Sunday, August 31, 2008

Word of the Week: flexicurity

Flexicurity appeared in a column by Carol Goar in the Toronto Star on Friday, August 29, 2008. I found the word intriguing and her comments and commentary quite interesting -- so rather than add my own two cents, I recommend you read her column.

One thing I will add, however, is that -- out of curiosity -- I checked Word Spy to see whether they have caught the word. Remember, Word Spy is dedicated to defining terms that have appeared in newspapers and magazines. I was surprised to see that flexicurity goes back to at an Associated Press article from 1997!

Here's how it's defined in Word Spy: flexicurity n. Labor practices that give companies the flexibility to fire workers as needed and offer fired workers the security of government-backed benefits and retraining opportunities. —adj. [Blend of flexibility and security.]

So -- though I agree with Ms. Goar that it's faintly Orwellian, I suspect that in months and years to come, flexicurity will catch on -- both as a word, and as a labour policy.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just because you can

As a communications consultant, I realize good communication isn’t just about words. How a document looks has an impact on how the information is received. To me, the best projects are ones where the text and design work together to create a document that’s both useful and compelling.

The ability to “PDF” (which stands for Portable Document Format) documents has gained popularity over the past five years and many companies and organizations have found “PDFing” documents an easy way to put information up on their web sites.

One of the main features of PDF is that it allows you to append the document in a way that reproduces the formatting, layout, and colours of the original. And, with the right software (Adobe is the most common), users can see the document in its original splendor and, theoretically, print it for themselves, if they want.

I used the adverb “theoretically” because on at least two occasions recently, I printed out PDF documents I downloaded from the Internet and, when I retrieved them from the printer, I was irritated to find that they didn’t print right – somehow a bunch of text got cut off. After trying again with the same result, I looked more closely at the print dialog box and noticed that the document was formatted for oversize paper (81/2” x 14” in one case and something even bigger in the other case).

In both cases, I'm sure the original documents were made and printed for handing out to customers and clients. The documents were lovely to look at and the organizations no doubt thought they were just making the most by putting the documents (brochures in both cases) up on their web site. Unfortunately, they never gave any thought to how readers might use the PDF version. (I’m sure I’m not the only person who prints things off.)

So, my advice is simple: while attaching PDF documents to your web site is a great way of maintaining the look of the document, remember that there'll be readers who will print the information and chances are they will be using standard paper. So, if the PDF document doesn’t print well on standard paper, rather than doing your audience a service by providing the information, you’ll end up just irritating folks.

In other words, don’t just PDF because you can. Be mindful of the way people use PDF documents and consider re-formatting them if necessary to make them printer friendly.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Word of the Week: twee

It's not often that I come across a word on the front page of a major daily newspaper that I've never seen or heard -- but it happened this morning when I read the first sentence in an article about an on-going battle that has raged this summer on the shores of Georgian Bay. Here's the lead in a Toronto Star article by Murray Whyte:

"BALM BEACH, ONT. -- Idyllic and twee, this little lakeside hamlet, complete with a shabby arcade featuring a menu of greasy summertime delights, would seem the unlikeliest place to be pondering its own version of martial law. But here in the Township of Tiny, on the shores of Georgian Bay, desperate times call for desperate measures."

I know what you're thinking -- Township of Tiny? Well, it's true -- that's the name of the township where Balm Beach, the beach the story's about, is located. But that's not what snagged me.

What tripped me up was "twee". So naturally, I had to look it up. Here's what it means, according to "chiefly British : affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint".

I could have guessed it was "chiefly British" (could there have been any doubt?). But even so, I felt like a bit of an illiterate (it was, after all, a word on the front page of the paper) -- until, that is, I read the etymology. According to, it is a "baby-talk alteration of sweet". Well, that makes me feel better -- no reason any of us with non-British parents would have been subjected to such excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint a word.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Word of the Week: parse

Parse isn't a word I use, but when I hear it, I usually feel pretty confident that I “get” what it means. That’s certainly how I felt when Andrew Bacevich used it in an interview on Bill Moyers Journal the other day. Here’s the sentence (from the transcript of that interview) in which he used it:

“Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected.”

From the way he used it I figured it has to do with pulling apart every sentence to try to figure out what the speaker means. (Not a huge intellectual challenge figuring it out from what Bacevich said, I know!)

Though I was confident I had the gist of the meaning, I decide to look it up. Indeed, the second meaning (for the transitive verb), according to, was bang on: “2: to examine in a minute way: analyze critically”.

But what I found interesting was the first definition (for the transitive verb): “1a : to resolve (as a sentence) into component parts of speech and describe them grammatically b: to describe grammatically by stating the part of speech and explaining the inflection and syntactical relationship”. So, my assumption about it having to do with pulling apart every sentence was correct, but I didn’t realize it meant doing so in terms of parts of speech.

I’m guessing, but I suspect Bacevich is of the generation that was taught how to diagram a sentence -- so he probably could parse a sentence into its parts of speech. Unfortunately, many of us never learned how to do that. (I think I had a substitute teacher who tried to teach us, but it wasn’t a normal part of our curriculum -- and I'm pretty sure it hasn’t been for some time.) That’s a pity, I think…

I guess the only kind of parsing most of us will ever do is the kind described in the second definition.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Word of the Week: deadline

This week's word is a reflection of my mood, and the fact that many of my clients have had me “on hold” the past few weeks. All I can figure is that they don't seem to know what deadline means -- or maybe they don't realize that deadline means the same thing when applied to something they're suppose to send me as when they expect something from me.

Anyway, in light of this, I thought I'd make deadline my word of the week to suggest to that it update its definition.

Here’s how they (currently) define it:

1: a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot 2 a: a date or time before which something must be done;b: the time after which copy is not accepted for a particular issue of a publication.

I think they should add this as a third entry: A date or time something is due, or promised, but not delivered by.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Black backgrounds

I’ve always preferred serif fonts -- things like Times New Roman and Courier -- and I try to encourage my clients to use them. These days, I’d say more of my clients use sans serif fonts (like Arial), so pushing serif fonts is an uphill battle. (I recently had one client demand use of Verdana, a font that I wasn’t familiar with. When I asked why they wanted Verdana I was told it is the font the company adopted for its web site, but my client didn’t know why. Interestingly, since then I read somewhere else that Verdana was specifically created for web text, so I guess greater minds than mine have decided that.)

Anyway, having given up the battle for serif fonts, lately I’ve taken up a new cause: fighting against using black backgrounds and white (or, worse yet, yellow!) text on web sites. I’ve come across a number of sites with black backgrounds lately and they drive me crazy because they are very hard to read. I don’t want to name any sites here (but if you drop me an e-mail, I’ll give you an example), but I’m sure you’ve seen some yourself.

Please -- however boring it may seem -- stick to white, or light coloured, backgrounds with dark coloured text. Your readers will thank you. (Actually, that’s a lie. Your readers will not thank you if you use a white background because they won’t notice it. But believe me, they will notice -- and be very frustrated -- if you use a hard-to-read dark background with white text.)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Word of the Week: Cuil

Those of you who’ve been paying attention to the news the past few days will have seen this word. It’s the name of a Internet search engine that debuted this week. I first saw a reference to it in the letters section of the Toronto Star. I hadn’t seen the original news story to which readers were responding, but I gathered from the letters that this is some new search engine that was/is hoping to go head-to-head with Google.

What I didn’t know when I read the letters was how to pronounce it. As a result, in my mind, I “heard” it as separate letters: C-U-I-L. (In other words, I didn’t sound it out.) Well, since then, I’ve seen/heard more news stories about it and I've learned that apparently it’s pronounced “cool”. A cute (if annoying) play on words, I thought.

Well, before sitting down to write this, I thought I better look it up, just in case it’s really a word. (Or very similar to, or inspired by, a real word – kind of the way Google is – arguably – inspired by: googol, which (according to is the figure 1 followed by 100 zeros equal to 10100.) As I suspected, Cuil is not listed as a word on (Interestingly, as of today, it’s not listed on WordSpy either.)

Curious about this new word and new search engine, I went on to see whether it explained the genesis of the name. According to them, “Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge.” Not having access to an old Irish dictionary, I couldn’t verify this claim – but it certainly sound impressive.

Anyway, for the time being, Cuil isn't a word I’ll be using. But, my guess is Cuil will probably make it into common parlance sooner than we think. (Given the initial reviews and commentary about the search engine, Cuil could become the 21st century equivalent of the Edsel, but I hope not.)