I've spent 81.7% of my life watching Seinfeld, but I just realized I never mentioned a Seinfeldian euphemism in one of my columns. Bagel technician, meaning someone who makes bagels, is the preposterous title on Kramer's business card during "The Strike" episode, which is better known for launching the holiday Festivus. Bagel technician may not have the cultural currency of yada yada or shrinkage, but it's a reminder that Seinfeld was a banquet for language lovers—and the feast included euphemisms.
This term is also a reminder that technician has been part of many euphemistic, malarkey-laden titles over the years. It's a red flag for rubbish. No matter how mundane the job, chances are someone doing it somewhere is called a technician. This word is a perennial source of career-related claptrap.
Before getting to the euphemisms, let's take a stroll down history lane, which is, as always, mapped by the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED lists two meanings of technician. The first is "A person knowledgeable or skilled in the technicalities of a particular field; esp. an expert in the formal or practical aspect of an art, sometimes with implications of a corresponding lack of creativity." This OED use from 1893 shows the positive sense of the word: "Herr Klingel is a fine player in the classical style; he is also a superb technician; and the Concerto illustrates these two sides of his artistic nature." This 1895 use shows the negative side: "The mere technician can never interest; the literary man, even if inexpert in stage technique, may do so in a high degree." This dismissive, older sense of technician is different in meaning yet oddly in tune with recent exaggerated, silly uses of the term. From the 1800s to the present, there's always been something a little fishy about technicians.
The OED's second meaning is "A person qualified in the practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts; (in later use) esp. a person whose job is to carry out practical work in a laboratory or to give assistance with technical equipment." This meaning has also been around since the mid-1800s, and it's used characteristically a hundred years later, in a New York Times article from 1983: "French technicians scurry around at the military air base assembling machine guns and helicopters." This is the meaning that allows for euphemistic technicians, though it doesn't really define them.
In the Bible of euphemisms, Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, Hugh Rawson describes technician as "An all-purpose label for upgrading job titles." His examples include nail technician, debris disposal technician, evidence technician, and biological science technician, who give manicures, collect garbage, investigate crime scenes, and trap animals respectively. There's a more sinister element of the trend than I would have guessed, as Rawson notes that the term not only boosts the ego of employees but helps employers dodge unionization by saying, "Oh, we have no plumbers here. Only pipe technicians." That avoidance of unions can eventually lead to a less skilled staff, but that's a small price to pay for money-grubbing corporate scum, I reckon.
Subway (the Jared kind) is famous for popularizing the term sandwich technician, but they're far from the only ones who use it. A job site I just stumbled upon has "492 sandwich technician jobs available." Yay? Let me tell you, searching job sites for dumb job titles is a lot more fun than searching them for jobs: it's impossible to fail. For example, if you're lacking a career path, you might consider becoming a warranty technician, tire technician, floor technician, tractor technician, alarm technician, car seat technician, or tire maintenance technician. Tired of being an exterminator? Become a termite technician. "X technician" is the king (perhaps the Burger King) of professional euphemisms.
Other bizarre technician titles I've seen in the wild are connected field technician, corporate desk side support technician, medication technician, cable service technician, water service technician, engineering technician, process technician, psychiatric technician, systems integrations technician, and customer service technician. Then there's the iCup technician. Back in June, it came to light that Apple was seeking to fill just such a position, and the ad included language such as "The Apple iCup Services is specially designed to provide a fresh brew coffee to all Apple employees within their department." In other words, an iCup technician is a barista, for the love of java.
These terms are ridiculous, but they still might not surpass 2008's Euphemism of the Year, as voted by the American Dialect Society: scooping technician. That's the goofy term for a person who picks up dog crap for a living. As a dog owner, I suppose I am an amateur scooping technician, though I don't want to go pro.
While most such titles are transparently silly or dishonest, a few leave behind simple drivel and ascend to a higher (or is that lower?) level of gibberish, similar to that of people who speak in tongues. For example, I found one job ad for a refresh technician. I'll take your blank stare as a sign that this means as little to you as it does to me. The first job duty doesn't help: "Provides support to end users on a variety of issues." Several others are just as vague, such as "Relies on instructions and pre-established guidelines to perform the functions of the job" and "Works under immediate supervision." I wonder if this is the kind of job ad Darth Vader used to find workers for the Death Star. Perhaps Refresh Technician is the official title of a Stormtrooper.
After digging deeper into this job ad, clues emerge. This duty pretty much gives the game away: "Responds to telephone calls, email and personnel requests for technical support." As does this one: "Identifies, researches, and resolves technical problems." So why in the holy hell isn't the job labeled "IT specialist" or "technical support" or something resembling English? You got me.
Here's another ad that befuddled my brain. It's for a national technician: "The Judge Group is currently looking for a National Technician for nationwide client (sic). This is a fantastic opportunity for a talented and self-motivated individual. The successful candidate will have extensive experience maintenance and high speed automation."
This raises so many questions. What is "extensive experience maintenance"? For that matter, what is "experience maintenance"? Who in this world has "high speed automation"? I'm afraid there's only one answer: this is a job ad for robots, and national technician is a devious evasion meant to hide an unholy quest for robots, cyborgs, Cylons, androids, droids, Frankensteins, or other mechanical monsters living within our midst.
Unfortunately, I'm not qualified to assess how close our society is to living in a dystopian nightmare ruled by machines. I'm only a simple column technician.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters