Poor Ted Stevens. No matter your political persuasion, you couldn't help but feel a little sympathy for the 82-year-old Republican senator from Alaska earlier this year when he was mocked for calling the internet "a series of tubes" in a speech. He later said the phrase was simply a metaphor, not an actual description of the web; some defenders suggested he might have been mixing up the concept of tubes with the word "pipes," which is the term for digital channels that funnel data from one program to another, or from one computer to another. (Nice try, guys!)
Even if either theory were true, it was too late. Newspapers and online communities around the world gently teased and mercilessly mocked the man, and he was lampooned in grand style several times by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
What if you make a similar tech-speak slip of the tongue? While you may not worry that your words will wind up as the butt of a joke on a cable TV show, if you do tense up when the conversation turns to technology in the office, we're here to help--we can save you from being the laughing stock of your cubicle city. We're throwing you the lifeline somebody should have thrown the Senator before he delivered his speech, criticizing a proposed amendment to a bill relating to the internet. Here's our primer on a few key tech terms you definitely ought to wipe from your vocabulary before they pop out of your mouth.
Outdated terminology: Information superhighway
Why we used it: When the phrase was coined at least as early as 1983 when it turned up in a Newsweek article, then later popularized in a speech given by former Vice President Al Gore in 1994, these two words didn't exactly explain everything the internet would become, but it provided a nice visual. Even people who didn't own personal computers (which was most people in 1994) could grasp the concept.
Why we don't use it now: You can use the older term, but tread carefully. Here's an example of how you might use the term in a sentence: If you ever write an article about obsolete computer terms, consider using "information superhighway" in your story. That's about it. If you're standing around at the water cooler with your colleagues and you suddenly get the urge to say, "Yes, I read that last night on the information superhighway," well, please don't. Same goes for "World Wide Web." People are going to look at you as if you just came through a time machine that was built in 1997.
What would be better to say: Less is more. Just say, "the internet," or even better, be specific. Everybody will know what you mean if you say, "Yeah, I read that at Entrepreneur.com," or "I was Googling the other day."
Outdated terminology: LOL
Why we used it: To avoid misunderstandings--for instance, sarcasm in print, in real time, is hard to pull off, and sticking in an "LOL," which stands for "laughing out loud," can lighten the mood.
Why we don't use it now: It depends what message you're trying to send. If you're away from work and chatting with a friend, fine, go ahead, we won't tell. But the word has been overused and we're all veteran computer-users no longer trying to figure out this crazy Internet thing. If you're a business owner corresponding with a client and you stick "LOL" in your e-mails, you might as well ask if you can also Fed Ex over your high school yearbook, so he or she can sign, "Friends 4-ever! KIT" and "U R 2 Good 2 B True."
What would be better to say: If you really feel you have to convey that something you've written is meant to be light-hearted, you might still get away with an understated :-)
Outdated terminology: Zip drive
Why we used it: It was the name for a removable disk storage system that dropped onto the computer scene in 1994. Originally, it could hold 100 MB and then, several years later, 750 MB. For most of the 90s and the early 2000's, you could use this term, and even if you had no clue what you were talking about, your tech friends would nod in approval.
Why we don't use it now: Technology marches on. If you talk about your Zip drive now, your tech friends will laugh. Of course, if they're really into technology, they may ask to buy it from you, for posterity's sake.
What would be better to say: Talk about what you're storing on your memory sticks or your iPod.
Outdated terminology:Electronic mail and floppy disk
Why we used them: They had their day in the sun, briefly, and for their good reasons. The first computer programmers who used the term "electronic mail" likely shortened it to e-mail within minutes, if not seconds. And floppy disks, of course, ruled in the 1980s and, for a brief time, in the 1990s before CDs took over.
Why we don't use them now: Well, you still can--if you want to be thought of as someone who might also use the terms "moving pictures" and "horseless carriage."
What would be better to say: Keep it simple. Use e-mail and flash drive.
Outdated terminology: Bandwidth
Why we used it: The word has been in regular use since at least the late 1940s, when TV sets first became available to the public. Later, you'd hear the term bandied about a lot in the 1970s when CB radios--arguably an audio processor to e-mail--got popular. Then came the 90s, and we started talking about how much bandwidth our dial-up internet service had.
Why we don't use it now: Well, we do use it, but we often misuse it or simply don't need to say it. Bandwidth isn't something people are usually concerned about these days, since so many individuals and organizations have made the switch away from dial-up to DSL or cable. Because once upon a time, the more bandwidth you had, the better internet connection you got, it was a status symbol to have, say, a modem that got you 56 kilobits per second. Now if you're in a meeting with a potential client or investor and you start bragging about your computer's bandwidth, you may as well just add, "Oh, and we've just upgraded our mainframe."
What would be better to say: When you mention your office's fiber optic network that not only carries high-speed internet but cable and digital telephone service as well, have your pen ready to sign that multimillion dollar contract that's coming.
Outdated terminology: Wi-Fi Hotspots
Why we used them: Actually, this is one we're still using, and frequently, in fact. And that's what's so tragic about tech-speak. It's always changing, sometimes faster than we can learn the terminology. Wi-Fi hotspots, of course, are places where you can take your laptop and connect on a network to check your e-mail or "surf the net," an expression that feels outdated but that society still uses with abandon. Airports, coffee houses and hotels frequently have Wi-Fi hotspots.
Why we don't--or shouldn't--use it now: As duly noted, we use the phrase and will for some time to come, but if you want to be ahead of the curve.
What would be better to say: Sprinkle the phrase "wireless data card" in your conversation. Once you leave a Wi-Fi hotspot, your connection to the internet is gone, and if you try to hook up at another spot, you'll have to go through the hassle of paying for the service again and possibly making new adjustments to your laptop. Wireless data card technology is still in its infancy--the speed can be slow, and the monthly price can be high--but you can see the writing on the wall. Someday you're going to tell somebody you're a disciple of Wi-Fi and they're going to look at you and think, "You are so Ted Stevens."
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio, who, until researching this article, thought he knew tech-speak like the back of a mainframe computer.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.