Microspeak: Calibration


Today's Microspeak is the word calibration. It used to mean the act of adjusting a piece of measuring equipment against a known standard so that it can perform its job accurately. For example, before reading student essays, I go through a calibration exercise, wherein all the readers are given a handful of essays of varying quality and discuss what grade each one deserves so that our scores will be consistent with each other.†

And then I see the word used in a way that convinces me that I don't know what it means any more. Consider this sentence:

I would like to get calibration on that individual from those who know him.

How do you "get calibration"? What is this person trying to say, and why won't he use plain English?

Nitpicker's corner

†s/consistent/more consistent/. Obviously, since there is a human element involved, the scores cannot be absolutely consistent.

There is nothing wrong with your television set.
Do not attempt to adjust the picture. ...
We will control the horizontal.
We will control the vertical.
- The Outer Limits
Comments (38)
  1. frankchn says:

    Get calibration [data], or rather get to know the personality of the person based on others’ assessments.

    As to why he won’t use plain English? Well, its Microsoft and its Microspeak after all.

  2. Adam says:

    "Ford was beginning to behave rather strangely, or rather not actually beginning to behave strangely but beginning to behave in a way that was strangely different from the other strange ways in which he more regularly behaved."

     — Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe, and Everything

    If you did not "get calibration on" Ford Prefect before meeting him, how would you know which behaviour is in-character, and which is out-of-character for him? How could you tell if he was behaving in a way that was strangely different from the other strange ways in which he more regularly behaved?

    I guess the plain English equivalent might be "Just how much of an oddball is the person I’m about to meet?", which might be considered impolite by some.

    Then again, it could just be management-speak mumbo-jumbo. ;)

  3. Nathan says:

    So what if the person is out of calibration ? Are they then sent off for re-calibration ? I mean, that’s a short step away from reeducation … Gulag indeed ;)

  4. dave says:

    Maybe "get calibrated" was meant instead of "get calibration" ?

    It’s the measuring instrument which needs to be calibrated, not the thing being measured. I suppose Raymond’s "calibration exercise" with the student essays results in Raymond being calibrated.

    Agree on the observation about the speaker not speaking English, though.

  5. richard says:

    I interpret it as meaning, "Fill me in on this person."

    I have seen the expression before and thought it was horrible.

  6. Steve Hazel says:

    So is this a 7th grader you’re talkin’ bout?

    Or a microsoft PM?

    My guess would have to be PM…

    At least that’s my guess based on the PMs at this place.

    If I hear the term "reach out" ONE MORE TIME today, well, i might go postal…

    That’s all I’m sayin’

  7. mikeb says:

    "I would like to get calibration on that individual from those who know him."

    It actually sounds kind of creepy.  I hope that this was from a non-native speaker, but I suppose Raymond would not have commented if that were the case.

  8. marijane says:

    Maybe this person has studied and is misusing concepts from neuro-linguistic programming?  In NLP, "calibrate" refers to the ability to read people.

  9. Ian says:

    "Get calibration!" would fit nicely in this speech bubble…

    http://www.lichtensteinfoundation.org/torpedolos.htm

  10. sergio says:

    Thanks, marijane! I believe your’re right.

    http://www.altfeld.com/mastery/geninfo/wr-developcalib.html

    http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=calibration

    Sentencies like that are exactly what’s expected from the victims of NLP:

    "NLP – training’s shameful, fraudulent cult"

    http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2006/11/nlp-trainings-shameful-fraudulent-cult.html

  11. Aaron says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard calibration used in this context but it seems to match the definition you use:

    “It used to mean the act of adjusting a piece of measuring equipment against a known standard so that it can perform its job accurately.”

    In this example:

    ‘I would like to get calibration on that individual from those who know him.’

    The “measuring equipment” is the person speaking, and the “known standard” is the opinion of others who know the target subject well.  Of course the statement is vague as it does not indicate what exact dimension is being measured (personality? performance/skill? maximum dead weight lift?).  I’m assuming that information is made known in the context the statement was made.

    [Even so, “get calibration” seems a strange way of expressing it. Wouldn’t it be better phrased as “I would like to be calibrated on that individual”? -Raymond]
  12. Dave says:

    You’ve already mentioned my all-time anti-favorite: using "ask" as a noun (http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2004/01/07/48304.aspx).

    But one I hear more and more these days is using "factory" as a verb. It clearly comes from using class factories to instantiate some object, but I keep hearing that some component is going to "factory some object". It is starting to approach "what are our asks?" on the annoyance scale.

  13. Geoff says:

    This is just someone trying to use a word in a context that it is not normally used in. To me it isn’t a particularly good fit. But then using the word "cool" to mean something is good is worse. (I cringe when I use the word cool, but most times it just pops out. Bleah!)

    In my mind people do this because they have a rather poor vocabulary. It’s synonymous with people using the F word every other word. They can’t think of any other adverb so they chuck in the F bomb. This is especially true in kids. (Teenagers as opposed to little kids.) The scary thing is a lot of the shows on Cartoon Network use some decent vocabulary words. Maybe hearing big words isn’t enough, you have to read them to get them to sink in?

  14. Stephen Jones says:

    "Get calibration" has a total of nearly 10,000 Google hits; the first fifty or so all refer to it in the technical sense Raymond, and most other  people, think is appropriate. I presume this is a case of people extending the language of their field to more general subjects; happens all the time. One of the reasons for this is often that people want to use language to set themselves apart as a group. As outsiders we can’t tell if that is the case, but if Raymond knows the people he can judge if this is the case here.

  15. ::Wendy:: says:

    at least they are perpetuatingn the use of interesting words with multiple syllibles and layering the meanings by extending them to enable opportunities for new puns and general comedy action,  which is what microsoft is about,  isn’t it?  It’s why I use their software,  for a laugh and a giggle over a cuppa.

  16. Daniel Garlans says:

    The term “Get calibration on” is such a twisted and tortured instance of the use of language, but I can’t for the life of me think of a better word to use in that context without completely rewriting the sentence into something much bigger.

    I suppose in some senses it works, because it actually uses the real meaning of the word in the appropriate context, but it’s just terrible sounding.

    How else would you write it?

    “I would like to establish the general consensus on this individual, so I can see how his recent behavior relates to his norms?”…

    “I would like to know the general feelings on this individual” …

    “I would like to learn about your observations on this person”…

    All of those are close, but they don’t seem to carry quite the same meanings as “calibration” does… talking about calibration automatically brings into mind wanting to know the norms and regular behaviors and standard actions, and also implying some sort of comparison in process.

    It still sounds bad though :(

    [“How else would you write it?” To do that, I first have to figure out what the speaker meant. My guess is “What do people who know this individual think of him?” assuming that’s what the speaker meant by “calibration.” -Raymond]
  17. mike says:

    "get calibration" == "get an assessment"

  18. En Zee Danger says:

    I wonder if the (distasteful) practice of extending familiar words into new grammatical use as technical-sounding jargon is a tendency encouraged by the spread of actual technical jargon throughout life.  Programmers and other wizards are often heard using familiar words in new ways… which actually mean something to other programmers. Why not every idiot who has to run a meeting?  Personally if I’m stretching a word to fill a grammatical hole, I’ll usually emphasize the made up nature of the word by adding a silly suffix… as in, I don’t ‘grammar’ words, I grammarifisize them…

    Or refer back to the elegant simplicity of "Verbing weirds language".

  19. Charlie Tangora says:

    When my father worked at Aerospace Corp., he says they’d refer to "calibrating" a new employee. What they meant was giving him a few assignments to find out what he meant by "I’ll have it done in a few days" – did that mean a few hours or a few weeks? (I’m sure we’ve all known engineers on either end of the spectrum.)

  20. Uh, I forgot.... says:

    This is also new HR dept. speak. At the rather large company where I work, I am now "calibrated" rather than "ranked" in relation to my peers.

    But MS has my most hated expression that has unfortunately leaked its way into our organization through email and other communications with MS. That expression is "What’s your ask?"

    Uh, excuse me. Ask is a verb. Waddaya want? What are your requirements? What would you like from us? Pretty much any one of these phrases is more useful.

  21. dave says:

    I’ve used "normalize" to mean almost the same thing.

    If somebody is behaving around me in a way that seems noteworthy, before I decide that it actually *is* noteworthy I try to get enough information about how they behave around other people to normalize what I’m seeing.  It’d be quite reasonable to describe this as calibrating my expectations.

    (Though using "get calibration on" to describe it does seem to be rather too far in the direction of being gratuitiously incorrect.)

  22. Nick Lamb says:

    "Just what is the deal with the University College London, one of the foremost universities in the West, having popup ads on their site?"

    The university didn’t insert that popup, but the owner of that specific page is using a cheap 3rd party web stats service, and the 3rd party is making money on the side by inserting the adverts.

    The Same Origin rule (or its equivalent depending your choice of vendor) in the browser protects the university site from the 3rd party site’s javascript, so the 3rd party can’t obtain a user’s university login credentials or access parts of their site which aren’t public. But as you can see that doesn’t prevent other types of mischief.

  23. Cooney says:

    I hope that this was from a non-native speaker, but I suppose Raymond would not have commented if that were the case.

    Of course it’s a non-native speaker, or rather he isn’t speaking English. He’s speaking Lower Redmondese.

    But MS has my most hated expression that has unfortunately leaked its way into our organization through email and other communications with MS. That expression is "What’s your ask?"

    Wow, that just invites snark.

    Or refer back to the elegant simplicity of "Verbing weirds language".

    found with google:

    Hey Dad, know what I figured out? The meaning of words isn’t a fixed thing! Any word can mean anything! By giving words new meanings, ordinary English can become an exclusionary code! Two generations can be divided by the same language! To that end, I’ll be inventing some new definitions for common words. So we’ll be unable to communicate. Don’t you think that’s totally spam? It’s lubricated! Well, I’m phasing. Marvy. Fab. Far our.

  24. codekaizen says:

    It is English – just not Standard English.

    http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/standard.htm *

    Here’s my favorite quote from these linguists:

      Standard English is a dialect which is

      socially superior to other dialects but

      structurally inferior.

    It’s why dialects, jargon and DSL’s emerge: a general purpose language is just less efficient at encoding meaning.

    I’m sure you’ve had no trouble with other words and phrases created, co-opted or rearranged, or strict grammar suspended, to convey meaning with a higher signal-to-noise ratio once appropriately decoded… just observe, and reflect about your own daily usage.

    * Just what is the deal with the University College London, one of the foremost universities in the West, having popup ads on their site?

  25. DriverDude says:

    How many people will know what the speaker wanted, had he asked for the 411 on somebody?

    OT… whenever I see a name like "Aerospace Corp.," I always wonder if that is a real company or a generic reference for a big defense contractor – as opposed to "aerospace corp" which obviously is a generic reference to a small defense contractor.

  26. An Anonymous Reader says:

    The person meant "collaboration" and either mispronounced the word or was misheard.

    See also d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y.com

  27. Norman Diamond says:

    all the readers are given a handful of essays

    of varying quality and discuss what grade

    each one deserves so that our scores will be

    consistent with each other

    Nope.  Even if that brings in a bit of consistency, it’s not going to bring a lot.

    For comparison, some judges spend decades learning to be consistent with precedents, successful ones get promoted, and sometimes they end up in courts where 9 or some other number of judges hear cases together.  Yet we frequently read about cases where their decisions are non-unanimous.

    We will control the horizontal.

    We will control the vertical.

    I thought that part was the Microspeak.

  28. Dean Harding says:

    For comparison, some judges

    I can’t believe you just compared people who are marking 7th grader’s essays with Court of Appeals judges…

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007 10:03 PM by Norman Diamond

    Oh wait, now I get it…

  29. Will says:

    Oh, this is quite simple.

    The person quoted was obviously referring to the read-only Calibration property on the Person class – thus get Calibration.

    It may also take an optional parameter of another Person class instance.

    In this case, instead of returning an absolute Calibration value, it will return a relative Calibration value compared to the passed-in Person instance.

    See? Quite simple.

    *ahem*

  30. Norman Diamond says:

    I can’t believe you just compared people who

    are marking 7th grader’s essays with Court of

    Appeals judges…

    The point was to show that even if the consistency training were magnified by several orders of magnitude it still would not bring consistency.  I can’t believe you missed the point.

    Wednesday, March 28, 2007 12:25 AM by Dean Harding

    Oh sorry, yes I can believe you missed the point.

  31. dislyxec says:

    I love nitpicker’s corner. It manages to get funnier every time!

    Soon, nitpicker’s corner is going to have to define every word. some help to get ya started…

    "… are given a handful* of essays …"

    "so that our scores** will be consistent"

    *not literally a handful. My hand could actually carry more.

    **the scores we give to each paper, since we didn’t write the papers.

  32. Dewi Morgan says:

    I found a way to guarantee consistency!

    You all fail.

  33. Cooney says:

    Nice. I just found a searchable text archive of all the C&H comics. I swear, one day, Bill Waterson will have a religion.

  34. Dewi Morgan says:

    I’ve always imagined that people come up with these things tongue in cheek, because lightly messing with language is fun, so long as people know your seriousity levels are low. If it weren’t for this habit, the jargon file would be awfully slim.

    But then I imagine low-clue people hearing these plays, and thinking to themselves "aha, so this is what the cognoscenti are using now!" and then commit the cardinal sin of using these constructions in all seriousness.

    Or maybe I’m just being too generous, and people genuinely make them up because they are retarded.

    Still – just because there are idiots, does not mean that their behaviour shoul put us off playing.

    So, I intend that next time someone asks me an unintelligible question, I shall reply with "could you provision me a calibrate on this ask?"

  35. Mr. Cranky says:

    There are hordes of corporate types that have virtually no creativity nor much in the way of intelligence.  These people are easily identified by their constant overuse of any new cliche or cant phrase, generally with little regard for its actual meaning (which they probably don’t know).  I find them mostly in upper management and of course, sales and marketing.  The worst offenders are youngish sychophants.  

    I think it’s clearly different from those (like politicians) who are often trying very hard to be obscure.

  36. Stephen Jones says:

    ——The point was to show that even if the consistency training were magnified by several orders of magnitude it still would not bring consistency.  I can’t believe you missed the point."——-

    Possibly because comparing apples to oranges is not a very good way of getting your point across.

    Consistency is of course not an absolute. In the UK for most externally moderated exams, where the type of questions require subjective marking, it is common to have training sessions. This is true both of the internal English and Welsh GCSE and A level exams, as well as the external FCE, CPE and IELTS exams. Generally speaking the training sessions take place over one or two weekends, there are often refresher courses every three or four years, and it is impossible to become an examiner without doing one. Does this ensure that two separate examinerrs will give the same mark? Of course not (after all there would be no need for an appeals system if it did), but it does ensure that there are not normally grave discrepancies..

    If you wanted a slightly more relevant judicial example you could look at sentencing guidelines.

  37. NickN says:

    It’s sloppy english for a calibration report. A calibration report is the document that results from calibrating an instrument against a reference standard. The instrument is adjusted as far as possible, but the report also includes the measurement of deviation of the adjusted instrument from the reference.

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