then explaining it for 15 minutes, or using an incorrect term, which nevertheless conveys to the listener the sense of what you are trying to impart. Of course, by using the incorrect term you're reinforcing the mindset that leads to phrases such as "log on to". But it does save you time.

Which is more important to you? Do you consider it to be a part of your job to educate your users, managers and executives about technology? Or do you grit your teeth and silently translate precise terms into those that are readily understandable by your nontechnical colleagues? Let me know what you think. Browse to (oops! I almost said, "log on to!") and post your thoughts.

You might also visit www.vuse. to explore more of the "Humpty-Dumpty" syndrome and computers.

Dave Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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