Insane in the Membrane

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Insane in the Membrane

All that talk in my previous post about meaningless corporate jargon reminded me of an incident that happened some years ago, whilst I was working for that aforementioned company that was so prone to wholesale crimes against language.

At one point in the early 2000s, a phrase that was doing the rounds in the business world was ‘sanity check’. According to Wikipedia:

“A sanity test or sanity check is a basic test to quickly evaluate the validity of a claim or calculation. In mathematics, for example, when dividing by three or nine, verifying that the sum of the digits of the result is a multiple of 3 or 9 (casting out nines) respectively is a sanity test.

“In computer science it is a very brief run-through of the functionality of a computer program, system, calculation, or other analysis, to assure that the system or methodology works as expected, often prior to a more exhaustive round of testing.”

Well, despite the fact that – to the best of my knowledge – none of us were mathematicians or computer scientists, the phrase ‘sanity check’ quickly infected the local semantic environment. I assume it meant “carry out checks to make sure something works”, but that probably didn’t sound cool or important enough. Just as there are waitresses who dream of becoming actresses, I guess there are business people who fantasise about becoming mathematicians or computer scientists. Good for them, I say.

In any case, it wasn’t long before ‘sanity check’ variations found their way into just about every meeting, briefing or presentation I was unlucky enough to attend. On one such occasion, myself and some colleagues were getting debriefed on some fab new system or other that was about to be implemented across the business. It was being held by a senior member of the management team, a middle-aged woman from a non-technical background who found it hard to keep up to date with corporate jargon. That’s not a put-down, by the way. I’m a middle-aged man from a non-technical background who finds it hard to keep up to date with anything.

To be fair, though, she made a valiant effort. The presentation was generously littered with variations of this fashionable phrase. Things like: “Obviously, we’ll need to sanity check that,” “We carried out a thorough sanity check” and “The sanity check was vigorous.” But each time she’d say it, there was a weird reaction in the room. Murmurs initially, but soon escalating into schoolboy snickering. I could see she was getting perplexed.

Eventually, someone decided to put her out of her misery. He stepped up to her and whispered helpfully in her ear: “It’s ‘sanity check’, not ‘sanitary check.'”


About the Author:

My name is Tom Lennon and I'm a freelance writer who specialises in humour at the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum. I'm based in Birmingham, UK, and my work has recently appeared in BuzzFeed and Time Out.


  1. Rol June 23, 2008 at 3:17 am

    I really wish you hadn’t described yourself as middle-aged in a post I read on a Monday morning, being that we’re the same age and all.

    Now I need a sanity check.

  2. Tom Lennon June 24, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    What can I say, Rol? I was feeling crabbity and old. I’m feeling better and younger now.

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