Of managers and manuals

Anindita is an editor with IBM, India. She has been a technical communicator since 2006. Her interests include DITA, languages, documentation process improvements, and Indology.

Anindita Basu

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These days, managers manage people and companies but a very long time ago, when people were still fighting each other with swords and lances, what needed real management were horses. The earliest sense of 'manage' in English was 'to handle or train a horse', or put it through the exercises of the manège. This French word, used in English to mean 'an area in which horses and riders are trained' and 'horsemanship', is at root of 'manage'. Both these words, English and French, go back through Italian to Latin manus, meaning 'hand'. Manus is also the source of several other words such as manacles (which restrain your hands), manicure (care of your hands), manipulate (to handle something), manuscript (something written by hand), and manual (either done with your hands or with a handbook).

So, managers manage horses, people, businesses, and content strategy. But what is 'content strategy'. Let us examine these words separately.

Strategy (noun) is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

"Then we follow the four-stage strategy. In stage one we say nothing is going to happen. Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it. In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we *can* do. Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it's too late now."

The English word is derived from the French stratégie, from Greek strategia 'generalship', from strategos, which is from stratos 'army' + agein 'to lead'.

So much for 'strategy'. What is 'content'?

Content (noun) is defined as the things that are held or included in something.

"The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country, the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country, the Times is read by people who actually do run the country, the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country, the Financial Times is read by people who own the country, the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is."

'Content' made its way into late Middle English from the medieval Latin contentum (plural contenta 'things contained'), which is the neuter past participle of continere (from con- 'altogether' + tenere 'to hold'). Thus we see that 'content' is not only some thing, it is also something that goes well together. Gibberish or twittering is not 'content'.

So there you have it: 'content strategy' means leading an army of people towards something that holds some other things together.

When an army is marching to make some coherent thing, it needs to have the money or those other things that help it to make that something. These 'other things' are tools.

A tool (noun) is a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.

"The Doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility is a handy little tool conceived by the Civil Service for dropping the Minister in it while enabling the mandarins to keep their noses clean."

'Tool' is from the Old English tol, from a Germanic base meaning 'prepare'.

Once the army has the correct tools, what does it do? It writes. Write (verb) means to compose a text or work for publication.

"Ministers' speeches aren't written for the audience. We can't worry about entertaining. The point is the speech said the right things."

The word comes from Old English writan 'score, form letters by carving'. The Old English word is of Germanic origin, related to German reissen 'sketch, drag'.

So it is evident that many many years ago, writing included sketching and drawing — just like it does today.

Technical writers write manuals. Manuals share the same origin as managers. Managers handle people. Is it not astonishing that word roots sometimes show how closely linked certain apparently dissimilar things are?




The word definitions and etymologies in this article are from the Oxford English Dictionary. The quotations are from the BBC series 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister'. The movie clips are sourced through YouTube. All of these are used here under the Fair Use policy.


Of managers and manuals

Written and narrated by Anindita Basu.