Friday, 10 June 2016
Friday words again! I had a little hiatus last week due to some heads-down on a hackathon project for work, followed by an outing to view Whit Stillman's new Austen movie, "Love and Friendship." If you like Austen, you should see that. And then download the source book, Lady Susan, from the Project Gutenberg site (free! get the Kindle version!) and read it—it's short and fun.
Today's new-to-me word is mathwashing. This term struck me first for the construction—it's built on the pattern of greenwashing, which in turn comes from whitewashing. In this pattern, -wash means "conceal flaws."
The term also interested me because we're in an era that's nominally "data driven." For example, Amazon is a company that famously uses data for decision making. (Full disclosure: the company where I work, Tableau, is in the data visualization business.) But the technologist Fred Berenson suggests in a piece about "data worship" that just because there are numbers involved doesn't necessarily mean something is objective. Here's his explanation of mathwashing:
I coined mathwashing in an attempt to describe the tendency by technologists (and reporters!) to use the objective connotations of math terms to describe products and features that are probably more subjective than their users might think. This habit goes way back to the early days of computers when they were first entering businesses in the ’60s and ’70s: everyone hoped the answers they supplied were more true than what humans could come up with, but they eventually realized computers were only as good as their programmers.Many of us grew up at a time when adding the word computer to something (computer-generated, computer-dispatched) was a way to add a sheen of technological savvy and forward-thinkingness to it. And there are many examples, not that I can think of one, where white lab coats or technical jargon are used to imply scientific-ness. Thus also math.
For unexpected etymology today there's the word dative, as in dative case. I was first exposed to dative case in 10th grade, meaning I've known of it for more than 40 years. But it never once occurred to me to wonder why it was called that. Turns out it's quite satisfactory.
A little background. In inflected languages like Latin and German and Greek, nouns and/or articles and pronouns have different forms depending on what their role is in a sentence—subject, direct object, indirect object, etc. We do this in English a little—for example, we use I/she/he/we/they for subjects and me/her/him/us/them for objects.
In traditional grammar, they talk about cases to mark function. The form of a noun or pronoun that's the subject is referred to as being in the nominative case; direct objects are in the accusative case; indirect objects are in the dative case. (To be clear, we don't distinguish accusative and dative in English.) Countless students of German have been obliged to memorize tables like the following, which tells you how to inflect the word the in German for every gender and case:
(German is a wonderful language, but trying to learn it like this is pretty awful.)
So? As I say, I never thunk on where this might have come from. But I was reading a blog post by Taylor Jones (@languagejones on Twitter), where there was a little throwaway comment: "fun fact: dative comes from the Latin word meaning 'give'." And it's true! M-W says "from datus, past participle of dare to give."
The reason this is pleasing to me is that dative case is for indirect objects, which are canonically the recipients of something: they are given things. Here are some examples where dative would be used:
I gave the bone to the dog.All these cases (get it?) show someone being given some thing or benefitting from some action, and therefore would be in the dative case. So neat.
The waiter served the guests dessert.
She helped me change the tire.
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