Choosing the Right Word
Laura in USSR

Laura in the USSR, 1991

Before I became a full-time online help developer, I was a tech writer. I did that for about 15 years, 18 if you count the years I was transitioning away from tech writing to online help. During those years, my job was to pick the right word every time. While my colleagues enjoyed calling me their resident Word Nerd or the Grammar Geek, I enjoyed trying to fit the right word in the right place. I considered those nicknames something of badges of honor.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t always this way. I started out my professional career as a research assistance. In other words, I did the research and writing, and an economist or biologist or engineer got to take credit. It wasn’t a bad job – I learned the mess out of topics like nuclear waste and then wrote about them. And that work eventually translated in to my career as a tech writer.

In 1994, while I was working as a contractor to the US Department of Energy, I traveled to Sandia National Labs in New Mexico to brief some scientists. I had a clearance – but not much of one; I had to be escorted everywhere.

The cool thing was that the hallway walls were covered with documents from the former Soviet Union: posters, letters, manuals. Even cooler: I spoke and read Russian fluently after having spent a year in the Soviet Union. I was there from 1990-1991 and left 6 months before the coup. When I left, I was often mistaken for a Pole or a Latvian because of a slight odd accent I had.

Anyway, as I’m being escorted through the halls of Sandia Labs, I’m seeing these docs and I’m slowing down to read them. It was really interesting stuff! I think I made some folks uncomfortable because I wasn’t supposed to be able to understand what was written on the docs.

Late in the trip, we were taken on a tour of some energy storage technologies. At one location, the main scientist was a Russian fellow. I was so excited because, at the time, I wanted to practice my Russian. So, I finally screwed up the courage to converse with him in his native tongue. He spoke excellent English – but I needed some practice.

When the tour was complete, I introduced myself to him again, this time in Russian, and began a conversation. He wanted to know where I learned my Russian, where I had worked while in the Soviet Union, and how long I’d been back. I was feeling all important because my English-speaking colleagues were standing there, impressed that I was going on in Russian with this guy. Yes, I was enjoying impressing them and yes, I was about to get my comeuppance. (I was young and hadn’t quite learned the value of humility.)

So, we’re chatting and walking and I was getting in to the groove after stumbling over words at the beginning. I wanted to tell him that I had always spoken (Russian) better than I had written it. When I said it, I noticed that he had this slight grin on his face…unusual because he wasn’t much of a smiler. I didn’t exactly dismiss the grin – but I didn’t understand the source of his amusement.

We say our goodbyes and are heading back to the hotel and I’m kind of doing an autopsy on my conversation. How did I do? What mistakes did I make? How was my accent? And I get to the part where I told him that I spoke better than I wrote and, suddenly, I realized my error. What an error it was!!!

In Russian, ‘to write’ is писать (or pee-SAHT) with accent on the 2nd syllable.

But if you move the accent to the first syllable, you get писать (PEE-saht), which is slang for to urinate.

So, instead of saying “I speak better than I write,” I said, “I speak better than I piss.”

I. Thought. I. Would. Die.

It was a super-tough lesson in humility that I will NEVER forget. In fact, I still feel the embarrassment almost twenty years later.

The other lesson of the story is simple: always choose the right word!

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