The Words We Use Define Us

April 12, 2015

Did I tell you about “recalcitrant”?

Over a decade ago, I was having a conference call with Audible, I’d been working with them for a few weeks, maybe a month.

Small aside: Audible’s hold “music” is the audio book of Charlotte’s Web. I was always a little sad when a meeting actually started. LeapFrog had the second best hold music: children’s singalong songs… meetings often started with people trailing off their singing as the music cut off.

For this status meeting, I had three or four tasks and had not finished the highest priority one, instead finishing the others. I said that the tough one was being recalcitrant. I was hoping to avoid getting into the details because I knew there was a memory leak and that it was deep in the way the operating system works. I rapidly went on to the completed tasks so I portray it all very positively.

When I finished my spiel, one of the guys on the phone (who were all smart and exactly what you’d expect from Audible-before-bought-by-Amazon engineers)… one of the guys asked “what do you mean by recalcitrant?” so I went ahead and explained that I knew the symptoms and would figure it out soon. I apologized for not getting it done, I acknowledged it was the highest priority and I would get it done quickly. You know, I was really trying to be a professional. It was my first contract gig.

Same guy (name redacted to protect a super nice guy) said, “No, what do you mean by recalcitrant?”

There was a long pause, I didn’t know what he meant.

I mispronounce many, many words. I think all readers have this problem. Let’s just say “impugned” does not have a hard-g sound something I found that out a month or two ago when my husband near fell in the parking lot of the library as he was laughing too hard to see.

I was pretty sure: re-kal-si-trant. But knowing me, I went ahead and spelled it. And asked if I was saying it wrong. I was so embarrassed but I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t willing to learn from them. Same guy says “But what does it mean?”

Not sure if he was yanking my chain but too busy pretending to be professional to get annoyed, I said it meant that the code was being fussy.

He asked if “recalcitrant” meant “fussy” and so I clue in that he’s simply asking for a definition. And so I go into teacher mode (why?) and said, not exactly, that recalcitrant means uncooperative and copping an attitude. I start in on the etymology (aren’t etymologies the coolest thing?).

Then I remember that my goal was to give my status and shut up. So I eventually shut up. The Audible guy thanks me for a new vocabulary word and we finally move on to the next person’s status report.

I have always wondered what everyone else on that conference call thought of that whole adventure.