Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Could this be the ugliest word in the English language?

"When you can align your IT with business goals you can be assured of the commitment of the entire company, including senior management. They understand the criticality of a Quality Assurance department in development, and that having all software developed thoroughly tested, improves application quality and ultimately customer satisfaction and controls costs."
That's not a Bushism (nor indeed a Vale-ism). That's David Jones stuffed-shirt Gareth Maiden, waxing lyrical about the virtues of software developed by Mercury, on the latter's website. And it's a pity Mr Maiden failed to understand the "criticality" of being able to string a sentence together without making his audience wince.

Criticality. (Shudder.) Only a corporate lackey could dream up a word like that. Try reading aloud the passage above, doing your best impersonation of David Brent, and you'll see what I mean. H. W. Fowler (of Fowler's Modern English Usage fame) would have called it a "nonce-word:"
A 'nonce-word' (and the use might be extended to 'nonce-phrase' and 'nonce-sense'—the latter not necessarily, though it may be sometimes, equivalent to nonsense) is one that is constructed to serve a need of the moment. The writer is not seriously putting forward his word as one that is for the future to have an independent existence; he merely has a fancy to it for this once. The motive may be laziness, avoidance of the obvious, love of precision, or desire for a brevity or pregnancy that the language as at present constituted does not seem to him to admit of. The first two are bad motives, the third a good, and the last a mixed one. But in all cases it may be said that a writer should not indulge in these unless he is quite sure he is a good writer.
Now, neither Mr Maiden, nor the individual responsible for the Mercury "Customer Success Story" in which his utterance appears, are good writers--and, of course, they don't have to be. (They're salesmen, for fuck's sake!) Nevertheless, like yourself I'm racking my brain, trying to imagine the scenario that could have given birth to a nonce-word like criticality. Maybe the bran muffin and mugaccino Mr Maiden had for breakfast that morning reached a critical point in his digestive tract (the "event horizon," if you will) at that stage of the interview. Maybe the Mercury guy was typing at gunpoint, with a voluptuous blonde performing fellatio on him beneath the desk. (Ever seen Swordfish?) Maybe it was the fruit of a desperate attempt to get a Triple Word Score in Scrabble.


(N.B. In fact, criticality is a real word: it comes to us from the discourses of physics and nuclear technology (in the latter case it is synonymous with "critical mass"). It even has it's own Wiki entry. Within these contexts, it's a "working word." Outside these contexts, it's a travesty.)