French radio stumbles over podcasting

French radio presenters have a problem with podcasting -- but it's nothing to do with technology, bandwidth or copyright.

No, the problem they have is with the word itself. Podcasting, you see, isn't French.

Defending the language from foreign invasion is something of a cause celebre in France, it has to be said, but the disdain for podcasting is not about national pride: it's about being understood. If listeners can't tell what they're being offered, they're unlikely to head for the station's Web site to subscribe to new feeds.

Although the arrival of podcasting in the French language is something of a fait accompli, that didn't stop the French government from passing a decree in March to encourage the use of an alternative term: "la diffusion pour baladeur." Baladeur is French for portable music player, and spares the French from erroneously referring to any such device as an "iPod" or "Walkman," regardless of the actual brand, as native English speakers tend to do.

In some ways, "diffusion pour baladeur" makes more sense than the English word, and it lends itself quite well to other grammatical forms such as a podcast (une diffusion pour baladeur) or to podcast ("diffuser pour baladeur"). It might even catch on, as the government-mandated term for e-mail ("courriel", from "courrier," mail, and "electronique," electronic) has done.

The French government doesn't just pluck new words like that out of thin air. The words are created by a panel of industrialists and savants, either from scratch or based on observations of evolving usage. The Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industry has set up a Special Commission on Terminology and Neologisms in Electronic Communications to carry out such work. There are similar commissions for other domains, including computing, petrochemicals and medicine.

One of the reasons these panels exist is to ensure that everyone bidding for public works contracts calls a spade a spade, and not, for example, a human-powered hand-held digging implement. The consistent use of terminology is important to avoid misunderstandings that might lead to cost overruns.

I learned all this when I was invited to observe one of the commission's gatherings last week.

In a rather grand meeting room on the seventh floor of the ministry, overlooking the River Seine, about 30 English and French speakers sat down to exchange a few words over lunch.

The goal of the meeting was to discuss a number of new terms that the commission was considering, including "cercle de confiance" (circle of trust), "espace de confiance" (trusted environment) and "maitrise de l'archivage" (records management), all of which met with near-unanimous approval.

However, somewhere between the entree and dessert, discussion turned to "pharming," and it became apparent that some of those present just didn't get it.

"So how is this different from hacking?" asked one, while another wanted to know where the word came from.

Well, gentle reader, how would you explain?

I drew an analogy between robbing a bank by cutting a hole in the wall (hacking) and getting people to deposit their money in a fake bank by changing the signs in the street (pharming). That comforted them in their choice of translation, "usurpation de serveur" or server usurpation, but did nothing to explain the origin of the word, which in my dictionary is defined as the production of human pharmaceuticals in farm animals.

I have a feeling, though, that the curious spelling of pharming has the same origins as that of "phishing": the deliberate mistyping of certain words by the hacking community. You too can join them by substituting ph for f, 0 for O, 1 for L, 3 for E, 4 for A, 7 for T and peppering your dialogue with terms like "leet" (elite) and n00b (beginner).

Foreigners are apt to laugh at the French Academy for their belief that a language can be controlled by decree, but when the alternative is a linguistic abomination like pharming, whose etymology leaves no clue as to its intended meaning, I have to say I'm in favor of the French dirigiste method.

If we let pharming into the English dictionary in this new meaning, then I fear that we will be on the brink of a slippery slope, at the bottom of which security consultants try desperately to patch systems while elite French hackers, better educated because they are able to understand their correctly spelled technical documentation, run rings around them.

But how will they taunt their targets? One thing's for sure, they won't say: "Ph34r m3, 4 I M 1337."

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