What is the word…?

The main character in the American series NCIS, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, has a set of rules that he lives by and passes on to the members of his team. Of course, there are times when he breaks his own rules. Rule #39 is: “There is no such thing as coincidence”. Now, this may or may not be true, but what I do know is that we make connections between disparate events depending on what we are interested in or what has caught our attention at any particular time. It then seems coincidence that these events have occurred, when in actual fact it is likely that we have just noticed them because of our current thoughts and circumstances.

How many yellow cars did you see on your last journey out in your car? Unless you had children of a certain age in the car, who thump each other, or you, when they see a yellow car, you are unlikely to be able to answer this question. There is no reason for you to take particular notice of yellow cars and so they don’t register. However, the next time you go out for a drive after reading this column, it is likely that you will notice each yellow car on the road.

The other day, I was watching the news and, in response to some event or allegation, a company had issued a statement that included the word ‘vehemently’. I think ‘vehemently’ is a great word. I don’t find it easy to say and the H, which causes me to stutter, makes the word harder and more forceful than the alternative of ‘strongly’. The dictionary definition of vehement is showing strong feeling and it originates from the Latin meaning impetuous or violent. So, it is more forceful than ‘strongly’ because it conveys the feeling and emotion behind the meaning.

This is just the latest connection I have made with the use of words. Not so long ago, I was reading a book on my e-reader and it struck me that the author was using a fair number of words that I had either not come across before or I hadn’t heard/seen used for some time. The benefit of the e-reader is that you can immediately look up the dictionary meaning of the word without having to put the book down and go in search of a dictionary. This assumes that you are within easy reach of a dictionary. Another member of my family made a similar comment about having to look up words and was immediately criticised as a typical scientist with a poor grounding in vocabulary! Of course, it is not just a matter of using the most appropriate words, but also knowing who to say them to (and that is another column).

This article has a connection to the previous two. The e-reader makes access to books easier and it facilitates the looking up of the meanings of words. Conversely, twitter and email promote the curtailing of words and grammar and the use of slang and capitalisation, such as FYI and LOL. This is another illustration of how technology offers benefits, but also has potential downsides in how we use it and its impact upon our behaviour.

Words and their meanings are important. A perfunctory search identified approximately 20 NDT standards listing terminology. Learning the meaning of words is not dependent on academic ability. As with the NDT terminology, it is about being exposed to their use, both verbal and written, and having access to a standard or a dictionary for clarification. It is also not an age thing: Beatrix Potter in the Tale of Peter Rabbit writes that the little bunnies did not awaken because the lettuces had been ‘soporific’. It is neither too early, nor too late, to expand your vocabulary.

It would be good to: see the phrase ‘the indication was execrable to analyse’ in an inspection report; have more people giving panegyrics on NDT; have obdurate operators; and have procedures that do not obfuscate. These words have particular meanings and if we lose them our language becomes basic. Instead of using the words in the dictionary, we will have to provide the explanations. Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Writing short, succinct reports requires effort, but if we let words fall into disuse, then it will require even more effort and eventually become impossible.

So, I vehemently urge you not to be obdurate and to take up the challenge of better and more varied use of the language we have at our disposal. Technology can support you with access to dictionaries and thesauruses.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@amec.com

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