Why does language evolution frustrate us?


In the late 1990s, when I first started working with network diagrams, we frequently used cloud symbols to represent the Internet or any other network that we weren’t going to represent in detail. From this sort of metaphor grew the concept of “cloud” computing, as in “computers somewhere else you don’t have to think about”. Of course, that has evolved into an entire sub-industry of SaaS / PaaS / IaaS as well as private or public or hybrid setups. For some reason, though, lots of people in security and IT in general get frustrated about this term.

Similarly, we’ve used “cyber” for a long time in all sorts of ways. It has evolved from “cybernetics” (a term with its own convoluted history) and “cyberpunk” to “cybersecurity” and, sometimes, just a word by itself. (It occasionally does make me giggle because of how it was used as shorthand for “cybersex” for a time, though.) But in some contexts, this makes sense. We occasionally need to distinguish between “cyber” crime and other kinds. “Online” is insufficient because we distinguish between regular crime that happens to occur online (e.g. a stock pump-and-dump scam that uses email) versus criminal activity that specifically targets information assets like servers or user accounts. When considering military policies, distinguishing from air, sea, land, and space becomes even more important.

What causes the frustration with words like this? I think it might stem from “mundanes” and non-specialists using words that previously served as markers for belonging to a particular group. We should distinguish, by the way, between frustration about the terms and frustration about the content. That is, getting mad because a politician referred to “cybersecurity” differs significantly from getting bad because said politician has put forth a bad policy proposal that deals with cybersecurity.

Languages evolves over time. And as society does too, that means that formerly-obscure fields like this one become more important. That brings a whole host of problems and opportunities, but I believe we should focus on those over simple questions of style.

Sometimes, of course, the substance matters. When we use jargon to express a concept that otherwise would take significant explanation, then it serves a useful purpose (and saying “cloud” rather than “a virtual server hosted in a 3rd-party datacenter” works for this). But jargon can go the other way and simply twist language so as not to be immediately obvious. Using “ask” as a noun and “action” as a verb strikes me personally that way. “Did you action the client ask?” does not scan nearly as well or clearly as “Did you do what the client asked?” or perhaps “Did you act on the client’s request?”.

So before adopting some new professional jargon, make sure it helps you communicate something and isn’t being used purely as slang. And when you get frustrated, ask yourself whether that’s due to unclear communication or substantive issues, or whether it just doesn’t match your stylistic preferences.