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'Q' is for Cuba, and other tales from tech support

A week of computer woes prompts the Monitor's language columnist to note how language and technology substitute for one another.

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Over the past week I've had computers on my mind more than I really would have liked. Suffice it to say that I needed to remove an obsolete program that had evidently left broken bits of code scattered throughout my hard drive and clinging to it like cockleburs.

After a week of e-mail correspondence failed to solve the problem, I was told to stand by for a phone call from Bangalore.

Once we'd established voice contact, and I'd consented to "remote assistance" (in effect letting the support engineer "drive" my computer), the problem was cleared up within 45 minutes.

But there were enough little pauses in the whole operation to let me reflect on English as a world language, and on the way language and technology substitute for one another.

At one point in the process, the support engineer gave me a complex string of characters to enter, including, as she described it, " 'q' as in Cuba."

"Hey, wait a minute!" I couldn't resist. Maybe I was feeling more competency-challenged than I realized. I don't know much about software, but I can spell. "Cuba is not spelled with a 'q'!"

I didn't need a videophone to picture the roll of the eyes that accompanied the exasperated response from the other end. "It's just a letter!"

The irony was that she was using – sort of – a technique developed to help people communicate in environments with poor sound quality, e.g., over crackly radios during wartime. In the international radio­telephony spelling alphabet ("Alpha, Bravo, Charlie"), "q" is represented by "Quebec." Under another system, the 17th letter of the alphabet is "queen." Nowhere that I can find is it "Cuba."

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