By Reg Harbeck
“Say ‘shibboleth’!” was the last order an outsider received before mispronouncing it and consequently being terminated with extreme prejudice during a critical conflict in Biblical times.
Today, we are less prone to execute those who say a word wrong, but the word “shibboleth” has come to refer to those words that indicate group membership by being properly pronounced.
On the mainframe, we have quite a few such jargon terms. Some of them are instant “gotcha’s” like “VTAM” and “DASD.” Some of them show how much distributed computing influence a person has, such as “SQL” or which word someone uses to clarify the first six letters of the alphabet (e.g. “able” vs “alpha”).
But there’s one special word on the mainframe that actually tells you more about what historical and linguistic part of the mainframe ecosystem a person comes from: CICS.
Now, if, upon seeing CICS you immediately subvocalized “kicks” in your mind’s ear, you are probably a mainframer from an English-speaking country. BUT: if you spelled it instead, perhaps sounding something like, “see ah see ayiss,” you are likely to be an American mainframer, because roughly half of all American mainframers prefer to spell this term rather than putting their foot into it.
As someone whose first mainframe responsibility was as a CICS systems programmer, I’ve paid attention to this linguistic conundrum for a long time, and I’ve started to refine some theories about the nature and origin of our naming of the Customer Information Control System.
I’d like to share these with you, beginning by stating the obvious: We can’t pronounce it the way it’s spelled in English, because people would always reply, “Six what?”
That said, other languages have no such problem. So, our colleagues in Italy are known to call it something like “cheeks” or “chicks.” And our Portuguese-speaking colleagues in Brazil and Portugal are quite comfortable with “six” (or, if you prefer, “siks”).
But why the two variants in English? I respond with the ostensible meaning of DFH at the beginning of all CICS program names and console messages: “Don’t Forget Hursley.” After all, when CICS development was moved to Hursley, England, from the U.S. where it was first created, it was moved to the land where English was first spoken and spelled, and where the two never had to be too closely related. The good folks in Hursley knew that, just like the “g” at the beginnings of “giblets” and “gifts” (and don’t get me started about GIFs), so there was the possibility of more than one way to pronounce “c” even preceding an “i” if the convenience of a monosyllabic word was the reward. And thus did they get their kicks.
Ah, but the Poughkeepsians of New York were not so easily compromised. Why allow for ambiguity, when spelling it out will retain the desired exactitude? So, I theorize, those sites and mainframers in the U.S. whose initial contact with CICS was with the guidance of an IBMer from Poughkeepsie, they decided they’d keep C and I and C and S. But those English-speaking customers who were introduced by Hursleyans were able to kick that spelling.
However, as my friend Rafi Gefen cautioned me, “In theory, practice and theory are the same thing. In practice, they’re not.” So, when I went to Poland, I was reminded that all my theorizing doesn’t quite cover every scenario. After all, if you pronounce “CICS” in Polish you should get something that sounds like “cheats.” But when I asked my Polish colleagues how they pronounced it, I got the simple reply: “kicks.”