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What's in a word?

February 24, 2010

I would be interested in your opinions on the topic but the following headline certainly seems like a glaring grammatical faux pas to me…


Unless I'm mistaken, the correct word here should have been ratchet; not ratch. Full disclosure - I was a bit more outraged until I went running for my dictionary and learned that perhaps the linguistical sin is a tad less egregious than I'd originally thought. It turns out that "ratch" is synonymous with "ratchet" - but only as a noun which allowed me to preserve some degree of smugness.

For engineers (and mechanics) ratchet is a pretty evocative word. A ratchet is, of course, a mechanical device consisting of a toothed wheel or rack engaged with a pawl that permits it to move in only one direction". Unlike ratch (which frankly I'd never even heard before), ratchet can be used a verb. Thus telling someone to "ratchet it up" conveys (to me anyway) exerting some degree of force which results in a significant "step" in your position - be it a car with a flat tire or a hockey team with the collective weight of its country's expectations behind it. As near as I can figure, telling someone to "ratch" it up is meaningless although it certainly sounds like some catchy new slang for nausea. So that's what kids call it these days???

For engineers (and mechanics) ratchet is a pretty evocative word.

The linguistic world is full of words and phrases that are either derived or at the very least illuminated by their technical context. In mechanics, STRESS means exerting force on an object whereas STRAIN is the change in shape or size that occurs as a result. Likewise in tough professional situations I can be under stress, and therefore likely to be showing strain. 

 The brilliant 17th century British scientist Robert Hooke hooke experimentally derived that within a certain range, strain is directly   proportional to stress after which all hell can break loose. I've empirically observed that in both my design work and   occasionally my own behavior. Hey, nothing personal - it's just physics.

  My electrical engineering friends know that resistance doesn't mean they're being obstinate - just that they're obeying  Ohm's law. Knowledge may be power but that's just energy per unit of time… We may live for the moment but only if our  force is applied though an appropriate radius. OK… so maybe that's getting a bit obtuse but just because it's greater than 90 degrees… the fun goes on and on.

So come on people… let's pay attention to our technical grammar and ratchet it up a notch ok? Errors like the one above really make me want to ratch.