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The i word

I believe that a spade should be called a spade, or possibly a bloody shovel.  One of my pet hates is the misuse and overuse of the word "issue" by IT managers, civil servants, politicians and corporate bosses.  Even worse is its adjectival offspring: "real issue", "key issue" "huge issue'; "major issue'; "central issue'; "fundamental issue'; and worst of all "biggest single underlying issue':

An issue, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a "point or matter in contention".  That's fine, and it is a useful word, particularly in an election year. Use it in that way, sparingly, by all means.  But the word bas mutated in the mouths of sloppy people.  The IT industry has spawned the worst mutation: "the software has issues".  That really means "the software has bugs in it".  So why can't you say so straight out?   Or is "bug" too rude a word for sensitive IT people to use?

I keep on hearing of projects that have "technical and organisational issues"':  translate this into English, and you get "it doesn't work and the managers are incompetent".  Why not say so?

Among politicians, the abuse of the i-word is even grosser.  Donald Rumsfeld advised President Bush in February last year of an "issue" involving mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  He would have been more honest to warn the President of a "potential scandal, which will make the world question whether American troops should be in Iraq at all".

Rumsfeld's use of "issue" here is a typical example of the main misuse of the word to aid bureaucratic evasion.  All over the world, it has become a euphemism for any problem, difficulty, question, shortcoming, failure, objection, controversy, challenge, crisis or even disaster.  So much so, that whenever I come across the i-word I check to see whether it should be replaced by one of these other more honest words.

The i-word is a gangrene spreading across political, technical and managerial discourse.  Even journalists, who should have more respect for the English language, are succumbing.  Last year, however, I found to my surprise that the speeches our our cabinet rank politicians on both.sides -unless rattled by John Humphreys on Iraq - were almost issue free zones, even at the party conferences.  Clearly, they or their speech writers recognise that the i-word is the ultimate turn-off.

Those lower down the pecking order have not realised this important truth.  I have analysed MPs' speeches in Hansard, and have found "issue counts" of 10 and above in a single speech to be common.  The worst offenders are junior ministers, Liberals and the Welsh.  They caress the word as if  it lends authority to their banalities.

I find the same in conference speeches by CIOs, consultants and senior civil servants.  They sound as if they have a fit of the sneezes.  When confronted by an "issue rate' of more than one per minute, I switch off.  I am sure most other people do so too.  Remember this, when you are putting together a presentation.  If you misuse or overuse the i-word you should realise that you are condemning yourself as second-rate.  And pompous, evasive, mealy mouthed and fundamentally dishonest.  Do you really want that?

Anonymous tail-end column     Government Computing       October 2005


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Last modified: September 20, 2006