Jargon provenance

January 27th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  2 Comments

In a question that bothered me every time my mind wandered yesterday, Alan Jacobs asked about nerd nomenclature on Twitter:

Why do geeks say “extensible” instead of “extendable”? It’s not like you can “extense” something. My theory: rms leads, others follow.

Specifically, Jacobs is referring to Richard Stallman’s characterization of the emacs editor (see here for a mention from 1981), which indeed struck me as a plausible candidate for a very early use of “extensible” in the jargon sense of “expanding the scope or functionality of a thing.” (Contrast this with the sense of extending the length of, for example, a telescoping mop handle.)

I checked the OED and was very surprised indeed to see that both “extensible” and “extendible” have a long history of established use. The first use the OED has for either is from 1477, in which “extendible” was used in the sense of increasing the physical extent of a thing (in this case, a scent). The first uses of each in the functional-extent or scope sense come from the mid-17th century.

So, while we can almost certainly blame Stallman for the currency of the functional sense of “extensible” in software and computer science jargon, at least I haven’t been using a nerd neologism all of these years. I’ve merely been living in a bizarro suburb of our language!

Buoyed by this modest etymological triumph, I decided to further justify my disciplinary jargon use through OED searches. Alas, the jargon-sense “orthogonal” (meaning roughly “independent” or “unrelated”), which has completely infected my technical writing and my technical thoughts, is completely unknown to the OED. I promise you, dear reader, my metanoia has already begun.

On quotation

August 17th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Andrea (to Thomas): “Say ‘Thanks for letting me visit your house!'”

Thomas: “Thanks for visiting my house!”