If it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it

An Irishman’s Diary about the perils of language

Brazil’s Fred in happier times in Munich in 2006

Brazil’s Fred in happier times in Munich in 2006

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

When that Paddy Power data-breach story broke this week, it was reassuring to hear how the bookmakers were “proactively contacting” the 650,000 customers affected. I don’t know what the alternative would have been - some kind of passive contact, presumably – but that sounds time-consuming, and probably a bit creepy for those on the receiving end. N o, all things considered, proactively contacting customers was the right approach.

Of course, some linguists might quibble with the unnecessary prefix, arguing that the old-fashioned word “active” does a more than adequate job on its own. And that if Paddy Power had confined itself to “actively contacting” people, they wouldn’t have noticed anything different.

In fact, I’m reminded of my own most recent involvement with the company – a €20 bet on Brazil’s Fred to win the World Cup Golden Boot – which only reinforced my respect for the un-prefixed term.Alas, even in a team of incompetents, Fred’s immobility and general uselessness at the tournament was of lighthouse-in-a-bog proportions. Far from expecting him to be proactive, I would have settled eventually for signs of a pulse.

But insofar as he was able to make contact with the ball then, unlike Paddy Power’s contact, it was usually passive, as in the single goal he did score, where the cross hit his head.

Anyway, getting back to the bookmakers’ language, I know that in the world of boardrooms, “active” just doesn’t sound dynamic enough. “Proactive” is seen as having an anticipatory element that the basic term lacks. The idea is that you don’t wait for a problem to happen before doing something – that’s too much like being “reactive”.

Then again, I note that the data-breach at Paddy Power’s occurred in 2010. So, if contacting the customers four years later is what now passes for “proactive”, I suggest that even that beefed-up adjective has been overtaken by the inflation to which boardroom jargon is always vulnerable.

A new, even more dynamic prefix for active is now needed, clearly. To this end, I scoured the dictionary for suitable candidates and compiled a shortlist of three. Of these, I quite liked the old-world qualities of “counter-active”. But since that implied face-to-face contact with customers, over the till, it was hardly qualified to cover an online problem. The second candidate might have been useful in the context of a broadcast campaign, for example a series of Newstalk ads warning about the cyber attack. This would allow the company to claim it was “radio-actively contacting” customers.

But that was too specific as well. In the end, I went for a prefix wherein the details of the contact would be secondary to conveying the sheer urgency with which it was being made. Thus I suggest that henceforth, in any corporate crisis such as the one the bookmakers faced, only “hyper-actively” contacting customers will do.

Still with language, but on the other side of the Atlantic, you may have missed a story from Utah this week, where a teacher at a language school was sacked for writing a blog post on the subject of “homophones”. Homophones are a perfectly legitimate concern for language teachers, and indeed for journalists. Many of us in The Irish Times are openly homophonophobic, in fact, knowing how easy it is to mix similar-sounding words: thereby implying, say, that apes are fighting for independence somewhere (“gorilla war”) or that Sinead O’Connor had a hit once with a song about sheep-love (“Nothing Compares to Ewe”).

But when a teacher at the Nomen Global Language Centre in Provo blogged about homophonia, his bosses accused him of promoting a “gay agenda”. And when he explained what the word meant, they still sacked him, arguing that in a famously conservative state the public might misunderstand too.

The central issue aside, though, it struck me that this entire scenario was a diplomatic minefield. Among other things, even if it is the Latin for “name”, you’d wonder that a school so concerned with sexual misinterpretation would prefix its title with the word “Nomen”.

Apart from that, unlikely as it may be, I hope the now unemployed teacher never has to look for a job in Belfast. If he thought his homophone problems in Utah were bad, wait till he tried telling unionists that he used to work for a Provo language school.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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