George Orwell with novel 1984 popularized the idea that by changing the language, you could change the minds. It is easy to forget that we are routinely victims of this strategy.

A fascinating example is the French language itself. I long had this image of the French revolution as the French people, that is, the people who spoke French, rising up. But during the revolution in 1789, only half the population of France spoke some French. The state of France created the French language we know today. It was an act of social engineering to ensure that there would be a united French people.

A widespread instance of this strategy is political correctness. Apparently, it is racist to say that Martin Luther King was black. We don’t have firemen anymore, have you noticed? We have firefighters.

The term climate change is another fascinating example. Prior to 2003, we talked about global warming. It changed when Frank Luntz, a political consultant, convinced the American president to force people to talk about changes instead of warming, because it feels less threatening.

Another example is “intellectual property”. If “intellectual property” is bona fide property, then you should be able to steal it. Can you? The Supreme Court of the United States thinks you can’t steal intellectual property the same way you can steal cars:

(…) interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The infringer of a copyright does not assume physical control over the copyright nor wholly deprive its owner of its use.

Yet even judges get confused. Recently a programmer from Goldman Sachs who copied and shared secret software was acquitted of theft charges. Yet, in its verdict, the court writes that he stole purely intangible property embodied in a purely intangible format. He cannot be convicted of theft, so why use the word in the first place? The intellectual property lobby goes even further when it talks about piracy. (Thankfully, they haven’t yet prosecuted someone for actual piracy.) Effectively, they have changed the language, they have gotten us to attribute new meaning to existing words, to associate piracy and theft to the infringement of exclusivity rights.

Scientists often play the same games. For example, to make something sound serious, just append engineering to it: knowledge engineering, software engineering, data engineering.

Experience has taught me to be suspicious of people who spends too much effort redefining words. They are probably not out to help you think clearly.

Credit: Thanks to Marc Couture for the legal reference and an inspiring discussion.

Related video: Too Much Copyright

Further information: Euphemistic Language by George Carlin, Words That Work by Frank I. Luntz, How Not To Say What You Mean by R. W. Holder

Update: I do realize that global warming and climate change refer to different concepts from a scientific point of view. But what people worry about is not so much the change, as change is unavoidable. Rather, we worry about the warming… don’t we? Or are some people really set on preventing any kind of climate change?

21 Comments

  1. Generally speaking I agree that people use / manipulate language to change perceptions. Especially politicians who use +ve terms like “efficiencies” and “modernization” to mean -ve ones like “cutbacks” and “layoff expensive older people”.

    But, I’m surprised you’ve heard that calling MLK black is racist. I thought, on the contrary that it was a matter of pride for black people.

    Also, I the issue between “Global Warming” vs. “Climate Change” is really one of describing two different phenomena. At least this is what this anti-global-warming-denier web site claims:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/climate-change-global-warming.htm

    Comment by Andre Vellino — 13/4/2012 @ 15:13

  2. You’ve heard the saying that a language is a dialect with an army?

    Comment by John Regehr — 13/4/2012 @ 15:18

  3. You do steal something when you take someone’s IP: the opportunity for them to profit from it. Perhaps a very relaxed policy about IP maximizes overall societal good, in which case it’s a good idea. However, you are also playing games with language here when you say something like “you can’t steal intellectual property the same way you can steal cars.”

    Comment by John Regehr — 13/4/2012 @ 15:25

  4. @John

    Suppose we had a Star Trek device that allowed us to make copies of any object, just by scanning it.

    Suppose you hold a pen in your hand, and I say “oh! nice pen!” and before you get a change to react, I scan it and make a copy. [You just know that we'll be able to do this one day.]

    Did I steal your pen?

    It seems clear that I did not. So copying something is not stealing, even when it is done without permission. Maybe I violated some other laws, but it is not theft.

    As for your statement… you say that I can steal the opportunity for them to profit from it. This seems awfully broad.

    Suppose that, because you hate him, you fail a good student and thus, prevent him from graduating. You feel better after failing him, but the student is in trouble. The student could have had a good job thanks to the degree, but instead, he must retake your class. Would you say that you stole from the student his opportunity for a good job?

    I think you should not. He can certainly sue you, and win, but he would not sue for theft.

    Of course, we can decide that whenever your actions cause others to lose money, or lose an opportunity to make money, we steal from them. But it is really twisting the words around.

    It is not a big deal, except that you just know that the words were chosen by PR consultants for a political purpose.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 13/4/2012 @ 15:57

  5. I wish someone would start a ‘simplify’ movement whose focus is to try and boil things down to their simplest form. I can’t say how many things I’ve read, over the years that once you grok what the author is really saying, it turns out they’re really not saying very much. We’re in a spin-happy era…

    In terms of the word ‘engineering’, I don’t think there really is a simpler way of expressing its underlying meaning. To me it speaks of the application of ‘knowledge’. That is, the difference between software engineering and hacking is that the programmer in one case knows it is going to work, while in the other case they are just guessing that it might work. Thus engineering is a deliberate application of knowledge to get intended results. It just doesn’t sound right to say ‘software not-guessing-at-it’ :-)

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 13/4/2012 @ 16:15

  6. Goldman Sachs owns the copyright to the software, which the programmer did not steal (and incapable of stealing). That is Goldman owns a legal ability to seek damages or injunctions in the event that someone copies the software without their permission. The programmer took a copy of the software with him, and thereby violated Goldman’s copyright. It’s more like trespassing on someone’s property than stealing it.

    Comment by Lucas — 13/4/2012 @ 16:29

  7. @Lucas

    I agree with you.

    The Goldman Sachs case is particularly interesting because Goldman Sachs kept on using the software, there was no harm done to their computers.

    The damage, if any, comes entirely from the ability of the competitors to use the ideas.

    So, really, it is not even about copyright. It is a trade secret violation because I am sure they would have been just as upset if he had merely communicated to others what the software did, without providing the actual source code.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 13/4/2012 @ 16:57

  8. @Paul

    People who write novels, don’t just “make it up”. They have sophisticated techniques. It is very hard work. Yet we don’t call them “fiction engineers” or “story developers”. We call them “writers”.

    Your blog says you are a “software developer”. Maybe you could call yourself a software engineer.

    You know how I would call you? A programmer.

    Further reading:

    Writing and Maintaining Software are not Engineering Activities
    http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2007/02/24/writing-and-maintaining-software-are-not-engineering-activities/

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 13/4/2012 @ 17:05

  9. I don’t think fiction writers are a good counter-example. Primarily because some of them used very reliable ‘formulas’ that they know sell, and in that sense they are actually engineering their efforts (with only a slight touch of creativity).

    I was a programmer for many years, and still do a lot of programming. But these days my job is so much broader than that. It includes analysis, design, some marketing/sales, pushing stuff into implementation, some support handling, some management and a whole lot of struggling against various organizations to keep the projects on track and get them delivered. Programming is just a faction of my work.

    I picked ‘developer’ because it is common place in construction — as in ‘real estate developer’. It generally implies a role much larger than just building stuff. It was the simplest way of describing how I was frequently involved not just in the code, but also all of the many many issues that go into making the code solve problems for people. I actually wasn’t comfortable with ‘engineer’ because originally I thought it implies ‘certification’, and even after decades there are still a few places where I am guessing …

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 13/4/2012 @ 17:34

  10. @Paul

    Are you sure you aren’t an entrepreneur? This is what it looks like to me.

    You are also a writer: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/paul_homer

    See? Simple words. Writer. Programmer. Entrepreneur.

    Yes, writers “engineer their effort” as you say. Teachers also “engineer their efforts”. Lawyers do so as well. What are we going to have? Fiction engineers, learning engineers, legal engineers? While at it, we could have software architects, fiction architects, learning architects, legal architects.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 13/4/2012 @ 20:28

  11. Developing software does not make one a software engineer. Interchanging those concepts is more an example of misuse.

    Comment by Marco See — 13/4/2012 @ 22:32

  12. I tend to stay away from the term entrepreneur because all of them I’ve met and worked with are primarily focused on the business aspects of what they are doing. If they are in ‘software’, then the product is just a means to the end of creating a big company. My focus hasn’t been on making money, but rather on getting code into the hands of people to hopefully make their lives better. I’ve always been driven by the potential of computers to improve things (while being aware of their potential to make things worse as well).

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 14/4/2012 @ 9:14

  13. @Marco, yes I actually agree. Being even more specific, very little of what the 1M+ programmers are doing out there these days would qualify right now as engineering. Mostly it’s just what I call ‘hack and hope’. They pound at a keyboard, then throw it into testing, and hopefully it’s stable enough for people to use.

    But if you read the wikipedia definition of engineering there is an early quote in there that I think really identifies the essence of the term. It’s the idea that if you are doing engineering, you can ‘forecast’ the behavior. That is, it is intention not accidental.

    In that sense the term can be applied anywhere where you’ve acquired enough knowledge to accurately know that the thing you are constructing is going to behave in a very predictable manner.

    Even if it isn’t done often enough in software, collectively there is enough knowledge out there about algorithms, threading, transactions, modeling, error handling, computational complexity, etc. such that for most things getting built today, their actual behavior could be nearly identical to their intended behavior. Threading bugs in an IDE for instance aren’t there because people don’t know how to fix them, they are there because the programmers working on that specific code-base don’t know how to fix them.

    When I started programming 26 years ago I loved the creative problem solving aspects of the work. I was an ardent believer that it was an art form, and it was essentially unteachable. The problem with that viewpoint is that it kept me from digging into what was already known. Each time I saw a new problem I wanted to solve it all by myself. That was fine for some simple problems, but complex ones like LR(1) parsing are built on decades of knowledge. Instead of reading up on the state-of-the-art, I was reinventing the wheel, but at an extremely crude level.

    Even if software isn’t engineering today, for much of what we build it should be engineering one day. But we can’t get there if like my younger self, we are deliberately avoiding existing knowledge because we want to preserve our artistic integrity. After years in the trenches, that to me is now a counter-productive idealization. The fun these days isn’t in solving the same puzzles that people have been solving for decades, but rather it is in trying to push the bounds to find new and exotic ones to solve.

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 14/4/2012 @ 9:45

  14. Even if software isn’t engineering today, for much of what we build it should be engineering one day.

    I don’t think so. By the time software efforts become predictable, they can be automated or canned and it is no longer programming.

    People used to code B-trees by hand. We don’t do this anymore. There is no reason to engineer the construction of B-trees. They are not bridges. You just reuse the existing code.

    The same applies to web programming. People used to work hard to design the same boring web sites. Now, we just use a framework like Ruby on Rails.

    Each problem only need to be solved once, so there cannot be much predictability. Either the problem has been solved and you can reuse the solution, or it hasn’t and you need to come up with something new.

    Software is very different from hardware.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 14/4/2012 @ 10:01

  15. That’s a very high-level view of how it should work, but in practice the number of reusable pieces that can be generalized is tiny compared to the number of domain and organizational specific pieces. It also doesn’t factor in both the changing technology and the changing expectations of the users (and management), not to mention the competitive aspects of capitalism.

    We are gravitating slowly towards common technical solutions, but the pace has slowed to an absolute crawl. Vendors make their products unique to gain competitive advantage, as do the companies doing their own specific business systems. Money drives the uniqueness. All this stuff is loosely identical, but the details vary sharply (and are probably not generalizable).

    Where we’ve seen the best reuse has been mostly focused on technical problems (if we ignore vendor-specific features). For the domain (business) problems, there is almost no reuse (and most works are proprietary).

    So, what’s really been happening in my lifetime is that the number of programmers is increasing rapidly, and the number of custom solutions has grown huge. Most of this code is similar, but mostly the knowledge needed to make it stable has been ignored (reinvented).

    That idea that software is somehow different than any other form of constructing ‘physical’ things is deeply root in the IT culture, but I’ve never seen any basis for it being true. Software has a physical manifestation (even if we can’t see it), and once you get a million lines of code it becomes very hard to change it; just like any other type of construction. The same basic stuff exists in hundreds, if not thousands of systems.It’s not just getting solved once, but over and over again.

    There was a time when software was tiny (compared to modern standards), easily changed and very new, but honestly that was long before I started …

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 14/4/2012 @ 10:32

  16. @Paul

    There is nothing easier to automate than software itself. Software eats software. Every few years, we get smarter libraries, better languages, better IDEs… all of them conspire to make it possible to do more with fewer lines of code.

    Have you ever thought about what would have been needed to run this blog in the 1980s? It would have been a multi-million dollar project involving a large team of veteran programmers.

    How long did it take for me to set it up? Not even an hour. I’ve hardly done any programming at all, I just clicked on a few buttons and there it was.

    The hard work involved in generating an electronic diary has been done. Nobody needs to redo it again. The problem is solved. Finished.

    One a problem is solved, in software, solving it again has zero cost. Not so with engineering: once you know how to build a bridge, bridges don’t suddenly become free.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 14/4/2012 @ 13:16

  17. Midway through the eighties, I was at U of W. We had email, new groups and there were plenty of BBS communities happily interacting. I even connected via ‘talk’ to one of my friends who had moved to London, England. The idea of a blog hadn’t crystallized, but the technology and network were certainly available.

    Although software hadn’t hit the masses yet, the Internet was alive and well and connecting a huge number of universities and some companies.

    The new exciting language of the day was C++, and through one of the research projects I connect to a large collection of machines from my Sun 3, X-Windows workstation (had a big 19″ monitor but it was B&W). Over at the graphics lab, the Silicon Graphics machines were whipping around 3D polygon models of all sorts of neat things. They were also working on image manipulation.

    What’s changed radically since then is the price of the hardware, and the availability of computers to a much bigger segment of the population. Sure, the software is prettier, but that’s because graphic designers got involved. There is also more software (free and proprietary) but that’s because the number of programmers ballooned to well over a million.

    But since then, with a few exceptions like light-weight processes (threads), there haven’t been a significant number of really new or alternative technologies. What’s been happening is that the existing ones are getting rewritten into different forms, improving in a few areas, but falling back in others (and the old technologies aren’t going away). Fundamentally, once a problem gets solved, it gets solved again in each new technology, over and over. And often times it gets flashier, but far less stable.

    And existing solved problems in software don’t remain static, they are constantly in flux. Systems rust if they are not kept up-to-date with the constant flow of new releases. Some technical problems like persistent data storage get tied to a technology like RDBMSes for a long time, but as you can see with NoSQL databases, even that doesn’t last forever.

    And more importantly, that only applies to solutions to primarily ‘technical’ problems. Domain problems, which account for the majority of the work being done out there, are constantly turning over or being rewritten. There are plenty of core organizational systems built in older technologies like COBOL, but even most of these are still undergoing changes.

    If you’re going to compare software to a bridge, you have to compare the ‘source code’ to the ‘design for the bridge’. The bridge itself, is analogous to a particular system running in a specific company. That system will survive for a time, but eventually get upgraded to something newer, and that upgrade certainly isn’t free (particularly if the old version is way back from the new one). Depending on the type of system, some upgrades require months of work by a team of people to complete properly. It can be a very expensive undertaking (and it only gets worse if you wait longer).

    One of the few constants in life is that nothing is “free”. You might not know what the cost is or how to calculate it yet, but there is a cost to everything. Someday when you decide you want a prettier electronic diary, or you want it hosted on a cloud, the chances are that it’s not going to be trivial to move your existing data from your current software to that newer version. There is some technical debt that you’ll have to play in exchange for only spending an hour clicking buttons. If you wrote and ported your own code, you wouldn’t have that problem.

    Paul.

    Comment by Paul W. Homer — 14/4/2012 @ 17:49

  18. In that sense, language is close to technology. And when it comes to control by the state, the same principles are at work.
    If a state builds faster trains, its capital gets nearer, its authority more noticeable. It’s all the same if it deploys an efficient telecommunication network throughout the country.
    Regarding language, a dominant form spreads faster if this kind of technological “progress” allows for a growing centralization. It is particularly true in the case of France. Nowadays, there is still a form of dominant language (and culture by the way), the “parisian” one, which finds the way to a wider use through communication channels.
    There is an interesting article about “Standard French” on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_French), I’d be curious to see the IPs of its contributors, there are probably on your side of the Atlantic…

    Comment by Adrien Barbaresi — 19/4/2012 @ 10:13

  19. I think it’s reasonable to imagine that almost any climate change would be bad. Our ecosystems are adapted to current climate, so rapid local increases or decreases in temperature/rain/whatever will be disruptive.

    But I agree that the term is sneaky in that it sounds less bad to people who aren’t paying attention.

    Comment by Aram — 29/4/2012 @ 10:29

  20. If you are interested in how language can be used to manipulate people, I’d like to strongly recommend LTI: Linguae Tertii Imperii by Victor Klemperer (http://www.amazon.com/Language-Third-Reich-Lingua-Imperii/dp/0826491308?tag=daniellemires-20). It is a brilliant analysis how language was used in Nazi Germany and how it was used to manipulate the thinking of germans during that dark era. It is not only special in its analysis and the clarity in writing, but also through the fact that Klemperer was a jewish professor (that has been removed from his post in 1935) in Germany during that time.

    As I said, highly recommended reading.

    Comment by Max — 4/5/2012 @ 13:07

  21. ∃ multiple kinds of political correctness. The most useless kind is merely avoiding the mention of race, gender, or class. (In the 1st debates between US president Barack Obama and W Mitt Romney of 2012, WMR corrected “poor” to “low earning” people.) I have a special name for that: http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/post/30559312379/lacist

    “P.C.” has been come to refer to changing surface names of things as if removing epithets from the vocabulary changes the underlying reality.

    However I’ve also noticed what I call the “anti-P.C. police” trying to defend the indefensible, under the principle that legalities of free speech mean social norms should not condemn anyone who thinks that all programmers are white males, that all girls are at least a little gay, that boys liking dolls is homosexual and bad, that fat people are disgraceful and shouldn’t dare to offend the thin people with their ugly public presence, that [minority X] are like [Y], that housewife is a wrong use of life, that transexual or gays are an offence by their existence, and so on.

    Changing the surface appearance of the language is pretty unimportant, changing the insidious assumptions about minorities is a valid goal.

    Comment by isomorphismes — 7/10/2012 @ 16:28

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