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Shibboleth

Ed Nisley is great writer as well as an EE, PE, and author in Poughkeepsie, NY. For many years, he wrote a monthly column focusing on Embedded Systems for Dr. Dobb's Journal. This popular selection from 2004 generated a lot of reader mail (and much dissent) on the topic of pronunciation.

Shibboleth
by Ed Nisley

 

 

 

Some years ago, I received a circuit-layout program accompanied by a fancy multimedia demo. The narrator, a woman with one of those British accents to die for, thoroughly explained all the various features and benefits. I followed along right up to the point where she discussed how the program produced solder masks, which she pronounced sol'-der.

Whereupon I immediately concluded that, while she may have been hired on the basis of a great voice, she definitely wasn't an engineer. Anyone who can't pronounce a key word must be an outsider, right?

I simply didn't recognize the proper British pronunciation. Our American version lacks the ell and, certainly, a bit of class. No matter how hard I try, though, I still can't bring myself to say it that way.

A "shibboleth" is a word that distinguishes an in-group from an out-group. The name comes from the Biblical story in Judges 12:4-6, wherein the Bad Guys said sibboleth instead of shibboleth. The Good Guys identified them by that sibilant and wiped them out en masse at the end of a rather nasty civil war.

Embedded systems folks deal with both hardware and software designs at a very detailed level. Those two very different worlds provide ample opportunity for making a complete fool of yourself by mispronouncing a shibboleth and, in fact, you can destroy your rep in both fields with a single sentence. In the spirit of April Fool's Day, let's examine a few of the myriad tech-world shibboleths.

Typography

Corporate names are carefully chosen to be equally meaningless in all languages. Throw clever typography into the mix and you cannot even figure out where to start.

Consider Avant!, which is obviously pronounced av-ant' with considerable emphasis. The company's actual name was Avanti, with the "i" stylized into something that resembled an exclamation mark, and pronounced av-an'-tee. Unfortunately, the weird typography wasn't used just in their logo, as Avant! appeared in plaintext printed material. Whatever happened to them, I cannot say, but their name lives on as a shining example of how not to be distinctive.

The reason Avant! sticks in my mind is that, a long time ago in a universe far away, I learned to drive in my grandfather's Studebaker President. The Studebaker Avanti, a style-forward design, was everything the President wasn't. It was also their corporate last gasp and, at least in my mind, every time I saw Avant! I recalled that old hulk.

Even plain letters can be confusing, as is the case with Inktomi, a company specializing in Internet searching technology. Perforce, I first saw their name online, in a browser far from the cutting edge of typography, displayed in Arial, a font that maps uppercase eye and lowercase ell into essentially the same glyph. Given Inktomi's corporate mission, I read link-to-me with both a trendy lowercase ell and a trendy missing vowel.

Wrong again. Inktomi is the Native American name for the spider avatar of Coyote, the Trickster God, and pronounced something like ink'-to-mee. It's obvious when you have the clue, but you won't find any on their web site.

Pop Quiz: Discuss the motivation for establishing a low-production-value web site at lnktomi.com with no relation to Inktomi.com. Extra credit: Explore web sites differing from one another by oh and zero, ell and eye and one, or possibly a gratuitously repeated letter.

Phonography

Trying to hold a technical conversation over the phone can be frustrating, as both programming and engineering depend on symbols without verbal equivalents. In fact, we must often pronounce punctuation.

Avant!'s naming committee probably never knew that a large subset of tech folks would adopt the old-time printers' pronunciation of "!" as bang. Would you want to work for a corporation called av-ant'-bang?

By now, even your parents know that "." isn't period, it's dot, as in dot-com, dot-NET, and dotted-quad. Unless, that is, you happen to be reading a decimal fraction, in which case it's point, as in ninety-eight-point-six, or working with sentence structure, where it's full-stop.

Along with dot-NET came another peculiarity: C#. We're told that it's see-sharp, evidently a learned borrowing from musical terminology. Giving an Internet-related language a name that popular search engines don't index seems suicidal, but that's the way it went down.

Long before Microsoft settled the # question, that mysterious symbol appeared under a variety of names. Octothorpe, my all-time favorite, appears only in unabridged dictionaries, but it's also hash, pound, or number. Yup, see-hash, that's the ticket.

Speaking of settled questions, you may have heard "?" pronounced in-ter'-oh-bang. This is incorrect, because an interrobang is an overlaid question mark and exclamation point: ?! You'll have some explaining to do, but it's certainly memorable. Start at http://www.interrobang-mks.com/ for more details.

The character shown as "/" is a virgule (vir'-gyool), but I can guarantee that nobody ever considered vir'-gyool point for that web site. It just doesn't roll trippingly off the tongue, does it?

The Greek letter m sees common use as the metric prefix signifying one-millionth of the base unit. While the letter itself is myoo, we all say meye-crow (with a long eye) for the prefix. Hardware engineers design with capacitors rated in mF (meye-crow fahr-ad) and inductors rated in mH (meye-crow hen-ree). Much of the embedded world revolves around microcontrollers and microprocessors, which are sometimes abbreviated mC and mP.

In the early days of integrated circuits, Fairchild confounded the publishing world by introducing ICs, then known as microcircuts, with part numbers prefixed by a "Mu". Their uA709 op amp was, by and large, the first practical op-amp, but, because manual typesetting was the rule for the late '60s, sticking a Greek letter into ASCII parts lists was simply impossible. Pretty nearly everyone said you-a-seven-oh-nine rather than myoo-a.

Microcontrollers are nothing without software and, eventually, you find you need something like an operating system. What's a snappy name for a microcontroller operating system? You might pick mC/OS and transliterate it into ASCII as MuC/OS in the knowledge that techies would automatically say something like myoo'-see-oh-ess or even micro-controller-oh-ess. Unfortunately, I know several folks, eminent techies all, who can't avoid seeing and saying myoo'-kose.

Techies make even plain ASCII letters do strange things. UNIX systems funnel their screen graphics through the X Window System. That's eks-window and often trimmed to just eks. So far, so good.

When Apple needed a name for the OS after nine-point-whatever, it picked OS X, which runs on, of all things, a BSD-ish UNIX foundation. Naturally, I made a complete fool of myself in front of a Mac fanatic by uttering oh-ess-eks. If you slur the last two syllables together, you'd get in even worse trouble than I did.

On the other hand, I simply cannot imagine anyone pronouncing the current version, OS X 10.3 as oh-ess-ten ten-point-three. Will the next major iteration be OS X 11, as in oh-ess-ten eleven?

Pop Quiz: Given that the UNIX underpinning of OS X includes the X11 graphics subsystem, read this sentence aloud: "X11 for Mac OS X is a complete X11R6.6 implementation corresponding to XFree86 4.3." See http://www.apple.com/macosx/ features/unix/, because I couldn't possibly write that with a straight face.

The Soft


Now that Linux is well on the way to world domination, many civilians fall into its linguistic traps. Let's start with the proper names: UNIX is you'-nix, Linux is lin'-uks, and Linus is lee'-nus. My authority here is an audio clip featuring Linus saying "My name is Linus Torvalds and I say Linux as Linux." Honest.

Configuration files generally reside in /etc, which obviously comes from "etc."-the common abbreviation for the Latin phrase et cetera meaning "other stuff" and pronounced et-set'-er-ah. That's entirely too many syllables for UNIX hackers, so it's et'-see.

Similarly, common library files reside in libe, with a long eye, not lib. Executable scripts and binary files reside in /bin, which is bine, except in the IBM AIX and Linux archipelago, where it's bin.

Even though Open Source and Free Software are not the same thing, they pose similar verbal challenges. The original recursive acronym GNU (GNU's Not Unix) has a hard g: g'-new. Much of the software accompanying the Linux kernel derives from the GNU project, to the extent that some folks prefer the name GNU/Linux. You may insert a holy war commentary here if you like.

The G in GNOME, even though it stands for GNU (GNU Network Object Management Environment) sounds slightly different: guh'-nome.

The GNUPLOT project has nothing to do with GNU software, so their G is silent: new'-plot. They say it's a nice two-way pun.

With that background, you should have no trouble saying GUI as goo'-ee, not g'-why or guh-way or, shudder, gee-you-eye. Right?

Obviously, JPEG is jay-peg, as is its Hebraic equivalent JPG, which makes both MPEG and MPG come out em-peg. MP3, being unpronounceable, is simply em-pee-three.

SQL seems to be ess-que-ell, with MySQL becoming meye-ess-que-ell. Saying skwell or see'-kwel or squir'-el means you won't get the job unless you've found a dialect haven. Just when you have that right, Microsoft's SQL Server seems to be, well, see'-kwell serv'-ur. Gotta be different!

Pop Quiz: Is GIF jiff or giff? Hint: Just because the acronym stands for Graphical Interchange Format, it might not be a hard G.

The Hard

The absolutely definitive EE shibboleth is "coax." Civilians say cokes, as in the plural of the sugary beverage, but double-Es invariably say co-aks, as in coaxial cable. Try it, it works every time.

Most hardware terms start out as acronyms and most acronyms start out as individual letters. If the acronym has (or can fake) a vowel or two, the capitalization vanishes and you get a word: RADAR was never spelled out.

To this day, though, bipolar transistors come in NPN and PNP flavors that remain letters: en-pee-en and pee-en-pee. Field-effect transistors, JFETs and MOSFETs, instantly became jay'-fets and mos'-fets.

Slap a bunch of transistors on a single silicon chip and you have an eye-see, but if you build an IC for a particular application, that Application-Specific IC is an ASIC and said ass'-ick.

The 8080 was simply the ate'-ee-ate'-ee and its support chips and descendants followed the same pattern. On the other side, Motorola 6800 microcontrollers were the six'-tee-ate-hun'-dred family. You can just tell they had nothing in common, can't you?

I once heard a secretary ask a friend about an ate-thousand-two-hundred-fifty-three part. It took us quite a while to figure out she meant an ate'-ee-two-fifty-three: 8253.

As part numbers grew to five figures, hardware folks blithely ignored the ambiguity of ate'-ee-ate'-ee-six meaning 8086 and ate'-ee-one-ate'-ee-six meaning 80186. The first "80" fell off the "286," at least in common usage, and eventually Intel stopped the clock with what would have been the 80586 by calling it the Pentium.

The Pentium series continued, first with suffixes (Pentium Pro), then with Roman numerals. Pentium III is obviously pen'-tee-um-three', although it was often abbreviated as pee-three. The possible pronunciations of PIV probably had something to do with the Pentium 4's Arabic designation.

Motorola CPUs followed a similar course, with the 68000 being the six'-tee-ate-kay.' Perhaps the difficulty of uttering names like 68030 (try it!) prompted a switch to Mcore, Coldfire, and their ilk for later designs.

Pop Quiz: Pronounce 360, 1802, 8x300, MC14500B, 2N2907. Extra Credit: AVR, PIC, RPM, CISC.

Reentry Checklist

Final Exam: Pronounce the English word "ghoti." Hints: enough, women, option.

Ganssle and Barr's Embedded Systems Dictionary (CMP Books, ISBN 1-57820-120-9) has some pronunciations. More are online at http://www.dictionary.com/. Microcontroller history is at http://www3.sk.sympatico.ca/jbayko/cpu.html.

A full dose of jargon lives in the Jargon File found all over the Internet, including http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/. The older flat-text version at http://www.ifla.org/documents/internet/jargon.htm has many entries that have fallen by the wayside.

The shibboleth story took place in 1100 BC at the end of the Bronze Age. The Good Guys had iron blades, the bad guys used bronze, and God, as usual, fought on the side with the better weaponry. By contemporary standards the incident would count as genocide, but that was then and this is now.

An ancestor a few generations back changed our surname from Nissley to Nisley, thereby making us the half-essed branch of the family. We say niss-lee, but everyone else favors nize-lee, spelled Nisely. A friend's kids have always called me Mr. nose-lee. As long as the checks clear, anything is fine with me.

Give up on that doggerel? Here's how engineers read it:

    e-to-the-eks dee-why dee-eks

    e-to-the-eks dee-eks

    see-cant tan-jent co-sine sine

    three-point-one-four-one-five-nine

    square-root cube-root sign-of-pie

    dis-in-te-grate them, dear lee-hi.

Give up on the Final Exam, too? Ghoti is pronounced fish.

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