Is it a problem if a word describing a software concept has additional potentially controversial meanings in the real world?

To name some examples:

  • icon - in software it is a small image which visually describes a file, action or something else. But, it can also mean religious work of art, most commonly a painting.
  • abort - in software it usually describes an abnormal user initiated termination of an operation. In real world it is very commonly used to describe a termination of pregnancy.
  • master/slave - in software is a model of communication where one device or process has unidirectional control over one or more other devices. In real life it describes the institution of slavery.
  • parents killing off their children unless they are zombies is a common thing in Unix, and in real life, well this one is too gross.

I am limiting my question only to the words exposed through user interface (yes, including error messages) to a potentially non-technical user. I'm confident that programmers and system admins feel comfortable with any well known and established terminology, so programming languages, databases, OS-es and various tools are outside the scope of this question.

User interface question boxes and messages in software created for the general public are within the scope, i.e. instant messenger is, but disk partitioner isn't.

I am aware that many other words used in software nowadays used to mean something different some time ago. Logging was usually done to chop firewood for winter and then you would upload it to your truck and download when you get home. But none of these words' original meanings isn't in any way controversial anywhere.

I'll narrow down what do I mean by this question specifically and what do I expect from answers (to avoid the extended subjective discussion):

  • Are these words sufficiently well known to the non-technical users, so that they could be used freely?
  • Are there guidelines published by reasonably well known figures of authority in the field about words such as these used to describe operations and messages in user interface?
  • Are there any documented cases of ambiguity of such words and their real-world controversy causing bad usability for some users (other than anecdotal ones like funny stories from tech support or similar)
  • What would Steve Jobs do?

I wish to provide the best possible user experience to the users of my software (as much as I can, anyway). So, if there is a cultural problem for some of the users I'd very much like to know.

  • 11
    Has my document been really "Saved"? God only knows.
    – JeffO
    Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 17:02
  • The term logging actually comes from the method of calculating a ship's speed: navis.gr/navaids/log.htm
    – PhillipW
    Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 23:05
  • +1 for turning a bad Programmers.SE question into a good UX one. Excellent use of the network.
    – user5595
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 4:52
  • Default is not a good word in a Real Estate data system. What is a better word? If we like our programs so much, why do we Execute them? At the end, they Terminate. (Are they reincarnated when the run again?) We Hit keys. If it were any more violent, I would think it was a sport. Or business.
    – user67695
    Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 18:05

4 Answers 4


Where the words would be an issue in the context of the application - either misunderstood or liable to be considered offensive - they should not be used. Words like Icon and Abort are probably well enough understood.

However, if you have an application for managing and registering religious art, then using the word icon to relate to anything other than a religious art work is wrong. Using the word Abort on an expectant mothers site is probably not right. Using master and slave is normally wrong in non-technical applications ( it is probably OK if you are installing disk drives ).

I think the question is slightly bigger - it is about making sure that messages displayed to users are relevant and appropriate to those users. This includes not being ambiguous and not being offensive.

  • 1
    Quite right +1 - and for the understated 'probably' wrt expectant mothers site Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 15:04
  • 4
    Also, abort is quite a word also used normally/frequently outside the context of terminating pregnancies. Don't start avoiding words only because they have negative connotations in a single of many contexts. Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 16:17
  • Thanks to everyone for great answers. I decided to accept this one because I think that it hits the center of the problem. It's all about context and ambiguity, not offensiveness. Offensiveness can only make the problem more apparent, when it is already present. Your example with religious artwork illustrates this perfectly. I can hardly imagine anyone being offended by word icon being used in the software sense on a religious artwork app. However, they sure would be confused and that isn't good either. Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 15:37

Computer lingo has many words borrowed from the military:

The American National Standards Institute published the first edition of the American Standard Vocabulary for Information Processing as American National Standard ANSI X3.12-1970. (...) [The] author was furnished by the Department of the Army which had a keen interest in the development of a standard vocabulary for use in military circles. (...) This was a successful attempt to bring all the major vocabulary efforts in government, industry, and technical societies in computer and data processing systems under one roof. The standard was approved on February 18, 1970.

(From the Computer Science and Communication Dictionary.)

I guess there are two good reasons for this happening: 1) funding by the Department of Defense, which normally kick-starts projects with military uses that then find other uses, and 2) the unambiguousness of the military lingo, which has been perfected over the years. Computer algorithms work in a "discrete universe" and terms need to be unambiguous.

That said, the words mentioned (abort, illegal, cancel, master/slave, etc.) come from the first days of computing, but, like in everything, language gets richer and brings new, less military —or controversial, if you want— words to the computer lingo borrowed from fields like printing, graphic design, psychology, etc. You just need to relate the computer-related element that needs naming with a similar element from the Real World and borrow that metaphor.

Probably many "proposals" for a new word will be available and the media or the masses will be the ones that filtrate those that work. Buzz words like cloud (which not so long ago was SaaS), above the fold, affordance or seamless sharing are examples.

  • 1
    Depends, master/slave is a fairly unique metaphor and I can't think of anything that would readily and unambiguously replace it. "Abort" is just a very militaristic way of saying "cancel". Clear terminology is lovely when referring to services (cloud) or distinct concepts for design (the fold) but I don't find we need one single vocabulary to discuss common, relatable actions to users. It's okay to call it "stop" sometimes and "cancel" others and no one will be confused if the words are used logically..
    – Zelda
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 20:08
  • Owner/pet could be a similar metaphor ;) Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 22:19
  • "Impedance Mismatch" needs to go back to electronics, and stay there. It is completely inappropriate for software.
    – user67695
    Commented Mar 17, 2017 at 18:08

Your wording can always affect your user's experience, and poor or ambiguous wording is certainly a problem. Note that UIs using "contraversal" wording are usually very old (I haven't seen windows use Abort for a long time) or less user friendly. Let's be frank; Zombie Children is the least confusing part of common Linux terminology.

It used to be common for errors to be referred to as "illegal operations". This resulted in a lot of very confusing and potentially alarming error messages: enter image description here

Don't use words that could be misconstrued; like Illegal. Abort is fairly common in computing and I'm not sure it would be misunderstood by most users, but that doesn't make it a user-friendly term.

Try to use a more specific, down to earth word for the action like cancel. I can't readily imagine why one would need to say "abort" rather than "cancel" unless you're trying to match the copy of Windows 98.

  • 1
    Yes, I remember the illegal memory operation. I freaked up when I first saw it. Does your screenshot display a similar error message or was this one really about an illegal act (as in cops, lawyer and jail)? Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 0:40
  • It's from the Daily WTF, they didn't elaborate on whether this was actually in regards to an illegal action, but I rather doubt it. I recall freaking out at "illegal operation" too, It's sort of scary to see when you're 8 using your parent's PC.
    – Zelda
    Commented Jan 15, 2012 at 1:53

It depends on your audience. I don't think I've ever met a person who's sensitive enough to genuinely be offended by any of the terms you mention.

The way a word is understood depends on how the receiver perceives the sender's intention. I doubt anyone could mistake the intended meaning of your examples as hostile. If someone did take offence to any of the words you've mentioned, I'd seriously question whether I'd be able to cater to any of their needs as they'd be inhabiting a very different world to mine.

The main problem with some of these terms is that they were born in a time where jargon (through established convention) was commonplace. There's less real-world, contextual purpose behind the naming of the terms than there perhaps would have been, if computing had been as ubiquitous as it is now.

For that reason, avoiding some of these terms might be advisable. The main benefit you can bring to user experience through careful naming, is an increased chance of comprehension on the part of your users.

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