Don’t Get Me Started - Weasel Words
By David Platt | September 2010
My e-mail service went down last month for a full day. When it finally came back up, I received an apology from its administrator, saying: “users experienced e-mail connectivity issues.” Bullhockey, Mr. Administrator. I did not experience “an issue.” I experienced the lack of e-mail because your servers were down. I experienced the waste of my time, the delay of my projects and the loss of my income. I experienced anger at your enterprise, which promised reliability but didn’t deliver. And I experienced even greater anger at your attempt to downplay your malpractice by using that worst of all weasel words: “issue.”
Don’t get me started on the “I” word. I have no problem with its meaning of distribution, as in “the issue of food and blankets to flood victims.” Nor do I mind its meaning of offspring, as in “my issue is two daughters, on whom the sun rises and sets,” nor for designating a specific month’s magazine, as in “the September issue of MSDN Magazine,” which you are now reading. But I hereby fling scorn and disdain at weasels who use this term to mean “software malfunction,” hoping that the users whom that malfunction harms will somehow be less angry at them than if they had said, “Gosh, we know you had no e-mail because we screwed up, and we know how we hate it when that happens to us, so we’re really, really sorry and we’ll give you a free month of service for your trouble—maybe two months if you squawk really loudly.”
The apology’s author uses the “I” word five times in four paragraphs, including the memorable phrase, “Once the configuration issues were resolved and all the servers were online, we discovered that some users were still experiencing issues …” Please, somebody, put this guy out of his misery.
Weasel words aren’t harmless. They try to hide a problem that needs to be solved—Johnny has “a drinking issue.” No he doesn’t. Johnny’s a drunk. As any recovering alcoholic will tell you, the very first word of the very first step to recovery is “Admit.” Johnny won’t get better until he stops hiding behind weasel words, until he can stand up in public and say: “My name is Johnny, and I am an alcoholic, but I don’t want to be a drunk anymore.” His loved ones hope he does that before he kills himself or someone else. Using the “I” word only postpones that day of realization.
Developers don’t talk in weasel words, and we don’t like hearing them. We’re engineers; solving problems is what we do. Before we can solve a problem, we need to recognize its existence and call it by its correct name. You can always tell a developer who’s starting to drink the manager’s Kool-Aid, bucking for a raise. He goes away on a training program retreat, comes back with a tie and a lobotomy scar, and starts referring to bugs as issues. And then, like any zombie, he tries to eat your brain so you’ll be a zombie too: “Bob, can I have your list of issues by Friday?”
At Tech•Ed some years ago, I exhorted my listeners: “It’s not an issue, it’s a bug. Say the word. Say it loudly: Bug. B as in Bad. U as in Ugly. G as in Gol-dangit, I’ve got a bug.” I got a standing ovation.
If you want to issue supplies, read a magazine issue, or even take issue with my writing here, fine. But don’t use the “I” word to mean “software malfunction.” That tells your users that you don’t share their concerns, that you don’t really give a darn about them, that you think they’re stupid enough to believe your twaddle. It’s a blatant form of disrespect toward the people who pay your salary, who put bread into your children’s mouths and a roof over their heads. And I have a serious problem—not an issue—with that.
Request to readers: Do you have any favorite examples of weasel words? Send them to me via rollthunder.com, and I’ll use the best of them in a future column.
David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He is the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.