The Northern Spy: the worth of a word
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The Northern Spy: the worth of a word

By Rick Sutcliffe

"The word processor is mightier than the sword" or so it has been said. (Well, the Spy just said it, didn't he?). More than that, the words a person speaks or writes are a window on the soul -- from one acquainted in the spirit with the spirit of love and truth come both; from one not so, the opposite. The lips, pen, and typing hands of the blessed yield blessings, praise, encouragement, and exhortation--a stirring to decency, honour, valour, and all things both good and sanctified.

In the hands of a great wordsmith like Winston Churchill, they become weapons, whether by directly attacking a foe, or by inspiring others to do the same. In the hands of an orator the likes of John Diefenbaker they are things of wonder, rapiers with which to conduct verbal fencing to the delight of all but the hapless opponent. (Who could forget "terminological inexactitude"?) Debates are not won merely by word selection, but by the skill and the accuracy with which they are employed. (No debate is truly won on a false premise.)

Under the pen of a Jane Austin, strings of letters become well-formed beauties, employed in sentences that are the brush strokes of a verbal masterpiece. Where are the authors who can work such wonders today, who can raise the language to new heights above the pedestrian crowd?

Others of the loquacious are less well-favoured by wit, strategic acumen, amiability, or acquaintance with veracity. They wield no fine point, merely a nail-studded bludgeon, or to rapidly shape-shift metaphors, they deliver wild thrusts with the two blades of a tongue that could cut sheet metal. Not for them the mundane's regard for truth, love, honour, politeness, or the legal niceties of defamation and libel laws--theirs is the self-proclaimed higher calling that says "Rules? Honour? Truth? What are they?"

Such among others include the world's physical and electronic graffiti artists, the sewer-mouths, the writers of porn or vicious rhetoric, hate mongers, racists, spammers and slanderers. These and their ilk misuse language abominably, exaggerating, distorting, and fabricating the wicked out of the good.

When their victims are actual happenings, they create descriptions of events that never took place (complete with motives for all the imaginary participants), then eviscerate their own straw supposings with reckless and savage verbal abandon. Yet with what energetic and contradictory vigour do such mercenaries of the tongue pounce upon and exorciate anyone else's real or imagined vocabulary faults! Such verbal warriors are possessed by an overweening passion to at all cost win their points (however they may define the term), and all else fades to insignificance.

Worse yet is the person who gives his/her word on a matter, then retracts it, thus undermining the basis of trust that has long been one foundation of Western society. In the Spy's novels, the denizens of Hibernia give their finger-to-palm touch on an agreement, and would sooner die than dishonour their word. "They" understand that a person may tell an untruth because of an error or deception (though some guilt still attaches) but the one who breaks faith does so high-handedly and is therefore utterly disgraced. (See also the column from a few months ago on fiduciary duty.)

Ah, well, if this world's libel, defamation, and contract courts fail to entertain such with appropriate fines and incarcerations, the one before the Great White Throne still awaits, that court of last resort where but a single Word prevails, and any deficit occasioned here will surely be made up. (So, what do they "win" in the end?)

What is the Spy's own, admittedly rather dyspeptic, pugnacious, redundantly verbose, and curmudgeonly point? (Aren't self-referentials wonderful?) Merely that, along a parallel line of punishment by language, yet another Federal election has now been thrust upon we of the frozen north by politicians thirsting after power, whence its suffering inhabitants are again besieged by wars of words -- all of them unnecessary, most assuredly both negative and empty, and far too many better not said, or if the underlying ideas must be promulgated, their descriptors readily replaceable by ones with a positive flavour, or better yet, real import or meaning. It is not that many years since the day when, faced with a slate of Provincial candidates who all represented slight gradations of the same essential political flavour, the Spy intentionally spoiled his ballot by writing one of the more succinct and poignant words of the language beside each name: "NO".

Moving sideways to less weighty observations though this too, must be taken with a large salt lick when coming from a fellow who writes 400K+ word stories (it's sold as fiction, folks; unlike certain authors of recent note, he makes no attempt to pretend his imaginings are real), the Spy is one of those who likes to spin stories to make a point, or better yet, to recreate words rather than wage war with them, as evidenced by his "opundo" site, where he literally (but perhaps not literarily) turns the English language upside-down looking for oddment treasures beneath its verbal rocks. After all, the world is replete with those who regard themselves and their own words far too highly, and it could well employ more of those who are, in Lizzie's terms, "quite the opposite".

Thus the Spy can only become mildly concerned over changing definitions of words, such as "conversation," "gross," and "education" . After all, usage defines words, not the OED. Take, for instance the word "fulsome" which originally meant "robust", later had attached to it the meaning "obsequious," but has now entirely returned to the original meaning. Of what consequence are round trips like these in the larger scheme of things, and so of what consequence is it if a person chooses one meaning and usage over another?In polite discourse, the hearer can always ask, then accept the explanation with equanimity.

But more specifically, his concern over the "open source" the English language by default freely supplies causes him to view with considerable trepidation recent developments in the word industry, this in particular including some of Apple's shenanigans at making words themselves proprietary. To wit:

iCEO Tim Cook was in fine fettle as he took the stage for the gala press conference, held this month at the Montreal Forum rather than in San Francisco's Moscone centre. The large crowd of reporters were both mellowed out and a little restless, for he followed a twenty-minute concert by the group "Hurricane" and their lead singer "Second Floor Man" -- introduced as big-ticket items, but of whom the Spy had never heard. Gotta get out more, one supposes. The Spy doesn't usually attend press conferences, but as a rather prolific writer on language issues, thought this one shouldn't be missed. Right on for content, though the ending was not so.

"I've become a hockey fan", Cook joked to the 16,000-plus reporters in attendance, "and what better place to hold our first out-of-the-U.S. press conference than here at the centre of the hockey universe. In fact, as these affairs grow in size and importance, we may well consider using a European soccer stadium for a future such gathering."

The Spy noted some Toronto reporters scowling at his slight, but decided they would get over it soon enough. After all, someone hailing from the excited states could hardly be expected to know that "centre of the universe" constitutes a reserved phrase in their minds.

Before he could begin the business of the day, numerous hands shot up, and Cook, prepared for the inevitable line of questioning, had to assure the audience that although Steve Jobs would continue on medical leave for an indefinite period, he was being consulted on design decisions, and the company would stay the course. The Spy was following the stock market at the time, and noted an $5 upward tick in AAPL within seconds.

But the Spy feels it needful to digress at this point to editorialize concerning reactions to the major announcement of the day, the main purpose of calling the conference, and of which his readers have no doubt already read in the daily press. After all, this column presents colour, analysis, and reflection after the fact, rather than either speculation before, or breaking news upon the fact.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, he observed that some mainstream reporters dismissed Apple's latest action as of little consequence, even of trivial import, whereas, excepting the usual sharp tongued nattering nabobs of negativity, the majority of the industry press, who tend to regard themselves as particularly perceptive pundits, even to the point of being prophetic, not only hailed the announcement as bold, innovative, and sure to enhance Apple's short and long term prospects, but claimed to have seen it coming, and were prepared to take credit themselves for the whole idea.

Well now, to the point of the Spy's observation. Many of these were old press hacks, the very same ink-stained wretches who but a few years ago were confidently predicting, even salivating over, the prospect of, Apple's imminent demise. Indeed, he specifically recalls that not a few of them hailed Michael Dell when he said Apple should be wound up and the money returned to shareholders. Contacted for background on this point, officials at Dell refused all comment. Raspberries all.

Rant aside, and returning to events in sequence, Cook seemed ready to depart the stage when he paused as if remembering his real business for the day, turned back to the microphone, and using the iSteve tag line "there's just one more thing", called in the head of Apple legal for the blockbuster announcement. This byplay provided the only glitch of the day, for as thousands of reporters buzzed in speculation, he gestured to stage left, and when CLO Quincy C. Tort instead entered from stage right, the latter walked up unnoticed behind the now puzzled Cook, then visibly startled him by clearing his throat to announce his presence.

When he recovered his equilibrium, Cook continued with "As you know, Apple has repeatedly reinvented and redefined the computing industry. We can absolutely assure you that Apple will be bringing forward numerous new and exciting products over the next months, ones that will veritably turn personal computing, mobile connectivity, and the whole entertainment industry on its collective head, as usual. We plan to stay so far ahead of the competition that no company can catch up, that no one among the public even thinks of it as a race. Not, of course, that we mind competition, for it serves to demonstrate how much insanely greater we are at what we do. All that said, however, Apple cannot allow other interests to trespass upon what we have created or redefined as our own unique intellectual property." He turned, waved a hand at Tort, and invited him to continue. "Mr. Tort."

The latter took the microphone, adjusted his spectacles, and read in a monotone from a legal brief that appeared to be written out longhand on foolscap. I wondered irreverently whether he played Sudoku in Roman numerals while he fiddled with his papers and harumphed a couple of times, both preparatory to commencing and during his speech. "In parallel with redefining the whole consumer and industry experience of computing, entertainment, and related technologies, Apple has, by its very ubiquitous success also redefined a number of words over the years, including terms such as 'computer', 'window', and 'App store'.

"In a more casual and perhaps ill-advised legal environment, the firm neglectfully allowed the first of these words to become generic, and likewise stood by while the second was stolen by a competitor who proved unworthy to employ it, indeed whose product deprecated the very word. Not so the third, which we have already begun vigourously defending as our unique intellectual creation and therefore exclusive property. After all, no one thinks of any company but Apple when seeing the term "app store", and we are therefore determined to keep things that way, to police improper use of our intellectual property, and to ensure that others cease and desist from its use to describe inferior services, lest our customer base be deceived into purchasing elsewhere and receiving inferior goods and services. We don't want the real App Store deprecated by cheap imitations.

"Today, I am please to announce that Apple legal has stepped up its efforts in this regard, indeed that we have achieved a pre-emptive strike that we believe will subsume and render unnecessary all legal actions of lesser scope, while opening up new an exciting opportunities for our future. Ladies and gentlemen of the press, we invite you to announce to the world, that, as of yesterday at 1600 Eastern Daylight Time, Apple has officially registered as its exclusive trade mark and copyright the single word 'store'."

To stunned silence, Tort gathered up his foolscap, including two leaves that had fallen on the floor, bowed awkwardly, and walked off the stage.

Cook took over. "We realize that taking on exclusive ownership of this English word we have successfully redefined involves assuming a great responsibility, but from a corporate point of view, the move makes business sense. This action obviates the necessity to separately conduct law suits over 'app store' and allows us both to broaden and consolidate our legal efforts in order to maintain exclusivity on our distinctive descriptors, and also to improve the bottom line for Apple legal as a viable profit centre contributing to the bottom line. We hereby put the world on notice that we will forthwith vigourously defend our sole legal right to the word 'store'.

"As we speak, Apple legal has commenced mailing cease and desist orders to every business in the English-speaking world that currently employs the word 'store' as a descriptor. We suggest terms like 'groceteria' for 'grocery store', 'emporium' for 'department store' and 'haberdashery' for 'clothing store'. Admittedly, the latter implies somewhat of an extension of its previous meaning, but nonetheless supplies an elegant term with much history behind it. All are better and more specific alternative words, given that Apple has by dint of sheer number and volume of sales, redefined the word 'store', to the point where it now has become recognized as obviously belonging exclusively to us, and hence must be withdrawn from mundane and generic use."

The Spy, who as an industry old timer himself, had a front row seat on the Forum floor -- not for him the nosebleed section high in the blues -- shot up his hand. Cook, who had been prepared to continue, started, and allowed the question without thinking.

So the Spy asked two for the price of one. "What about book stores, and can you comment on the fate of similar sounding words?"

iCEO Cook looked satisfied. Evidently I had but served as a foil to facilitate smooth segue to the next portion of his script. "Apple has graciously decided to grant case-by-case temporary exceptions for the term "bookstore", though solely in the brick-and-mortar context, where it will soon vanish from use in any case, whence a couple of years' grace makes no practical difference. However, commencing immediately, we obviously cannot allow the term in an online context, excepting our own. There will ultimately only be one site worthy of the name 'bookstore'--Apple's.

"And, I'm pleased you asked about related words. We assure you that Apple will vigourously defend its Trade Mark and Copyright by diligently policing the use of all cognates and similar sounding terms, lest their use create confusion for potential customers.

"Thus, publishers have been advised that novelists and others will no longer be permitted to describe original or derivative works by the word 'story'. Likewise building developers, owners, and realtors must substitute the term 'floor' or 'level'. Disk drive manufacturers may no longer employ the term 'storage', ornithologists have been advised to use the Latin term 'ciconia' instead of 'stork', and botanists required to find a new name for the storax tree. All these have been deemed by Apple legal as potentially confusing, and therefore infringing. I might add that Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary project, and others in the word industry have already been served with a notice requiring that these offending terms, together with any and all conjugates, compounds, derivatives, or alternate (and therefore inferior) meanings of 'store' must be deleted immediately, with the latter replaced by a notice that the word has become and henceforth remains the exclusive property of Apple."

The Spy was again the first with his hand up. Cook seemed slightly annoyed at the further interruption, but in view of The Spy's previous usefulness again allowed the question.

"Isn't this decision likely to cause quite a storm of criticism, even in the computing industry?"

He reacted as if I'd shot him, his demeanour became instantly hostile, and I at once realized my grave error. I turned to run, but it was too late. A snap of his fingers saw me surrounded by the language police before I could move a muscle. I had seen several of them earlier inspecting program brochures, delegates' shirt collar washing instructions, and discarded gum wrappers for bilingual conformance, and I now supposed they must have been leased for the occasion from the Provincial government.

As I was being dragged away I heard a puzzled New York Times reporter questioning my precipitous incarceration. "Isn't there automatically a full month's grace from the time such a registration is accepted?"

"If," the re-composed Cook tartly observed, "you are referring to the Northern Spy's use of the word 'storm', of which even the weather service will in one month be no longer permitted use, you are, unfortunately, quite correct." He frowned. "By the way, I feel it incumbent upon myself to remind you that two weeks ago, with the assistance of Apple, granted per the request of one of our board members, Bill Clinton filed on the word 'is', a term that I have prudently avoided throughout, but that you incautiously used twice in framing your question. However to answer it anyway, it being still legal as of today, both you and he seem to have forgotten that Apple previously announced that it registered exclusivity for the word 'computing' as of March first. Today be April first."

Bold predictions of the month department: (in order to sandwich the fun between two serious slabs of bread) First, the new iPad Apple -- now available worldwide -- will do even better than its predecessor, not principally because it is slimmer, faster, lighter, and better -- which it is all of these -- but primarily due to intangible cool factors, and specifically because it is available in white. Steak sometimes sells reasonably well, but for really high volume, one must vigourously market sizzle.

Second, there is no reason to expect iOS5 until Apple's grand new data centre comes on line--the fall of 2011 (pencil in October?), perhaps slipping into 2012. Cloud computing and video streaming are the buzzwords in this connection. One needs mongo data capacity on stream before offering cloud services via the OS. The Spy's only concern here is redundancy. True, so large a server farm has vast capacity, but it also presents a single point of failure. Expect either that it will be cloned, or that Apple will make backup deals at existing data centres elsewhere in North America, in Europe, and Asia. Otherwise one earthquake could really spoil their day, as other companies have recently learned.

If correct, this timeline has two other consequences: first, that any refresh to the iPhone/iPad/iPod line will also be delayed until fall, and second that this year's already sold-out WWDC will concentrate on the Mac. (Lion, the upcoming iMac intro, new software and interesting accessories.)

Third, the Spy sees little reason to see the tragic Japanese earthquake and Tsunami as cause for substantial concern over Apple's supply line. There are other sources for components.

Fourth, but more speculatively, the Spy notes a niche that Apple seems interested in -- voice control -- and humbly suggests they add professional grade voice recognition. It would be nice to dictate novel scenes into an iPod while driving to and from work, and have them added to Scrivener automatically upon arrival via the home or office cloud.

Repetitive mention of superlative products department

The Spy has now seen backup program Siber Systems' Good Sync from its initial introduction last summer through to several maintenance updates, and would now use nothing else on his daily routine of (a) morning backup at home to pocket drive (b) restore at work to desktop there (c) backup at day's end to a different pocket partition (d) restore to home machine (e) loop indefinitely. Good Sync is fast and reliable, and the few glitches encountered so far have been fixed with alacrity. His only gripe is that the program must be run from the boot disk Applications folder, an inconvenience to the Spy, who prefers a separate folder on another disk, but not an issue for the majority of Mac users. The bottom line after hundreds of runs--Time Machine has its uses, but Good Sync rather than Retrospect is now the gold standard in Mac backup programs, and deserves an enthusiastic buy rating.

Even more important for the Spy, the amazing novel and screenwriting program Scrivener, from Literature and Latte, has just seen yet another incremental (free) update to version 2.0.5. If you write anything that produces documents longer than a few thousand words, has chapters, threaded plots that you want to work on as one, needs to be exported in multiple formats, and most especially if you produce screenplays or books of any kind, you simply must use this program. It has no realistic competition, and is now the backbone for all the Spy's longer writing work. (He still uses Nisus Writer Pro for short stuff, and BBEdit for code, though.) Let your fingers do the running to the L&L web site, and learn to write like the pros. You won't regret it. Oh, and if you use that other OS, L&L is planning a version for you.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.
Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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