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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When I use a Word

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'  -- Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

My daughter reported a dream she had about Humpty Dumpty fussing at her about grammar on the way back from a friend's house this weekend.  It's my fault because I made her read the Humpty Dumpty chapter after she complained to me about how she was using a particular word to mean something in a certain way.

Words have their meaning established by the communities that use them.  You can readily identify the communities that someone belongs to by the language that they use.  If you say RIM, R-MIM, DAM, or Story Board in the standards space, I can tell you've been involved in HL7 efforts.  On the other hand, actor, transaction and profile are key words in IHE.  Other keywords identify other standards developing organizations, and within each of those organizations there are also sub-languages.

Sometimes we use terms in different SDOs with overlapping and often conflicting meanings.  Standards developers are also (and I include myself in that group), the ultimate pedants.  We pay scrupulous attention to the details of our definitions.  And when our definitions conflict with those of others, we argue vociferously.  This is in part because we use language as a norming process.  Agreeing upon a common language is one of the ways we develop the community. Using terms outside of the ways agreed upon in the community violates the rules of the group.

There are two things that we, as Standards Developers must remember.
  1. Terms are more often defined by their use, not by an act of authority.
  2. The people we are communicating with (our customers) are not necessarily members of our community.

So, when defining terms, act with care.  Don't stretch a term so far that it breaks.  Use commonly accepted definitions where they exist, instead of defining new terms.  The precision added by creating a new term fails to support us when the new term simply confuses our readers.

If this post sounds like a rehash of something I've already said, it's because it is, right down to the opening quote.  Well, it is worth saying again.


P.S.  I note also that I've used that same quote on two other occasions.  I must like it.


  1. A corollary, learned through hard experience, is that Sales will always use a word inappropriately if it helps close a sale, and Legal will fail to adequately define the word in the contract. Much hilarity ensues.

  2. Language evolves as a democratic process. Keeping the French language relevant is not easy as they try to come up with some sort of pure French version of technical terms that are coined daily (often by English-speaking marketing folk). Meanwhile the kids keep coming up with new ways to say things on Facebook. I reckon if we wait long enough, just about anything we say today is going to seem really old-timey and out of date. ;)