Sometimes the power of language is in how easily it can mislead us.
You’ve got to love the English language. Garble used to mean clarify. Now it means to render something incomprehensible. Everyone is supposed to seek opportunity, but no one wants to be seen as an opportunist. Oversight means to overlook something, as in missing it, but it also means to carefully keep an eye on something. Security professionals have oversight responsibilities, and they live in fear that there will be an oversight in one area or another that will bring opprobrium on the department.
We like to get something done in one fell swoop, even though we haven’t a clue what that means, and we get worried when things are out of whack, though heaven knows what exactly a whack is. As to the latter, I was wondering about that recently, as I pondered the economic situation and the fact that those of us on the eastern seaboard of the United States recently felt the world shake beneath our feet in a historic 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Things indeed seem out of whack. But why do we say that, and has anyone ever considered them in whack?
Turns out, at least according to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words Web site, that, indeed, in Lincoln’s day, one could be “in fine whack,” as Lincoln’s amanuensis reportedly said of him in a letter. And the word apparently has a nexus to security, the origins of “out of whack” being at least partly connected to the concept of a thief purloining a share of “booty” via fraud, according to Francis Grose, in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785, writes Quinion.
Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist, calls language “the most powerful, dangerous, and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised.” He describes it as “a piece of neural audio technology” with which you can “alter the settings in someone else’s brain.”
Sometimes the power of language is in how easily it can mislead us. Consider the brain teaser “If at any moment the flying arrow is still, when does it move?” To avoid being fooled, the listener must question the premise that at any moment the arrow is still.
Author James Geary talks about the power of words and phrases when used not literally but as metaphor. The right metaphor, he notes, can sway people’s perceptions and change their views about policies. Once someone compares a security regime to 1984 or Big Brother, the PR battle is lost. When introducing security programs, be mindful of the language you use if you want users to view them positively, or at least benignly.
Geary says the phrase “cogito ergo sum,” commonly translated as “I think, therefore, I am,” is more accurately interpreted from the Latin root words as meaning “I shake things up, therefore, I am.” Metaphors, he says, are effective because they shake up our normal perspective with different imagery. Remember that next time you’ve got to argue security’s case to senior management.