Engineering Speak – When Words Collide

Engineering Speak – When Words Collide


“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything.” ― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Every industry, big or small, high tech or low tech, devoted to business development, food service, or transportation, has established its own vocabulary that its members typically take for granted. Often referred to as “industry-speak,” these are words and phrases that can cause great confusion to the uninitiated. Some of my favorites include “incubator,” a center where start-up companies are mentored; “Flying Donut,” a CB radio term used by truckers to describe a police helicopter; and “86’d” used by chefs when they will no longer serve a menu item.

Engineering firms like Device Solutions, with their teams of tech-savvy employees, are natural places to hear lots of industry-speak. We thought it would be fun to share some of the most common terms heard at Device Solutions. What do non-engineers think, for example, when engineers start talking about transformers? Do they realize they are talking about a device used to transfer electrical energy from one circuit to another, or do they assume the conversation is about one of the sci-fi action movies called, “The Transformers?” Obviously meanings are a matter of context, but it is fun to imagine what might happen when different words collide.

NOTE: Words and phrases were taken from actual conversations with Device Solutions’ employees. Non-engineers were asked what came to mind when they heard the words listed below.


Device Solutions’ engineers do not spell out “B.O.M.” when talking to one another. Instead they simply say “BOM,” which to the uninitiated assume means “bomb.” The immediate assumption is that the engineer is working on some kind of explosive device.

To engineers, “BOM” is the acronym for “Bill of Materials,” which is simply a list of the parts and their quantities needed to manufacture a product.

Examples: “Hey, do you know if this resistor is on the BOM?” or “The BOM we used last year was the one for version 3.2.”


To non-engineers, a bread board (two words) is a polished piece of wood used for cutting or kneading bread.

To engineers, a breadboard (one word) is a perforated, reusable, plastic board that’s used for testing and prototyping circuits. No solder is used on breadboards, which means they are good for doing fast and easy prototyping.

Examples: “Are you planning to use the bread board for the initial prototype?” or “I’m going to need a bunch of bread boards for this design.”


Our non-engineers wanted to know if we were asking them about an orchestra conductor or a train conductor.

For engineers, accustomed as they are to directing and controlling the flow of electricity, the word conductor immediately conjures up a component or material that conducts electrical current, allowing it to flow in one or more directions.

Examples: “I need a conductor here to make sure there is a connection between these circuits.” Or “That is supposed to serve as a conductor, not an insulator.”


To non-engineers, flux refers to situations or conditions that are moving, changing or unresolved, such as travel plans that are dependent on uncertain weather. To be in a state of flux implies that a person is undecided. Many people also think of the “flux capacitor” from Back to the Future – for time travel!

Mention flux to an engineer, however, and he/she will assume you are referring to the paste-like substance known used when soldering to reduce the oxides that form when hot metal comes in contact with air. They might also think of a magnetic field generated by the flow of an electric current.

Examples: “I need some flux for this circuit re-work that I am doing.” Or “Do you have any idea how much flux is generated in the circuit?”


Though “ohm” and “Om” are spelled differently, they sound the same, so when asked, most non-engineers thought we were referring to “Om,” the sacred sound in Indian religions that is often used as a mantra in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Engineers, on the other hand, heard “ohm ” and assumed we were talking about “ohm,” the electrical resistance between two points of a conductor.

Examples: “How many Ohms for this resistor?” or “I need an 18 Ohm resistor.”

Trivia: Did you know that the measure of Ohm’s which measures resistance has a counterpart called a “Mho” (OHM spelled backward is MHO) and a Mho is the inverse of resistance, called conductance. The complex versions of these terms are called impeditivity (resistivity plus an imaginary component called reactivity) and the inverse called admittivity (conductivity plus an imaginary component called susceptivity).


Non-engineers were very clear about this one. To spin means to turn, as in take the car for a spin around the block, or ride a stationary bike in a spin class.

For engineers, spin refers to the process of laying out, routing, populating and testing a printed circuit board. Essentially it means to re-do, try again, make another version or revision.

Examples: “How many spins should we estimate for this design?” or “That design took 1 spin to get right.”

Given the vastly different uses of words like the ones above, the ever-evolving terminology and the addition of text messaging with auto-correct, it’s no wonder people get confused about what someone is trying to say. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to consider the source and the context. If you are in a Device Solutions’ conference room discussing updates to a project, it’s probably safe to assume that “bus” has something to do with a metal strip that conducts electricity, not a 40-foot motor vehicle that carries passengers around town. Just sayin’.

– Jena Ball