Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Assessing calibration

Finding neologistical goodness in corporate-speak is, admittedly, like taking candy from fish in a barrel of monkeys. But we don't hold ourselves to high standards in this blog.

Raymond Chen at A Well-known Software Company identifies a word that seems to be sliding around a bit in the semantic mud: calibration. He cites the following:

I would like to get calibration on that individual from those who know him.

There is, of course, a kind-of explanation for the emergence of this usage. A much-bemoaned twice-yearly* ritual at said company is The Review, in which employees go through a self- and manager assessment based on their previously declared goals. Although the process is secretive, it is generally known that managers get together for calibration meetings in which (it is rumored) employees are judged against their goals (and, most people believe, ranked against each other). You can see how the term calibration in this context derives roughly from (as Raymond notes) "adjusting a piece of measuring equipment against a known standard."

You can also see how the term calibration, as used here, can easily float over to take up the space occupied by assessment -- they calibrate, they assess, it's all sort of part of the same big thing. And from there it's an easy step to simply start using calibrate in ever-wider contexts where assessment would still be the more common term. Although in the cite that Raymond has, calibration does seem to still refer to assessing an individual; perhaps there's a connotation of providing a ranking, or at least a numerically scaled assessment.

There are comments on Raymond's entry. One person notes (yay!) that Google returns 10K hits for get calibration; this is not a singleton usage. (FWIW, my recommendation is that you ignore the ones in which people complain about the term. Of course.)

* Formerly known as semi-annual.

Friday, March 09, 2007


When people note (or complain about) words changing parts of speech, they tend to draw examples of nouns becoming verbs (verbizing) and verbs becoming nouns (nounification, double bonus). (The discussion of why some people feel that these role changes are bad is left to another day. Or not.)

The second-tier PoS get a bit less attention, it seems to me. But I noticed a couple of examples of adjectivization recently, one of which has gotten wide attention due to its source, namely the TV show "American Idol." The adjective is pitchy, which apparently the judge Randy Jackson uses to describe contestants' performances. Some Web sites (#) use the word without quotes or definition -- I guess if you're enough into the show to be reading Web sites about it, you should know the vocabulary of the show. However, in what I assume is a rare foray into things linguistic, People magazine got on the job and got a clarification from Jackson himself about what pitchy actually means:
"You're hitting the note that could be flat or sharp," Jackson explained. "So one note could be sharp, the next note is flat. Flat meaning that the note that is hit is lower than the actual note that you (should reach) to be on key."
Some people don't like this word. It's true that its definition is not clear from the word alone, other than you know that it must have something to do with (musical) pitch.

Can you just whack a -y onto the end of a word and conjure up an adjective? Maybe. One of the blogs I read recently posted the following:

[...] someone was stabbed on the orange line a few weeks ago. An isolated incident, I’m sure. Then another stabbing happened earlier this week.

My colleague regularly rides the orange line, so I asked her about it.

Me: Why is the Orange line so stabby?

To my mind, a clever adjectivilization. Now that I'm tuned in, I'll try to find more such examples. If you find any, do let me know.


20 Apr 2007: Dilbert, "Don't get all mathy on me."

1 Nov 2007: Blog post, "[W]hen an expert says "you have to believe me 'cause I'm all experty", maintain a healthy skepticism."

19 Jan 2007 Guitar Player magazine, "It doesn’t get much more guitar-y than this."

7 April 2008 I can't believe I didn't remember this earlier. A joke ... Q: What's brown and sticky? A: A stick.