Say what you see: Four-letter fun on a late-night support call

It's on a computer screen. It must be some sort of technical jargon, right?


On Call We do like our acronyms and initialisms in the IT world. Some might suggest we conceal the simplest of concepts behind a bewildering array of letters. And sometimes users try to join in. Welcome to On Call.

Our tale, from a reader whose name the Regomiser chewed up and spat out as "Rob", was working in IT at a hospital in the 1990s. As was custom, a pager was issued to whoever's name had come up on the after-hours Wheel of Fortune, and that night it was Rob who was the lucky employee. Such is the tyranny of the on-call rota.

Inevitably, the pager went off ("At a time we used to call '0-dark-30'," Rob remarked a little sourly). Fine, who needs sleep anyway? Rob followed the usual procedure, which was to call the switchboard who would in turn direct the call to wherever support was needed. "In this case it was to a security guard who was in our Diagnostic Imaging department," Rob said.

"This security guard stated that there was an error on the screen of one of the computers," he remembered. Blearily, Rob asked what the error was.

"Eff Eye Elle Emm," replied the guard, clearly proud of himself for not only spotting the error, but also for rousing one of deities responsible for IT.

Eye? That made no sense. Diagnostic Imaging was all about X-rays and the like. Not eyes.

"My brain, which was still recovering after having been woken from a deep sleep, struggled to process this," said Rob. Maybe he misheard.

Nope, the guard repeated the four words: "Eff Eye Elle Emm", adding "Error" as a flourish.

While What3words these days might present an opportunity for amusing combinations when searching for one's workplace, this was the 1990s and What4words was not a game for guessing failure codes.

The conversation went in circles until the penny finally dropped. It was a F-I-L-M error.

"You mean a film error?" asked Rob, relieved, since this meant the guard was talking about the X-ray film processing machine, which was out of his purview.

The guard continued repeating "Eff Eye Elle Emm error," clearly still chuffed about spotting it. Rob finally hung up, telling the guard he couldn't do anything about it, and the machine would be looked at in the morning.

As he tried to get back to sleep: "All I could hear rattling about my brain was the guard repeating the F-I-L-M error."

Perhaps he still is…

We've all had to sit on the other end of a phone playing "spot the keyword" while a user spells out what was on the screen. Or had to imagine just what was being displayed based on the description given by a confused customer. Tell your tale from the days before remote desktops with an email to On Call. ®

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