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Words at work: A second language

Ralph De La Cruz
Lifestyle Columnist

January 21, 2007

Mim Harrison and I understand each other. We both hate widows and orphans. No, not the grieving and the alone. Widows and orphans are terms used in the print business to describe a line at the beginning or end of a paragraph containing a single word. Like that.Harrison is as familiar with them as I am. She works for Delray Beach high-end retailer Levenger as the founding editor of its book division. And she's a writer.

Appropriate then that when Harrison decided to write her first book (published, not by Levenger but highly respected Walker Publishing), the subject was words. Specifically, those workplace words that define us as employees.

Harrison calls them "professionspeak."

You know, the shorthand used by folks to make communicating on the job easier.

"86 the eggs," is an example of professionspeak you may have heard at a diner. "86" referring to canceling, or killing, the order.

In my business, we've got grafs, ledes and kickers. Not to speak of the aforementioned widows.

Every job I've ever had, from dishwasher (otherwise known as the "Hobart" in restaurants), to child-care worker (an entire world of acronyms -- the therapy, for instance was based on PPC, or positive peer culture) had its own shorthand. Even carpentry has biscuits, dovetails and thresholds.

OK, there might have been one exception. I don't seem to remember any phrases linked to ditch digging. Other than "the heat's melting my brain."

Harrison, who obviously has a finely tuned writer's ear, has been picking up the nuances of work language for years.

"When you're a word person and a writer, you're a natural eavesdropper," she says.

A year and a half ago, she decided to put it all together in a book called Words At Work.

"We're told over and over that we live in a homogenous society because we all eat at McDonald's," Harrison said. "But we're not so homogenous -- at least partially because of the regional differences in language."

And in a culture where everybody seems to spend eight to 12 hours a day at their jobs, the workplace has become its own linguistic nation with hundreds of unique dialects.

"If you work at a job, you do speak another language," Harrison said. "No one is really monolingual in this country."

Harrison started with the most obvious, the ones we all think we know: restaurateurs, hoteliers, airline pilots, retailers. She goes beyond the easily recognizable terms and offers insight and background to familiar phrases. But if that was all there was to the book, it would get old quick.

Harrison also throws in unusual jobs such as television promo producers, venture capitalists, microbiologists, magicians. And in a truly inspired act, placed perfume maker alongside waste manager (as in garbage collector).

Once Harrison knew which jobs she'd include, she started researching and interviewing.

"My initial question was, `Tell me some unusual words you use in your job,'" she said. "And I got these deer-in-the-headlights looks. To them, the words weren't unusual. Then, I asked them to tell me about a day at work. And the words just started popping up."

Harrison became partial to the magicians', "You're the stick in my trick," the perfume makers' "Whose your nose?" and waste managers' "incidental to the load."

"Incidental to the load -- that's just such a great metaphorical expression for so many other things," she said.

"So," I asked Harrison, "if we're defined by regional differences, can a place like Florida -- where everybody's from someplace else -- claim to have its own language?"

"We've got the word `tag' for license plate," Harrison said. "I had never heard that anywhere else. And oh yeah. Using `air' as short for air conditioning.

"It's so necessary here, we don't waste another word on it."

Ralph De La Cruz can be reached at or 954-356-4727.

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