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Linguistics: Speaking of Space

published on: Time

America's leap into space has stimulated science and spawned new industries. It has also created a new idiom: space-speak. Many a scientist finds the growing, and sometimes incomprehensible jargon essential to the simplest conversation about new devices and techniques. But many a layman has become convinced that it is only one more irritating and unnecessary obstacle looming between him and a better grasp of scientific accomplishment. In a detailed analysis of space-speak for the magazine Science, University of Michigan Psychologist David McNeill suggests that there is something to be said for both points of view.
Creativity Limitation. Such space-speak metaphors as "umbilical" (the cord connecting a space-walking astronaut to his craft) and "milk stool" (the arrangement of a missile's three rocket engines) are vital additions to the language, says McNeill. He is equally impressed by such metonyms as "eyeballs in" and "eyeballs out" (describing extreme conditions of acceleration and deceleration, respectively), and he approves of neologisms such as "rockoon" (a rocket launched from a balloon). Unfortunately, metaphors, metonyms and neologisms—and the creativity required to invent them—are limited. They constitute only about one-eighth of the entries in official NASA diction aries of space terms.
Most of the remaining space jargon, according to McNeill's analysis, is made up of "nominal compounds"—words strung together endlessly in what scientists consider a logical order to describe complex devices or systems. Controlling the attitude of a ship by ejecting gas through nozzles, for instance, is called "nozzle gas ejection ship attitude control." The longest nominal compound discovered by McNeill appeared in the Congressional Record, and sounded as if it had been translated literally from the German: "liquid oxygen liquid hydrogen rocket powered single stage to orbit reversible boost system."
Such unwieldy compounds, McNeill says, constitute 19% of all the words in written NASA reports—substantially more than he found, for example, in papers by psychologists (8%) or in articles by educators (3%). But they are also used extensively by non-space scientists, "apparently to meet the common need for technical terms in greater numbers than metaphors, metonyms or neologisms can supply."
Possessive Pretension. On the other hand, McNeill stresses, the compound is often used to extremes, especially by those who pretend to possess a degree of technical knowledge that they do not have. Establishing a "pretension index" based on the length of nominal compounds and their frequency of use, he discovered that in their speeches, members of Congress were even more compound-conscious than NASA engineers. A space-technology magazine was a worse offender. It printed 300% more six-word compounds than did written NASA reports.
Even the engineering mind has begun to boggle at the profusion of space-speak—which explains the reduction of some complex nominal compounds to straightforward acronyms. "Augmented target docking adapter" has become ATDA, "astronaut maneuvering unit" is known as AMU, and the "electronic ground automatic destruct sequencer" —used to blow up missiles that have gone astray—is known simply as EGADS.
More detailed study of space-age jargon would be beneficial, McNeill feels, and his report must be considered only preliminary. "But we can conclude," he says, "that the following statement is probably true: Space-speak is an engineering technology concept expression manuscript sentence grammar device."

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