What does it all mean?

So Fruitman comes in yesterday, wearing a tie I’d never seen before. Fruitman is Paul Fruitman, an ITBusiness.ca staff writer.

“”Is that new?”” I asked. The tie was a mix of black and grey, with some strange swirling patterns that looked sort of — I don’t know. Technology-esque. It’s hard

enough getting Fruitman to wear a tie at all. Was he actually creating his own superhero-like uniform?

“”No, I’ve had it for a while,”” he said, turning away rather quickly. That’s when I noticed the skinny end of the tie sticking out. “”What’s that design on the small part?”” I asked.

“”Numbers,”” he said. And so they were; mostly ones and zeros. “”It’s a ‘mathlete’ tie.””

Maybe I’m the last person to have heard it, but mathlete is apparently a term gaining popularity in high schools and post-secondary institutions to describe kids who compete in math competitions. It’s also the latest entry in a IT-related glossary that is adding a new layer of colloquialisms to an industry already filled with jargon.

Jargon used to consist primarily of abbreviations or acronyms of technical terms and product names. It’s easier to say DWDM, for example, than dense wave division multiplexing. This jargon is different. It combines words we already knew but in ways that give the “”parent”” term a clever or ironic twist. Just look at mathlete: the word does not merely describe an activity. It is an act of branding that sends a message to those who make fun of the numbers nerds. It is both an attempt at affirmation (i.e., it takes just as much effort to solve a complex theorem as it does to hit a home run) but even the Michael Jordan of mathletes must realize it’s also a joke.

The commentary underlying the jargon depends on the subject matter. “”Snoopervision”” is gaining some traction as more employers use technology to invade the privacy of their employees. In Silicon Valley, “”newchip”” refers to startups or overnight success stories that threaten the Old Money of IT (it doesn’t come across as much of zinger, though, unless you are in the habit of discussing blue chip stocks).

This phenomenon is not limited to technology — “”Zitcom,”” for example, has been used to label TV comedies aimed primarily at young people — but IT seems to get more than its fair share. When the Internet and e-mail started to become a mainstream information tool, users quickly got past the novelty and started to examine the way people behaved online: “”Netiquette”” was born. Netiquette became a popular name for opinion columns as newspapers and magazines launched their own technology sections, to such an extent that it almost feels like a real word.

If there is a problem with this jargon it is that it creates some very narrow walls around ideas or concepts that deserve more room to breathe. Should there be a difference, for example, in the common decency we should use in day-to-day interactions and the Netiquette we practice on the Web? Do people my age really want to be remembered as components of “”N-Gen,”” or the Internet generation?

Some people like jargon because it carries an exclusionary undercurrent. You had to be a part of the club to really understand the old kind; you are labelling yourself or others if you use the new kind. There’s something very sad about that kind of attitude, because it goes against the grain of what information technology is all about. At its best, IT expands access to information, empowering people by connecting them with each other. There’s probably a word to describe the use of jargon to shut people out, but I’m not going to be the one who coins it.


Send us your favourite (or least favourite) examples of the new jargon. We’ll publish the best entries.

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