Tag Archives: terminology

Boatswains and silicon

What do particle physics and breast implants have in common?

BBC mispronunciation, that’s what! I’m not sure whether this is a worrying trend or just a worrying longstanding tradition, but lately I’ve noticed what at least seems like an increased carelessness on the radio about the pronunciation of slightly difficult words. In some cases this is merely a bit irritating—as with the routine pronunciation of Angela Merkel as Anjullah Murkle, which probably just means the speaker is unfamiliar with how to say German words—but in other cases it’s downright misleading. Two of the latter variety have been in the news a lot over the last few days; meaning that the misinformation has been reinforced over and over again in various news bulletins.

Interestingly they both involve the same syllable, -on, in entirely different contexts. In one case it’s mispronounced; in the other it’s said instead of the correct syllable. Specifically:

Bosons are not boatswains

If newsreaders on Radio 4 are to be believed, physicists (sorry, generic scientists) working at the Large Hadron Collider are close to confirming the existence of something called “the Higgs Bosun”. Bosun is one of those words whose spelling used to be littered with apostrophes representing omitted letters. It is now spelt either bo’sun, bosun or boatswain. (Boatswain is the original form, and the other two are derived from it, presumably because its pronunciation is so different from its spelling.) The vowels rhyme with those in open.

I’ve never been quite sure what a boatswain was, other than that it was some role on a boat. So I looked it up. According to the OED:

boatswain (also bo’sun or bosun) n. a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and the crew.

So they run the LHC like a ship and they’ve spent all this time wondering whether the the bosun exists or not, but now they’ve finally half-glimpsed him? He must spend a lot of time working from home, then . . . Or is the Higgs a ship and he’s in charge of its equipment? Ah, that must be it. He’s not the Higgs Bosun but the Higgs’ Bosun. Bosun of the Higgs. Arrrrrr.

But of course what they really mean is the Higgs Boson. The OED defines a boson as

boson n. Physics a subatomic particle, such as a photon, which has zero or integral spin.

Ah, that’s it. The entry also includes a reminder that such particles are named after the  Indian physicist S N Bose.

The s  of boson is pronounced like a z, and unsurprisingly the word rhymes with ones such as photon, proton and Vogon. The -on is pronounced like the word on.

Its mispronunciaton as bosun puzzles me. Surely even newsreaders have heard of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons . . . ? OK so they may not have heard of fermions, leptons, nucleons, mesons, kaons, pions, gluons, gravitons, positrons or (a favourite from when I studied electronics) phonons, but the basic principle is clear enough: huge numbers of particles have names ending in -on, and in every case it’s pronounced the same way. Why would it suddenly change just because of a superficial resemblance to the term for a ship’s officer?

Silicone is not silicon

The other piece of news lately has been about women’s breasts. Specifically, ones containing what the newsreaders and even some of their expert interviewees have been calling “silicon implants”. There have been concerns that some of these may have been made using “inferior quality silicon”.

Rather than go to the OED, I’ll give you my own definition of silicon, focusing on its most relevant features. I had rather a lot to do with silicon when I was studying electronic engineering. It is

silicon n. A very hard, brittle, rigid, reflective material whose appearance is between that of glass and a metal such as steel. It has a crystal structure similar to that of diamond and is used in electronics for its semiconductor properties. Silicon is the chemical element Si, occurring naturally in the mineral quartz (silicon dioxide).

Probably your best bet if you want to see a piece of silicon is to have a look at a solar panel, which is likely to be made out of it. A piece of silicon crystal basically looks like a piece of metal made out of glass, insofar as that’s a possible appearance for anything to have.

Whenever I hear the phrase silicon implants I immediately expect to hear something about electronic devices (“silicon chips”, “microchips”) being embedded in people’s bodies—maybe for purposes like allowing nerve impulses to control prosthetic limbs, or to let artificial retinas send signals to the optic nerve to help blind people see.

You seriously don’t want to be making breasts out of silicon.  Or at least not if you want them to be anything like real ones. If your thing is razor-sharp nipples which cut through anything they touch, or built-in body armour, then maybe. But stainless steel would be cheaper.

What they mean, of course, is silicone. This doesn’t just refer to one material, but to a whole range of them including oils, substitute rubber, and squishy plastics. There’s a Wikipedia article about silicones here. The -one is pronounced exactly the same way as it is in traffic cone, telephone, semitone and the like.

The key difference between silicones and ordinary plastics is that whereas those are based on long chains of carbon atoms, silicones instead use long chains of silicon atoms alternating with oxygen atoms. So the best way to think of them is as plastics, oils, greases etc based on silicon instead of carbon.

But emphatically don’t think of silicones as silicon: calling the material breast implants are made from “silicon” is as ridiculous as calling alcohol or rubber “diamond”. Even if you’re the Higgs‘ Boatswain. And definitely if you’re a BBC newsreader.

Why is Twitter so confusing?

[Note: I’ve turned off comments for this post, as it’s currently getting several spam comments a day. But if you want to leave one, feel free to tweet to me (@timtfj) so I can turn them on, or to use the contact form on this site.]

If you’re a Twitter user, you can’t have helped noticing a rash of articles and media coverage of Twitter recently. You probably also decided very quickly that at least 80% of the coverage [1] is written by people who haven’t even a rudimentary understanding of what Twitter really is and how it’s used.

The usual content of one of these articles is:

  • Twitter is suddenly very popular and everyone’s writing about it.
  • This is what they’re saying: [Insert scathingly negative quote from a similar article.]
  • The purpose of Twitter is for people to post 140-character messages about what they’re doing.
  • So it’s like a blog where all you can blog about is tedious minutiae of your life.
  • Nobody’s interested in reading that sort of blog.
  • Therefore it’s pointless.

And there typically follows either a rant about shortened attention spans, reality TV, the decline in intelligent conversation and so on, or some very puzzled thoughts about what on earth people get out of it and why.

If you’re not a Twitter user, you’ve probably encountered a fair number of articles like that by now and become equally puzzled.

As a user, I’ve sometimes been tempted be puzzled about where the confusion and ignorance comes from. Actually the source isn’t hard to find. More of that later. For now, let’s look at what Twitter actually is. Not what the articles say it is; not what Twitter describes itself as; but what it really is.

What Twitter is

Twitter is a setup where you can

  • post short, publicly viewable messages, which remain available indefinitely.  [2]
  • view a feed of the publicly viewable messages from a selection of other users, together with your own, with the most recent at the top. You choose whose to see.
  • address a publicly viewable message to a specific user.
  • view a feed showing the publicly viewable messages which have been addressed to you. These can be from anyone, not just people you’ve chosen for your main feed.
  • Send a private message to another user.
  • View the private messages sent to you.

There are other options too, such as searching the public messages for a particular phrase, viewing those from a specific user on their “profile” page, and viewing a snapshot of all the messages being posted at a particular moment. And there’s a widely-used unofficial system (“hashtags”) for labelling a public message by subject. But as far as the basics go, that’s it.

Also, rather importantly, you can do all this in a number of ways:

  • at the official website, http://twitter.com (not recommended, though you need to go there to sign up)
  • at the official mobile site, http://m.twitter.com/ (also not recommended, except for VERY basic use)
  • at other “client” websites, such as http://dabr.co.uk/ (highly recommended, especially for mobile phones: see my review)
  • by using various computer or phone applications, which often add functions not found on the official site
  • by sending and reaceiving SMS messages (for some functions, in some countries)
  • by Instant Messaging (I think).

So, what do we have? We have something like a speeded-up bulletin board or newsgroup, where posts can only be 140 characters long and you choose whose to see. Or a slowed-down chatroom where  you can  say 140 characters at a time and are heard only by the people who’ve chosen to be within earshot.  Another user described it as “being a fly on the wall of 20 different conversations”.

You can of course choose to be the person in the chatroom who only speaks and never listens or  replies to anyone; that would make it a bit like a blog of 140-character posts. But I, for one, probably won’t take much notice of you, because I enjoy the interaction. Like the people writing the articles, I mostly won’t see the point.

And there you have it. The basic idea of Twitter is actually very simple. A place for posting short messages, and a variety of ways of viewing them and responding to them. And not much like what the articles describe at all. Really, there are as many uses for Twitter as there are for a 140-character message.

So far I’ve carefully avoided using any of the official terms Twitter describes itself with. You’ll see why in a moment.

Why the confusion then?

How can something so simple cause so much confusion? I think there are three main sources for it:

  • The way Twitter describes itself.
  • The lack of any coherent introduction to the site when you sign up.
  • The impossibility of understanding Twitter from the outside.
Twitter’s self-description

When you first  visit http://twitter.com/, you are told

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Well, that’s not true for a start. The messages—tweets— can be as frequent or as infrequent as you like. They can be about anything you like. Over 80% of mine are replies to other users. Only a tiny handful answer What are you doing? If my tweets answer anything, it’s What do you want to say? Yet, virtually all the articles quote What are you doing? to sum up what Twitter is for and why it’s not worth bothering with. Hardly surprising: the writers probably assume that Twitter’s description of what it’s for does in fact describe what it’s for.

Once signed up, you post a tweet by typing in a box which has What are you doing? above and an Update button below.  Because, you see, in their terminology you’re not “posting a message”: you’re “updating your status”. So, public messages are officially called updates or statuses, even though you’re normally not updating anything or talking about your “status” (and anwyay, shouldn’t status mean your standing in the community, not a piece of text?)

The Update button confused me at first: I thought it was for refreshing the screen (updating the view) and optionally posting some text.

Next, it turns out that a tweet addressed to another person (by putting @ and their username at the start) is known as an “@reply”. Except that very often, it’s not a reply at all: it could equally well be “How are you today?” or a piece of news you want to tell them.

Furthermore, the various message feeds are not called feeds, but given the rather grand name of timelines, as though their primary purpose were to tell you the dates and times of events, or maybe the route you’ve taken through the site. But it isn’t: they’re there to let you view various different collections of tweets. They’re actually views or feeds.

In other words,

  • What are you doing? is entirely the wrong question
  • the update button isn’t for updating anything
  • a status doesn’t represent the status of anything
  • an @reply doesn’t necessarily reply to anything
  • a timeline hasn’t really got anything to do with times
  • Twitter’s description on its front page is almost completely misleading

Is it any wonder people get confused?

And one of the most depressing things to see on Twitter is a series of dutiful What are you doing? answers similar to this:

Signing up for Twitter! Everyone says I should. Excited!
Getting confused. Now what? Help!
Eating dinner. Still puzzled.
Going shopping. Why would anyone want to know that? Very puzzled now.
Thinking Twitter probably doesn’t have any point to it. Is anyone reading this? How would I know? Hello if you’re out there!
Giving up on Twitter.

Lack of help

[Note: Twitter’s sign-up process is now somewhat different from what I describe here and it sounds as though things may have improved a little; see Stuart’s comment.]

Clearly, for Twitter to have any point, you need some tweets to read and you need some people reading yours. You need to be able to interact.

You make a person’s tweets visible on your home page (NB: this is different from your profile page) by following them. Your tweets show on their home page when they follow you. Twitter doesn’t tell you this: you simply end up on a home page which contains no tweets. None from you, because you’ve not tweeted yet, and none from anyone else, because you’re not following anyone yet. I think this is the stage at which a new user feels most completely at sea. Quite understandably: all they’ve got is a more or less blank page and the question What are you doing?, which is no help at all.

Initially, having people to follow is far more important than having people follow you. It gives you a starting point. You don’t really find followers by sitting there being lost. Generally, you find followers by following them first and having something interesting to say; they then see you in their follower lists and come to investigate who you are, so as to decide whether to follow you too.

What Twitter ought to do at this point is to give you a message along the lines

You aren’t following anybody yet, so you won’t see any tweets except your own. Here are some ways to find interesting people:

  • Visit the public timeline to watch for interesting tweets
  • Search for users near you
  • Search for users whose profile mentions a particular subject
  • Search for tweets mentioning a particular subject
  • View the friends list of a particular user
  • Find new contacts using Mr Tweet
  • Import contacts from your address book

with links you can then click to follow up the suggestions. Sadly, Twitter doesn’t do that. It leaves you floundering on your own.

And if you want suggestions on how to find people to follow—well, they’re in that list. Once you find someone interesting you can reply to one of their tweets, or simply quietly follow them until they say something you want to answer, and you’re away.

One exception to this though: if the person you find is famous, or has thousands of followers already, or has social media expert in their profile, it’s unlikely you’ll get a reply from them. (Unless it’s @kriscolvin, who has acquired over 19,000 20,000 21,000 followers largely by being friendly and replying to people. [3]) You’re mostly best talking to people who have a sensible number of followers and who show signs of replying to people (e.g. ther profile page contains a lot of tweets starting with @).

Incomprehensibility from outside

Twitter only really makes sense once you’re following and interacting with a number of people. If you’ve not joined up, you can’t see this happening. [4] All you can really do is visit the public timeline—a cacophony of unrelated tweets from thousands of users—or visit profile pages like mine where you’ll see one person’s tweets but not the people they’re addressed to. (If WordPress’ Twitter widget is working properly, mine are in the sidebar of this page.) Either way, you don’t see Twitter as it actually is. The views you can access aren’t the one a user sees most of the time, but ones they only use occasionally. They might visit someone’s profile page for reference or to catch up on missed tweets, or visit the public timeline as a way of finding random people. But the views that make sense are your home page, filled with tweets from people you’ve decided to follow, and your replies page, filled with tweets from people who are talking to you.

Summing up

Maybe I’m overdoing the bullet lists in this post, but here’s another one anyway.

  • Is it any wonder that Twitter confuses people? No.
  • Does Twitter need to confuse people? No.
  • Has Twitter done anything to make itself less confusing? No.
  • Does Twitter care about the confusion? I don’t know, but fear the answer to that may also be No.

I think this is a great shame, because the changes that would make Twitter seem as simple as it really is are fairly straighforward:

  • use language that reflects what Twitter really is
  • drop the misleading question What are you doing?
  • give new users a little bit of meaningful help in getting started.

I honestly think that’s all that’s needed, but sadly I see no sign of it happening.

Another article to read

I’m not too keen on autopneumotrombics so I thought a while before linking to this article which says very nice things about my own. But you may wish to read it. In it, Nancy Friedman takes up some of my my thoughts here and develops them further—particularly Twitter’s misleading opening greeting and the fact that people stick with Twitter anyway for what it is. She also picks up a few additional language points which I missed.


[1] A wild guess. It’s a lot, anyway. Back

[2] Theoretically. Back

[3] 19,000 was corrrect when I first posted this three days ago. Now, 20,000 21,000 is correct . . . Back

[4] Unless you’re in the know about applications like Tweetgrid; but you won’t be unless you’re already familiar with Twitter. Back