Time Flies Like An Arrow, But Not At Frankfurt Airport

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As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English (and US English) language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning. When I'm looking at text provided by other members of the teams I work with, such as developers and architects, I often come across a word or phrase where the usage and context is obviously familiar, yet the real meaning is totally inappropriate. And fixing the text sometimes takes a determined effort as I try to bend my brain away from the obvious to look for the appropriate.

For example, "Use a protocol like HTTP or TCP" or "May negatively impact performance". So what's wrong with these? Well, "...like HTTP or TCP" could mean "...have fond feelings for HTTP or TCP". In the same vein as the well-know expression "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana". And "...negatively impact performance" might be taken to mean it actually improves it. You see where I'm going?

Bear in mind that everything we produce must follow strict style and word selection guidelines so that it is easy to assimilate by those whose first language is not English. And, of course, it must also be easily translatable by mechanized tools into other languages. OK, so the tools these days are very good. I read in a computer magazine last week about a guy who did the obvious test - he took some English text, fed it through an English/French translator, and then fed the result through a French/English translator. The result was understandable, if not actually fully readable, but it was "good enough".

Of course, I immediately decided it would be interesting to push this a bit further by piping some text through several languages to give mechanized translation a real test. Time for an experiment I think. We'll start with this week's opening sentences:

"As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning."

The automated translation into Spanish gives:

"Como escritor, gozo del weirdness de palabras. En la lengua inglesa, y particularmente en la escritura técnica, las palabras significan a menudo algo distintamente diferente de su significado inicialmente evidente."

Interesting that they don't seem to have a word for "weirdness" in Spanish. Maybe it only applies to English people. Anyway, when translated back into English, it comes out as:

"Like writer, joy of weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in the technical writing, the words often mean something differently different from their initially evident meaning."

Wow, pretty close. And I reckon "joy of weirdness" and "differently different" are fine descriptions of most of my blogging activities. However, now we'll take the Spanish version and convert it into Russian, which produces this:

"Как сочинитель, утеха weirdness слов. В английском языке, и определенно в технически сочинительстве, слова часто намереваются что-то по-разному отличающееся от их первоначально очевидная смысль."

Which, when translated back into English comes out as:

"As writer, the joy of weirdness of words. In the English, and definitely in technically the writing, the words frequently will intend that- t. p - different being differed from their initially obvious."

Amazing. That's almost closer to the original. OK, so we got some extraneous letters in there that may affect the next step, but we'll push on regardless and stretch the bounds of reasonableness by taking the Russian version and translating it into Swedish:

"Som författare uttrycker glädjen av weirdnessen av. I engelskaet och bestämt i tekniskt handstilen, uttrycker vanligt ska ämnar den t. p - olikt som skilja sig åt från deras initialt tydligt."

And, finally, back from Swedish into English:

"As authors, the blessing expresses of weirdnessen of. In engelskaet and certain in the technical script, expresses commonly will intends it t. p - different that divide itself at from their initially clear."

I don't know about you, but I reckon that's a pretty remarkable demonstration of automated language translation. OK, so the original was not exactly complicated but the results are not a million miles away in meaning, even if the grammar could do with some attention. No doubt that, if a native speaker of those languages had edited the intervening versions, they would have been even better. All of these translations were performed by the online translator available at WorldLingo.com.

Anyway, talking of words, one that struck me as odd the other day was "stereotype". My first thought was that "stereo", being our shortened word for "stereophonic", means "two" or "double". Especially as we use "mono" for musically-oriented stuff that isn't stereo. So how can "stereotype" have the meaning of "all the same" or "the same as all others of its type"? And deeper exploration reveals that the original meaning of the word "stereotype" is thought to be the name for a duplication made during the printing process (see Gale Cengage Learning). Again, reinforcing the "two" or "different" meaning.

It was only after some research I found that "stereo" is a prefix that comes from the Latin word meaning "solid". Aha! The people who dreamt up the concept of piping music through two different channels obviously meant it to have a more solid sound, so they called it stereophonic (where "phonic" means "acoustics" or "relating to sound"). Maybe they invented "monaural" afterwards for people who could only afford one speaker, or - like me - are deaf in one ear. And it fits with "stereotype" actually meaning "a solid type" or "of the same type".

So while we're talking about stereotypes - the topic I originally intended to discuss when I started this post (which seems like several weeks ago now) - I never considered that I was affected by stereotypes of people or places. OK, so stereotypes are useful as a staple ingredient in stand-up comedy. Let's face it, a joke that starts "There's these three ordinary guys who do ordinary jobs, and have no obvious distinguishing marks, in a boat..." would have some way to go to be funny. And, when you travel a lot, you soon discover that people don't really conform to some stereotype for their country or nationality anyway. What I found really surprising, however, was that airports don't either.

I mean, you'd assume that Schipol airport in delightfully laid-back Amsterdam would be populated by people smoking various brands of weed, so it would all be a bit disorganized and your luggage would probably go via Outer Mongolia and the Faroe Isles. Meanwhile, Frankfurt airport in extremely efficient and organized Germany would be so well designed and run that you wouldn't even notice you'd been there.

Ha! No chance. Travelling to Redmond via Amsterdam was totally painless. Same terminal for arrival and departure, no security lines, arriving and departing on time, and luggage waiting on the belt after clearing immigration in Seattle. Meanwhile, Frankfurt was three (yes three) security barriers, recheck your passport and re-enter all the information even though you've got a boarding card because the computer is playing up, and nowhere to sit down meantime. And the departure was late.

But worst of all, they insinuated that I own an iPod and they think that my passport is a dangerous implement. I travel regularly, and am relatively organized about the security check thing. My watch, belt, phone, wallet, loose change, and other stuff are in my carry-on. I wear slip-on shoes to save time. And I have my laptop out of the bag ready. So in Frankfurt they don't let you put stuff in the plastic trays yourself - you have to wait for an assistant - and they keep asking if you've got an iPod. Maybe it's a new security scare?

Then I was surprised when the scanner bleeped like crazy as I walked through when the only metal near me was my wedding ring, the zip on my trousers, and the fillings in my teeth. Turned out, after a "pat-down", to be my passport that set it off. OK, so it's got a biochip and half a mile of aerial wire in it, but I've never known that happen before. Meanwhile, the guy kept saying "iPod" until I finally gave in and showed him my non-iPod MP3 player - at which point I was frog-marched off into a separate area while they tested it for a whole range of dangerous stuff. Maybe the X-ray machine had detected the rather potent 70's punk music it contains, or it objected to my comprehensive collection of classic Goon Shows. I suppose I can't blame it for that.

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Time Flies Like An Arrow, But Not At Frankfurt Airport