YHABFT: The Danger of Insider Euphemisms: “Shooting the Puppy” Edition

I’ve noticed that business people and engineers tend to use a lot of jargon and insider euphemisms in their conversations, sometimes with rather humorous results. I had a recent example occur that was too funny not to share (but too long for Twitter).

Back at the end of 2011, my startup hit a really bad dry spell with no contracts for about 6 months, and we were really close to running completely out of money. I went to ask a local space entrepreneur for some advice, and he he used the analogy of “shooting the puppy,” to metaphorically describe the painful decision of whether it would be more prudent to shut a company down intentionally and mercifully rather than letting it die slowly and painfully. Fortunately, we decided not to “shoot the puppy” in this case, and a few months later landed two contracts with the DARPA Phoenix program. Ever since then though, we started using the phrase “shoot the puppy” as a euphemism for making a tough business decision to end some project we were emotionally attached to.

Which brings me to the humorous situation. I was recently talking on the phone with a colleague who was flying back from a business trip. He was going to help me with some artwork for a long-shot proposal that I was really excited to bid on. Unfortunately, we ran into some snags and I was starting to wonder whether it would be more prudent to “shoot the puppy” and focus on finishing up a few other proposals instead that I felt were more likely to win even if they weren’t as big and awesome. I still needed one key data piece before I could make that decision, so I told him that I’d figure out whether or not I was going to shoot the puppy. You know how sometimes when you’re talking on the phone you can start speaking rather more loudly than you would otherwise intend? Well my friend was in that mode when says something to the effect of “Ok, cool. Go and figure out if you’re going to shoot the puppy. But let me know what you decide. It’s probably better for me if you shoot the puppy, but let me know one way or another.”

Mind you, he’s saying this loudly in the gate area of a major international airport waiting for his flight. I can only imagine what sort of sociopath the people sitting around him must have thought he was. Fortunately, nothing worse happened than him being really embarrassed when I pointed out that that euphemism probably wasn’t the best one to use in a public place where people don’t know the context. But it just goes to show that we should probably be more careful about our euphemisms and jargon, and try to think about how they might sound to the uninitiated.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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8 Responses to YHABFT: The Danger of Insider Euphemisms: “Shooting the Puppy” Edition

  1. ken anthony says:

    A bit tangential, but you got me thinking about the karate file. Years ago I worked for a company that had weekly engineers meetings that included a lot of technicians. The techs decided the purpose of the meeting was to get some other tech to inappropriately crack up during the meeting. To that end they would pass around artwork under the table to each other. These were collected in a nondescript file under ‘k’ (a prominent theme was kicking around the head of an engineer.)

    Regarding ‘shooting the puppy’, the karate file had an entire subcategory that was a list of expressions with first date of use by a certain engineer that seemed an unlimited fount of such (normally making very little sense… like a three armed orangutan at a fly swatting festival???)

  2. John hare says:

    Orangutan with three arms is normal when he’s using one to hold on and three to swat. Seems elegant to me.

  3. My dad always used the phrase “busier than a one-legged man in a fanny-kicking contest.” FWIW…

    Jon

  4. Jim Davis says:

    I give up; what does YHABFT stand for?

  5. YHABFT == You Have A Blog For That. It was a term that Ben Brockert and Will Pommeranz started using when I started long twitter threads. Basically these are for blog posts that are shortish, less thoroughly thought-out blog posts, but too long for twitter. The next step down from “Random Thoughts” blog posts.

    ~Jon

  6. Paul451 says:

    “when I pointed out that that euphemism probably wasn’t the best one to use in a public place where people don’t know the context. But it just goes to show that we should probably be more careful about our euphemisms and jargon”

    …Oh, is that the lesson? Because I was trying to think of a class of business decisions where the phrase “invade the cockpit” works. Taking over someone else’s project as a last ditch effort to save it? “Kill the engines”, see how far a team can get on their own, without top-level support, as a way of testing the viability of an idea. “Jam the radar and see who crashes”, confuse rivals by over-promoting a minor side-project to de-emphasise your main effort. “Shoot the President”, to bet the whole company on a single high-risk/high-return bid.

  7. Chris Stelter says:

    You also have to watch out for running into /other/ people’s inside language…

    For instance: Most of us have positive connotations with the idea of space colonization… However, I mentioned the idea to a friend of mine (who isn’t a super Social Justice Warrior (SJW) or anything) who was an immigrant from Africa… And she gave me a little puzzled look. See, from an African perspective, the word “colonization” is nearly synonymous with “enslavement.” That’s immediately what you would think of if you were from Africa (especially if you weren’t white).

    And lately, there was some Twitter row (and I think an article somewhere) with some Social Justice Warrior got super upset of the idea of space colonization, saying she was going to tear down the whole concept…

    …of course for us, there’s no relation to the idea of enslavement. I mean, there’s literally no one in our solar system beyond the Earth (and Earth orbit), or even any life! And for almost anywhere in the solar system, human beings can’t even “ruin” the environment worse than it already is, even if we tried. And I grew up on Star Trek, where the idea of a future of living in space represented one of respect for fellow humans, no poverty, lala happy hippie love, etc. So for me, the idea that Space Colonization is about exploitation just seemed beyond absurd and even insulting. And I remain convinced that much of this stems from the fact that the word “colonization” is /always/ used in a negative sense by SJWs and sociology majors whereas most of us in the space community understand it as just a word describing human settlement.

    …anyway, the point is that you can run into other people’s lingo, too. As we want space colonization to become mainstream (both at NASA and /especially/ private industry), it might make sense to choose our battles and emphasize space settlement as not just an extension of European expansionism of the 16th through 19th centuries, but as an extension of the human will to explore and live in new places from the beginning of our species. I think the Blue Origin video does a pretty good job of that.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbT29lA322g

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Chris,
    Good point. That’s part of why I like space settlement or space pioneering. Both are similar in concept to us, but probably less loaded terms for others.
    ~Jon

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