‘Pixel’ is an abbreviation of ‘picture element’: the basic unit of information in an image.
‘Bit’ – as in gigabit – is short for ‘binary digit’: the basic unit of information in a binary (digital) system.
‘Flops’ – as in teraflops – are a measure of floating point operations per second.
These abbreviations (portmanteau words and acronyms) are a wonderfully accurate way to communicate a complex concept. They roll off the tongue. They pack maximum meaning into minimum space. They’re clever, without being cutesy.
As an editor at Editor Group, I spend much of my time proofreading complex material for the IT, finance and professional services industries, and I see a lot of neologisms and portmanteau words. ‘Technopreneur’ (a technological entrepreneur) comes to mind.
Those who first used ‘pixel’ to describe the basic constituent part of an image, and ‘bit’ to describe a single unit of information were as linguistically creative as the Greek philosopher Democritus, who in 450 BCE first used the word átomos or ‘uncuttable’ to describe the smallest indivisible particle of matter. (He didn’t have access to the equipment required to observe neutrons and electrons, let alone Higgs bosons.)
Language is as fluid as a lava lamp and as organic as a beachside raw juice bar. Uniquely, it evolves … by way of creationism.
So yes, neologisms (and portmanteau words in particular) can be beautiful things. However, not all are as apt or insightful as ‘pixel’ and ‘bit’. Not all contribute equal value to the English language (and beyond). Many are lengthy and messy. There is nothing beautiful, for example, about the word ‘technopreneur’. ‘Jeggings’ and ‘frenemy’ aren’t particularly great either.
Things get even more confusing when industry jargon comes in the form of an already existing word or phrase like ‘synergise’, ‘virtualisation’ or ‘big data’. But there are times when a neologism – or one of these pre-existing, previously non–industry specific terms – is the right word.
While it can be hard to escape these terms, I’ve discovered that there are (at least) two very easy ways to avoid confusing your reader: keep everything else simple, and be prepared to explain yourself.
Keep it simple
It’s one thing to resist the lure of the latest buzzword, but sometimes no other word will do. If we have to use on-trend or ‘in-crowd’ words, we can at least surround them with simple, clear language to avoid additional confusion. The phrase ‘a newly developed data storage system that scales to meet future demand’, for example, is inherently easier to read and understand than ‘an innovative, extensible information retention environment solution’.
‘Linkage’ may well be a word, but ‘link’ is cleaner, clearer and does the same job in only one syllable.
You could say ‘A impacts on B’, but ‘A has an impact on B’ is the grammatically correct phrase. ‘A affects B’ is even better – it’s correct, direct and doesn’t eat into your word limit.
Keep it simple, and you won’t lose your audience.
Secondly, if you must use niche technical terminology – or if you’re intent on testing out your own neologisms, as the creators of ‘bit’ and ‘pixel’ once were – you should be willing and able to explain the concept in plain English. (A good test is whether your mum would understand it if you were explaining it to her … over the phone.)
These days you won’t need to explain ‘blog’, ‘infographic’ or ‘website’, but you should be prepared to spell out the basic meaning of ‘blade server’ (a pared-back modular server computer), ‘petaflops’ (really fast) and ‘failover’ (a backup for your backup) parenthetically at least the first time you use them.
And remember that while your audience may be on a first-name basis with many of the concepts in your industry, the relationship may not have progressed to comfortably using nicknames. If you need to use an acronym – even a common one like VoIP (voice over internet protocol), SaaS (software as a service) or TCO (total cost of ownership) – spell it out the first time. Ninety per cent of your audience may already be acquainted with the meaning, but the other 10 per cent will be forever indebted to you for introducing them properly.
Olivia McDowell edits and proofreads documents for all Editor Group’s clients, including those in the IT, finance and professional services industries. She studied law so she knows how to decipher needlessly convoluted language, and she would like the world to know that ‘impactful’ isn’t a real word. To contact Olivia to argue the case for your favourite neologism or help on your next editorial project, call (02) 8912 9511 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.