September 13, 2009

“Verbiage,” “Intuitiveness,” respect for language, respect for users

“Verbiage” is a derisive word describing prose that uses many words to say not a lot, or more particularly, prose that uses words carelessly, to create impressions without attending to what the words actually mean in a specific sense. For techies, “verbiage” is stuff that English majors add later for the benefit of end users, but doesn’t really matter very much. Verbiage is intended to sound good without taking care to convey clear meanings. Insofar as verbiage reflects a lack of care in the choice of words it represents laziness and a disrespect for language. In the way it shows an intention of “sounding good” and creating impressions it reflects a mass-media culture dominated by advertising. It is wording that “has to be there” but isn’t worth paying attention to.

So I break my pencil (if I used a pencil at work) every time I am in a meeting and a co-worker says, “Ok, so Annette will take care of the verbiage on that page.” I don’t know if you hear this in your workplace, but I hear it in mine a lot. There are people in libraries who use the word “verbiage” to refer to anything we write to communicate with our users in a textual way. Shouldn’t we have more respect for our users? (Our readers?)

Libraries, of all places.

I think the decline of respect for language is tied to the rise of non-print media, as well as the rise of the culture of BS that Harry Frankfurter so insightfully talked about in On Bullshit.

Words come into fashion and are used as mild doublespeak, in a process of mass self-deception. Take “intuitiveness” as the name of the desired quality of Google-like user interfaces. What “intuitive” should mean if it describes a user interface is that the interface clearly communicates the underlying functionality to the user so that the user doesn’t have to read manuals to understand what the software or database’s functionalities are and how to employ them. The way the word tends to be used most often, though, is to describe interfaces that are made less confusing by reducing the functionalities that are available to users, often with the addition of an AI-based search engine in the background whose functionalities are opaque and not possible to control directly or with any precision. Used in this way, the word “intuitive” is deceptive, because the user actually understands less of what is going on under the hood than before, and is less able to control the search. The user becomes dependent on the intelligence of the search engine to give him useful results. If it works as intended, the search engine itself might be “intuitive” if it accurately understands the average user’s desires, but its interface is unintuitive relative to an interface that provides greater control of the underlying functionality. Furthermore, its “intuition” is based on assumptions about users based on averages, which works for some but not others.

A question I am interested in asking more and more is about where control is shifting and how it is shifting. It is generally viewed as technical progress when we develop better AI for interfaces between people and systems, but if the result is a loss of control for users, is this really user centered? Where is the respect for users? And if the respect isn’t going to the users, where is it going? And where is the control going?

9 Comments »

  1. I agree with many of the ideas expressed in this post (“Where is the respect for users?”, indeed!), but one point really rankled me.

    Although many are loathe to admit it, languages change. A case in point: I do not speak Old English. Nor Proto-Germanic. Meanings of words, sound patterns, and even grammar naturally change over time, and it has nothing to do with disrespect, ignorance, or malevolence.

    I’m suspicious when people hinge an argument on the “true” meaning of a given word. The OED’s etymology entry for intuitive, for example, traces the origin to the Latin intuition, the action of to looking upon, considering, contemplating. One former usage of the adjective intuitive was to describe to a quick, direct look at an object. E.g., “1656 BLOUNT Glossogr. s.v., An intuitive Vision is a cleer sight of a thing, as it is in itself.” or “1644 BULWER Chirol. 82 If therefore we but cast an intuitive eye upon those memorials.” This usage is marked as obsolete. Was it once “true”?

    I am in total agreement that people manipulate their use of words in relation to currently accepted meanings to make a point or even to deceive others. But arguing for the “respect” of “true” meanings is itself meaningless. Languages change!

    Comment by Megan — September 13, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  2. Yes, language changes, the meaning of words changes. However, there is still a difference between using a word with a specific meaning in mind and using it without paying attention to what you really mean by it. Maybe that kind of sloppiness and lack of concern for clear communication is a part of the way language changes, but in the meantime, the result is often that people speak in a way that makes it seem that they are saying one thing (according to the history of a word’s use) when in fact they are saying another thing that they couldn’t actually say if they had to say it clearly. Or, they believe that they are saying one thing when in fact they haven’t thought enough about what they’re talking about to realize that they’re not.

    It’s not new meanings of words that I am opposed to but using words without meaning them. There’s a difference between a new way of using a word and a careless and lazy way of using it.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 13, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

  3. Or, from another angle, the ends don’t justify the means.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 13, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  4. Or, from another angle, the fact that the history of the world cannot be explained without including all of the darker and weaker aspects of human nature does not justify the darkness and weakness that is in play today. Laziness and self-deception are a part of what has made everything what it is; no history could be explained without it. But that does not justify taking a lazy or self-deceiving course today.

    (Added later:) The history of language is not exempt. The fact that meanings of words change does not mean that the process by which they change is outside of the realm of (morally significant) human choice and action, and it doesn’t mean that that process is separate from other aspects of life.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 13, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  5. RE @12:06: Agreed!

    I just find it hard to accept a sentence like “Words come into fashion and are used to mean something other than what they really do mean…”

    What they “really do mean” is arbitrary.

    The label “laziness” implies a value judgment on usage of particular words. I’m not sure that there is a really a lofty, stable entity “Language” that can be treated with respect or disrespect.

    Comment by Megan — September 13, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  6. I’m commenting on forms of behavior that are observable whatever you believe about language and its fixity. I’m as interested in you are in the way language changes. I think it’s not that hard to see how the process of change in the meaning of particular words can be traced to patterns of behavior – euphemism, substitution of a general term for a specific meaning that formerly required a modifier (e.g. “intercourse”), metaphorical uses that go through a period of cliche before turning into new senses.

    When I call certain ways of using language lazy I’m just talking about people’s behavior, not language itself.

    I’m talking about rhetorical analysis. It is good to notice sophistry and call it out. The flexibility of language doesn’t automatically make everyone innocent with respect to their use of it. Deception and self-deception are all the more possible because language is so flexible and indefinite. Because language facilitates self-deception and deception then diagnosing it requires pointing out how that happens.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 13, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  7. Responding to the excellent point on “intuitiveness” and is current *operational* definition versus the commonsense vernacular…god, oh, GOD how I hate interfaces like that.

    Part of the problem is Reference librarians failing to argue for including *themselves* as users. Expert users, to be sure, but a valid user group nonetheless! I can understand a dumbed-down *default* display, but expert users should be allowed to tweak their searches. I hate “Discovery Tools” that not only overlay the catalog but actually displace it altogether. If I can’t toggle the Discovery Tool whizzbang OFF and get back to a traditional OPAC, I am a very grumpy visitor librarian…

    When I asked one vendor rep why it wasn’t possible to generate a browse-list of subject headings with a search using their Discovery Tool, her response was “our studies show users don’t search that way”. I blurted out “well, *I* do!”

    To which the Roy Tennants of the world just roll their eyes and sigh “but YOU are a librarian….” with the implication that my opinion and funny/complicated search strategy doesn’t matter in OPAC design.

    Comment by JJR — September 13, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  8. Megan – I changed the sentence that you objected to, because you are right that it’s not totally correct to talk about words’ “true meanings” versus “how they are used.” My argument doesn’t hinge on that idea at all, so I changed the sentence to talk about “doublespeak” instead of using words to mean what they do not.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 14, 2009 @ 6:39 am

  9. Also, Megan… If the issue is the word “verbiage” used to mean simply “wording,” I think the appropriate concern is that the new meaning borrows all the coloring of the old. Whether it’s because of simple ignorance or whether it represents an intention, the result is a change in way we regard text. Changes in language represent changes in culture. And this is not something that happens apart from our own decisions; we are responsible for what we say.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 14, 2009 @ 8:53 am

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