Know the Nouns

Richard Feynman was a famous physicist, and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is a famous biography of a famous physicist. In it, Richard Feynman, who is taking a biology class for some reason, goes to the library and asks for “a map of a cat.”

Now, the thorough modern biologists have surely mapped the cat – there are no surprise organs left – and a well-stocked university library surely has some document that tells you what organs occur in which parts of a cat, so what’s wrong with Feynman’s question?


He used the wrong noun. The decision of which noun to use for anatomical representations of cats is deeply arbitrary. I suppose we could have called them cat-charts, or feline anatomy graphs, or even invented some new word (, anyone?), but we didn’t. And once the choice of which noun to use for maps of cats was made, it was made. Now even brilliant physicists sound wrong if they use the wrong noun.

So here’s my free advice for this Wednesday morning: If you’re going to talk to people about stuff, know the jargon; know the slang.

I think this can be especially true among software engineers. It comes with the territory. “Object reference not set to instance of an object” is a common enough error in C#. Close inspection will reveal that every noun in that sentence is a bit of jargon. Because software engineering involves constantly wading through the output a program that will just sit there and fail because you left out a letter, or called something “getFoo()” in one place and “retrieveFoo()” in another, the human tendency to be picky about vocabulary gets exaggerated in software engineering.

And in any human sub culture, the quickest way to brand yourself an outsider is to use the wrong synonym. Imagine trying to fit in with a band when you say “recently purchased electric guitar” and everyone else says “new axe.” Or you call a new drum rhythm “catchy” and everyone else calls it “sick.” You use the wrong words! Shun the outsider.

So if you’re going into a situation where you’ll need to talk to people you don’t see every day, try to learn what nouns they’ll use. Are you giving a training at another company? Learning their words for things will markedly increase your credibility. Have a job interview coming up? Learning the nouns: read blogs by the engineers who already work here, look up products they’ve built, etc., and pay attention to the vocabulary. (Also, if you find a word you don’t know while you’re doing this, don’t guess, look it up.)

For a more extreme example of the consequences of using the wrong word, see the origins of the term shibboleth.

Till next time, happy learning!


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