Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jargon versus clarity: The only thing we have to fear is significant anomalies

In his inaugural speech Franklin Roosevelt famously said that: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. He did NOT say that the only thing we have to fear is significant anomalies.

An anomaly is something abnormal or irregular. “Significant anomalies” is internal NASA technical jargon for major discrepancies that might lead to problems. Would we want to hear about insignificant anomalies? We probably would not. Somewhere inside NASA though somebody is looking to try and catch them before they grow to become significant.

Technical jargon has escaped from inside industry and government and now is being inflicted on the outside world. They know what it means, but the rest of us are scratching our heads. Jargon usually is the enemy of clarity in speaking. Steve Adubato discussed this problem in an article titled Lose the jargon, clarity is the way to go

When people ask me what I do, I tell them that for the last twenty years I have been figuring out why things busted or rusted. In technical jargon I could say that I conducted root cause failure analysis (or RCFA). My part of the puzzle starts from looking at the materials and processes used to make a component, product, or system. When I talk with a client, I often say that: “It was made right. We better look at how it was used to see why it broke (or rusted).” I have learned to resist saying that “Chemical and metallurgical analysis of the component revealed no significant anomalies.”

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