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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: engineering

crunch the numbers

(1980’s | computerese? enginese? | “wade through OR digest the figures”)

Some new expressions engulf the landscape, washing over us all and forcing themselves on every ear, if not every lip. When we talk about common expressions, those are usually the kind we mean. There is another kind, though, not so ubiquitous, but unavoidable because the preferred, or only, way to refer to a particular action, process, or concept. So it likewise forces itself on every ear, but without the same unrelenting insistence. “Crunch the numbers” is one of those. It has become inevitable, in a culture devoted to amassing vast reservoirs of data, that we have a word for getting something useful out of all those statistics — once you collect all those numbers, you have to do something with them. There’s really no other word for it, and the phrase has become invariably associated with statistical distillation. The commonplace is formed not only from sheer frequency; if you have no choice but to reach for the same expression every time, it makes its presence felt.

The point of “crunching” the numbers, I think, is that they are reduced in size and complexity, like a mouthful of bran flakes turning into easily swallowed mush. The computer — number-crunching is almost invariably associated with computers, occasionally with calculators — takes a huge, indigestible mass of data and breaks it down. The expression seems to have arisen in the engineering community in the sixties and moved beyond it by the early eighties. It gained ground quickly, and soon no longer required quotation marks or glosses (actually, it was never generally glossed). Some expressions, though slangy and therefore not reproduced in mainstream publications until well after they’ve become ordinary, at least in their field, take hold quickly once they do because they’re easy to grasp and enjoy.

“Crunch the numbers” was at one time sole property of engineers and programmers; a few more professions may try it on now — accountants and statisticians primarily. The function of the computer, as envisioned in the post-war world, was to do many, many calculations per minute by brute force, placing vast amounts of computing power in one place and letting ‘er rip. I haven’t done the research to determine the no doubt lively expressions the tech boys used in the decade or two before “crunch the numbers” came along, or maybe it arose earlier than I think. It seems likely that there was no predictable expression before we started using this one, because we so rarely needed to talk about that volume and density of computation.

“Crunch the numbers” doesn’t share the taint of “massage the numbers,” or “game the system” or “fuzzy math.” A ground-level, first-resort expression must remain neutral, and the phrase is not generally used to question the motives or competence of those doing the crunching. “Run the numbers” is a little different, meaning “execute the formula and get the answer.” It likewise lacks any dubious connotation, despite a superficial resemblance to that staple of urban gambling, “running numbers” (or “playing the numbers”).

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#

(enginese, computerese | “number sign,” “cross-hatch”)

Let’s start with a home truth. This symbol, in my youth, was commonly known as a “number sign” in the U.S. That was by far the most settled, widespread way of referring to it. I don’t remember ever seeing it used to denote “pound(s),” though apparently it was. The musical kids might have called it a “sharp sign,” although the pitch symbol is tilted upward and doesn’t look quite the same. It could be called a “hash mark,” although that isn’t how I remember seeing that term used. “Hash mark” in the military meant service stripe (a patch sewn onto the sleeve of the uniform), and it’s part of a football field, where it refers to yard markers between the yard lines that run the width of the field and mark multiples of five and ten. You might call the symbol a “cross-hatch,” or possibly a “grid” (another football echo: the football field was once known as the “gridiron”). And of course, a tic-tac-toe board, for that quickest of childhood games: four lines on a piece of paper and off you go. True, a tic-tac-toe board has all right angles, unlike the slanted lines necessary for the number sign or sharp sign.

The common name for this symbol has changed twice in the last thirty years, which is unusual, even striking. “@” has been revived by the onset of e-mail and then Twitter, but it is still generally referred to as the “at-symbol” or just “at,” as far as I know. (But who knows what our young, fast fellow citizens call it now?) “Star” has gained a lot of ground on “asterisk,” but it was common to call an asterisk a star before the dawn of the computer age, and “asterisk” has remained ordinary, partly due to its common use in discussions of baseball statistics. Typographical symbols, punctuation marks, oh, they may have more than one name, but four or five? No, “#” seems uniquely blessed in that department.

Some recent writers have erred on the side of credulity by citing “octotherp” (or “octothorpe”) as the proper technical term for this symbol. There are several versions of the story on-line. Bell Telephone introduced Touch-Tone dialing in 1963, but the pound key and star key did not appear until 1968. The engineers didn’t know what to call it — some say that it was called “pound sign” from the beginning, but evidence either way is sparse — and some of them began referring to it as “octotherp” (“therp” being a nonsense syllable) or “octothorpe” (in honor of Jim Thorpe). That may be what the guys down at the engineers’ lodge called it on wild Friday nights, but no one else ever uttered such a word until the internet — able to spread more misinformation faster than any previous medium — came along.

Our no longer new friend, the “pound sign,” seems to have entered our vocabulary around 1990 (I don’t remember when I first encountered it, but that sounds about right) in reference to the telephone keypad. You can find many elaborate explanations on-line of the “lb” glyph with a ligature evolving into the “pound” sign. Maybe so. As noted above, I don’t recall ever seeing “#” used that way until people started trying to figure out why the hell we were all calling it the pound sign all of a sudden. I would love to see some old photos, or movies, that showed an actual use of the symbol to stand for “lb.” Not that there any more convincing explanations out there. A few brave souls try to derive it from the L-shaped symbol for British currency, but that seems less likely still. (For the most comprehensive exposition of the pound sign mystery, try the ever-reliable Language Log.) Thanks mainly to endless recorded instructions played over the telephone, we all learned the new name in short order, and it was even starting to worm its way into non-telephonic fields, when along came Twitter.

The new social media service was looking for a simple way for people to express common interests and form groups; in 2007 Chris Messina proposed using the pound sign as a prefix to allow easy searches for tags. The idea took off, and now “hashtag” is used even in spoken conversation. “Hash” is an older computerese term, and the “pound sign” has been called the “hash key” (presumably a corruption of “hatch”) for years in Britain. “Tag” was and remains a blogger’s term for a subject heading, a term appended to a post to make it easier to find with a search engine. So “hashtag” was ripe for the plucking, and “#” grew yet another name. While “pound sign” still rules telephony after 25 years, “hashtag” is moving beyond Twitter and teenage conversation. The fact of the matter is that outside of telephones and Twitter, we seldom have occasion to refer to “#” and therefore probably don’t really need a general term, much less two or five. Well, not five, now that “number sign” is extinct. A humble old name for a once-humble symbol, pushed aside by the usual suspect, aggressive technological change.

If Twitter remains part of everyone’s everyday life, it’s quite possible that “#” will remain “hashtag,” shed its other names, and settle into respectability. Maybe it’s another symbol’s turn to develop a promiscuous side. I nominate the caret (shift-6), to be renamed (at first) the “hat sign,” indicating one’s preference in headwear, as in “^fedora” or “^tarboosh.” #anotherbreedofhat

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bucket list

(2000’s | journalese)

I’m not real up on popular culture, despite rubbing elbows with teenagers with modest regularity, so I will go ahead and explain this term for those who share my plight. “Bucket list” was popularized by a movie of the same title released in 2007. It refers to the goals you aim to achieve before you die — that is, kick the bucket. (“Kick the bucket” goes back to the eighteenth century, and its origins remain uncertain.) The film received plenty of publicity, starring as it did Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and the phrase soon took root in the popular lexicon. According to one history of the term, it was first used in today’s sense in 2004, but the citation isn’t entirely convincing.

Not that the phrase was invented then; it had a previous life in engineering and computer science. My father, an electrical engineer, remembers using the phrase to denote instructions for placing integrated circuits on circuit boards to build this or that device. In computer science, a bucket is a storage place or buffer for disparate pieces of data that have a common feature important enough to warrant grouping them together. When you record the names and locations of the different buckets, presto! a bucket list. The term was also used by archeologists to mean an inventory of artifacts removed from a dig (also “basket list”), a surprisingly intuitive usage. “Bucket list” could also refer to a group of items set aside in a negotiation, for example — points to be considered later, or in a different phase of the discussion. None of these definitions was ordinary or widely understood. Now they never will be. The first three were strictly technical terms, and the fourth never took hold. Because it was unfamiliar to most of us, when the hype for the movie ramped up in 2006, reporters felt compelled to explain the phrase and its derivation. When the movie was released at Christmastime in 2007, reviewers followed suit. By 2008, most of us knew what it meant and why.

What we didn’t know was how. My research was not exhaustive, but I couldn’t find any sign that any of the two million or so reporters who covered the film ever thought to ask any of its creators how they arrived at “bucket list.” The story and screenplay were due to Justin Zackham, and Rob Reiner directed. There’s no reason to think Zackham doesn’t deserve credit for the coinage (or repurposing, as the kids today say), but did anyone ever ask him to expound on his language-changing idea? Here’s a new word that everyone is using all of a sudden, and it has an unusually unconvoluted path into our vocabulary. Not only that, there were only one or two people that had a plausible claim to originating it. How come no one asked them about it? Gee, Mr. Zackham, where did you come up with “bucket list”? For at least a few years before 2007, you can find citations of “life list” used to mean exactly the same thing, a term from birdwatching that used to denote a catalogue of every variety of bird one has sighted (I confess I don’t recall ever hearing it). “Wish list,” though much more common, is much less specific, lacking the urgency lent by death’s door. Other than that, I don’t know of another word for the phenomenon, old or new. So whoever came up with it did us all a favor.

There’s a tendency to believe that many new expressions come from movies or television, but in my experience it’s rare to find one that is both invented (or at least given what appears to be an entirely new definition) and popularized by a single film. Most new or newish expressions popularized by movies were definitely in use before the film came out. “Bucket list” may have been, but the evidence is very sparse and unconvincing. Other examples of film-borne expressions: “wingman,” “don’t go there,” “you’re toast,” “meltdown,” “perfect storm,” “-whisperer.” All had been sighted before appearing in the film that made them famous.

Thanks to my sister for nominating “bucket list” this week, and to Dad for pitching in with some old IEEE lore. The family that blogs together slogs together.

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comfort zone

(1980’s | enginese | “groove,” “sweet spot,” “where you feel at home,” “good way”; “old familiar ways,” “rut”)

Among engineers, this is not a new expression at all. It is at least a hundred years old, first used by the kind of technician who studies indoor environments and how human occupants respond to them. (The term may also be used to talk about the outdoors, but it has always been more common among heating and ventilation engineers than among climatologists.) Specifically, the “comfort zone” is defined by the answer to the question: What range of temperature and humidity allows people to go about their business without sweating or shivering? Metaphorical use was possible but rare before 1980. A few advertisers adopted it in the early sixties — it was even the name for a model of brassiere — but it didn’t take flight then. The passage to general and frequent use seems to have gone through sports reporting, whether talking about fish choosing where to hang out in a lake or a basketball player’s favorite place to shoot from. By 1990 it had spread pretty far.

When this phrase started getting tossed around in the eighties, it could mean almost anything. A range of statistical values (e.g., An inflation rate of 2 per cent is well within the comfort zone), a stage of development (so you might go through several comfort zones on the way to mastering a complex skill), a margin of error (as in a hockey team feeling bolder because they have a good goaltender), an ideal position (as in an OPEC minister after demand for oil has gone back up), a close relationship (two friends who get along especially well have a high comfort zone), even personal space. The American people got hold of this engineer’s expression in the seventies and eighties and reinterpreted it gleefully and thoroughly. But most of these meanings didn’t persist; by 2000 two had pretty much won out. One was the athlete’s sense described above, which was descended directly from the original meaning. In the old days, the point of the comfort zone was to equip buildings with a pleasant environment, where employees would be at their most efficient, or where homedwellers would be as graciously cocooned as possible. The comfort zone was where you felt your best and did your best work. That connotation has held up, particularly in sports talk. But “comfort zone” has grown a complementary yet distinctly unsavory connotation. Instead of being the groove you swing in, it’s the groove you’re stuck in — where one gets trapped in the same old same old, the old reliable routines we live with because they’re too much trouble to change. Orators and do-gooders of all stripes enjoin us to expand our comfort zones, or break free of them entirely, so we can do things we thought we couldn’t (or wouldn’t), which in turn will free us up to experience new things, grow in new directions, maybe even reach our potential. It’s rather striking how ubiquitous this meaning has become. If LexisNexis is to be believed, the negative use of “comfort zone” has all but taken over the language, with all others trailing far behind.

This expression’s decisive turn to the pejorative was not predictable. One possible source is the idea of a stage in development I alluded to above; you have to go beyond your comfort zone to get to the next level, and, ultimately, attain mastery. But here’s a more likely example from USA Today (January 24, 1999) that may help explain the shift. “The students described how whites and blacks seldom interact socially at [the University of] Virginia, preferring to stay in what several students referred to as their ‘comfort zone,’ with people of their own race who share their interests, tastes and culture.” Sure looks like a transitional form from the positive meaning to the negative meaning. The students flock to those with whom they are most at ease. That’s meaning no. 1, right? They’re at their best with the people they understand the best. But you can see what lies around the corner. This comfort zone leads directly to distrust and segregation and the bad old days, allowing the kids to reinforce their prejudices and miss out on valuable new experiences. After a few years of that, a motivational speaker has to come to campus to tell them to step out of their comfort zones and talk to the ones who don’t look exactly like they do. “Comfort zone” was never entirely innocent once it broke out of the engineers’ ghetto, because doing the easy thing every time causes you to forget that you still need to work toward becoming a better person. Over time, this worm in the apple has eaten the whole thing, and “comfort zone” has become a term of repentance and reproof rather than relief and relaxation.

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in the loop, out of the loop

in the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “part of the inner circle,” “in the know,” “on the inside”)

out of the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “unaware,” “(kept) in the dark,” “out of the picture”)

Either way, it’s a political expression. When you try to think of pre-1975 equivalents for “in the loop” and “out of the loop” (listed above) you see that the concept was not so neatly binary back then. It is, I concede, handy to have complementary expressions to talk about one of the most important distinctions in politics: that between who’s in and who’s out, who has clout and who doesn’t, who understands what’s happening and who doesn’t. The “of” imposed by standard English does spoil the symmetry somewhat, but not enough to matter. This pair of expressions thrives in politics because they are both used to talk about deliberate human decisions that try to pass themselves off as acts of God. One does not retire voluntarily from the loop, or rather when one does, we use different words. One may be left, or cut, out of the loop against one’s will, but someone somewhere is exercising conscious intent in so doing. As I’ve noted before, politicians gravitate toward phrases that help them disguise their intentions.

The Carter administration favored “in the loop,” and the Reagan administration preferred “out of the loop,” which suggests that Republicans are more concerned with putting people in their place than Democrats are. The locus classicus of the political use of this phrase remains George H.W. Bush’s defense during his presidential campaign in 1988: that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged the last years of Reagan’s presidency. He meant that he was ignorant: no one had ever mentioned in his presence the illegal funneling of ill-gotten money to the Contras, which explicitly violated the law and, worse, gave us Oliver North. He was somewhere else when it all happened. Bush had a history with this expression; in the early eighties it had been used to suggest he was disengaged and ineffectual. During the campaign, he succeeded in bending the term into a badge of innocence, and the strategy worked. Bush won the election partly by wearing the now time-honored mantle of the popular but clueless executive.

Someone out there must have a good explanation of the origin of these expressions, but I don’t. “In the loop” was first associated with Walter Mondale and other members of the Carter administration, or at least that was where I found the first instances in LexisNexis or Google Books. Before that, the main place these paired expressions turned up was in electronics or computers. In programming, a “loop” was defined as “any part of a program, long or short, that is repeated over and over again” (Murphy, Basics of Digital Programming, 1972). Instead of a linear sequence, we envision a circle, where it is only one step from the last link in a chain back to the first. So you would see references to “getting out of the loop,” which meant telling the processor to stop and go onto the next step or sequence. It was pragmatic and literal, a term born of the empiric. Most uses of “in the loop” or “out of the loop” were likewise technical, found in biology textbooks or engineering reports, even aviation. But getting out of the loop in computerese means avoiding getting stuck in a backwater somewhere; in other words, it’s closer to how we use “in the loop.” Even allowing for the way phrases mutate when they move into new spheres, I don’t see any particular connection. So how, or where, did Mondale come up with “in the loop”? Engineers consort with military men, from whom politicians love to steal vocabulary, because whatever the colonels are saying must be strong and manly, right? It’s the best explanation I can think of, and it’s not very convincing.

In the eighties and before, “out of the loop” might have a technocratic shading, as in this example from Infoworld (1986): “first, is it possible for someone to gain unauthorized access to the worldwide network of computers and sensors that make up the military’s early warning systems, which is designed to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack; and second, will the Pentagon take the “man out of the loop”?’” In other words: Will the process be entirely automated, with no human intervention at any point? This is slightly different from the idea of being deliberately excluded from sharing information, but only slightly; the technocratic usage is a bit less personal, but it denotes the same operation. “Out of the loop” nowadays sometimes comes close to “shunned”: it’s malicious and requires a conspiracy of some kind. Keeping someone out of the loop might be a beneficent gesture in politics, allowing a politician to skate free because he just didn’t understand what was going on. But in social situations it can be as harsh as being cut dead was in olden days. More than “in the loop,” it has gone beyond its political origins to cast a much wider social net.

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gridlock

(1980’s | enginese | “traffic jam,” “logjam,” “deadlock,” “paralysis”)

I found a handful of doubtful cases in Google Books, but nothing that disproved the reigning explanation of the origin of “gridlock.” The story goes that two traffic engineers, Sam Schwartz and his partner Roy Cottam, invented a word for a nightmarish traffic jam — Manhattan’s street grid rendered completely impassable due to cars blocking every intersection for blocks around. (Maybe it should have been called “gridblock.”) New York has a transit strike every so often, and we had a big one in 1980. No subways and buses means more cars on the same streets means impossible traffic all over Midtown. Schwartz by that time was a city employee, and the word started to turn up regularly in the New York Times. (William Safire was an early partisan, using the word several times in his language column between 1980 and 1982; one lexicographer was watching it closely even in 1981.) It was thoroughly established within a few years. In the early days, it was used most often to talk about movement of motorized vehicles, but the word was used in discussions of politics as early as 1980, and quickly developed secondary senses in the realms of legislation (parties can’t agree on anything) and the judicial system (shortage of judges preventing cases from being resolved quickly). It can still be used to talk about traffic, but that sounds a little prosaic, now that the term is heard far more often in political discourse. Today, “gridlock” takes flight only when used to bash one’s political opponents as obstructionists, do-nothings, and filibusterers.

Schwartz did well by the coinage, anyway: he went on to write the wonderful “Gridlock Sam” traffic advice column for the New York Daily News –- one of the few bright spots of the News in the mid-1990’s, as I recall –- and he remains a respected commentator on traffic and transportation. That’s a full-time job in New York, and few are better at it.

The three uses mentioned above (traffic, politics, courts) constitute a relatively small number, considering how often the word appears. It has retained a narrow range with little spread into new applications. No one talks about “emotional gridlock,” or “office gridlock.” When it comes to traffic, the word denotes immobility due to overuse of the roads. But in political use — much more common these days — the immobility isn’t generally due to an oversupply of legislative proposals or debates; it’s more likely to arise from throwing sand in the gears. Classic gridlock isn’t willed. It just happens, because there’s nowhere for all the cars to go. But partisan gridlock is often the deliberate result of the efforts of a small group. There is a broadening of definition here, but not of application; the use of the word in politics caught on early and fast and now is omnipresent.

Legislative gridlock is always deplored, and no one ever speaks up for it. But gridlock is good. When the two parties disagree on how to achieve the shared goal of screwing most of the population, gridlock can keep things from getting worse too fast. It’s surprising how often American voters wind up with divided legislatures, or a partisan divide between the legislature and the executive. I think that’s partly because we understand instinctively that government can do a lot of damage in a hurry if the people don’t find ways to apply the brakes. (Witness the shitstorm of changes in North Carolina this year, when both houses of the legislature and the governor are all of the same party for the first time since Reconstruction.) Like pork-barrel spending, gridlock may not be so bad. The ruthlessly efficient government is the most dangerous because it is most likely to disregard the will of the people. Democratic governments need to slow down, hear from a lot of different sides, and throw bribes at voters to stay in power. That is one of the great premises of our political system: making it difficult to pass (or change) laws, because so many competing interests must be placated. Gridlock caused by partisan differences and failure to compromise is an important check on the legislature.

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man up

(2000’s | athletese | “be tough,” “take it like a man,” “do your duty,” “rise to the occasion”)

Here’s one more word that politicians have made ubiquitous, but its athletic origin is pretty well established. In an excellent column on the origin and development of the term, Ben Zimmer points to “cowboy up” (from rodeo slang) and “man up” from football and basketball. The rodeo term means “take punishment and keep going,” but “man up” is a little more technical, meaning “play man-to-man defense” or maybe “guard your man closely.” In these senses it was also common among athletes in Great Britain and Australia. Before the sports usages, “man up” meant “increase manpower” — hire more personnel to meet demand in an industry.

In October 2010, it got a big boost when it cropped up several times during political debates. (Zimmer’s column had appeared in September — is this another case of the baleful influence of the mainstream media?) Sarah Palin challenged the Republican establishment to “man up” and embrace the Tea Party. Sharron Angle of Nevada told Harry Reid to “man up” and admit that Social Security is going broke. Kendrick Meek of Florida used it against Charlie Crist during the governors’ race; then he used “leader up” in the same sentence for good measure. (Meek also gets credit for one of the earliest uses I found among politicians, from 2002: “The governor [Jeb Bush] needs to ‘man up’ and come out and say he’s against it.”)

The angles of the phrase remain to be explored. First, it always goes with a touch of contempt. “Man up” means “you’re not manly enough,” in whatever direction that might be. And there are several. “Man up” means “do what a man’s gotta do,” but what exactly? It means “beat the crap out of that guy” or “keep your woman in her place” or “don’t let on that you’re hurting” or “accept your punishment and make amends” or “admit that you’re wrong” or “meet your obligations” or “do the honorable thing” or “be a mensch.” There are as many definitions as opinions about how men ought to behave, and that terrain has become vexed indeed in the last fifty years.

I hear behind “man up” two older phrasal verbs that I think have influenced its rise: “suck it up” and “own up.” Then there’s one expression I don’t hear but might have had an effect: that old athletes’ euphemistic standby for God, “the Man Upstairs.”

Finally: The “noun + up = verb” construction may be on the verge of becoming a phenomenon. I’ve seen “lawyer up” (get legal advice, especially high-powered legal advice) and even “luck up” (get lucky) once. Only today I saw “neighbor up” on a subway ad. Zimmer mentions a few other examples. This could be a quick-burning fad or it could spread — for the moment, it’s still on the cusp, but that will change. Other examples? “Suit up” and “gum up” have been around for a while (thanks, Liz!). “Ramp up” might be one, but I’m not sure. You might hear “camp up,” but that would normally be transitive: a director might say to the cast, “Let’s really camp this scene up.” “Juice up” sounds to me like “juice” is really being used as a verb, like “power up.” I’m not sure about “pony up.”

tweak

(1990’s | enginese | “(make a) minor adjustment”)

This word has meant “pinch” for a long time, and it often meant something stronger: grab and twist violently. When Hamlet, in one of the earliest recorded uses, says “[he] tweaks me by the nose,” it’s no playful pinch. The tweak is intended to be not only painful but humiliating.

The word has added a new figurative meaning every so often. “Prostitute” came in soon after the first recorded uses but was out-of-date by the eighteenth century. “In a tweak” meant “agitated” or “excited.” When I was a lad, “tweak” meant something like “needle” (v.) or “offend slightly” (cf. “twit” in British English); your sensibilities or your amour-propre might be tweaked, but not your procedure for cleaning the garage. The word crept into larger discussions; there was much talk of the superpowers “tweaking” each other, deploying troops somewhere, concluding a mutual defense treaty with a third country, or otherwise making pests of themselves. The violence had leached out of the word, but a tweak remained an irritant; it was aggravating and provocative, whether you were brazenly twisting someone’s nose or getting in a subtle dig.

Today’s meaning seems to have originated among mechanics and engineers with the sense of a small, quick change to a control or a setting (like the gas pedal or the temperature in a chemical reaction), which lies suspiciously close to “twitch.” (Another ancestor was “tweaking” an engine, or part of an engine, meaning something like “getting a little extra out of it.”) I have a notion that “twitch” helped pave the way for its rise among engineers. While I’m making things up, here’s the other half of it: “tweak” took root as a word specifically denoting a small or minor change owing merely to its resemblance to “weak” or “squeak,” engineering types not being noted for their grasp of linguistic subtleties but showing the odd flash of Joycean creativity.

“Tweak” has shed the last vestiges of its old trappings. That sense of irritation and provocation is gone — it refers now to almost any kind of minor adjustment, and it can be comfortably used with more abstract objects, like a computer program, a speech, or even an attitude. It’s certainly a lot easier to say “We tweaked the regulations” than “We made a minor adjustment in the regulations.” But it has lost its magnitude as well as its power to vex. “Tweak” today is a small word for a small thing. Once it was an affront, an insult, fightin’ words. Now it’s just a quick fix, you’ll never notice, there! we’re done. I’ll bet it’s because it sounded like a couple of more common words — only one of which it’s actually related to — and took on their coloration through semantic slippage and devolution, the destruction of longstanding distinctions through ignorance or carelessness.

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