Nick's Notes


I learned a new word yesterday. I picked it up from my colleague Alistair Russell, who had also learned it that same day. Only trouble is it turns out to be over 50 years old.

We were discussing data analytics, and crashing together datasets to find new relationships and effects when Alistair came out with “munge”. No one in the group – ten well read individuals – had heard of the word, and I’ve learned today that my spell checker hasn’t either.

In essence it means applying changes to data, which although individually well defined and reversible leave the data unrecognizable at the end of the process (thank you, Wikipedia). It turns out to be an acronym… Mash Until No Good. The “e” is optional. The word was first used in MIT in 1958.

Technologists are good at making up new words, and, much worse in my opinion, at redefining existing words to mean something new. A few minutes thought and you can come up with many examples of both.

But as we move from being in awe of the technology and enjoying the comradeship of being part of something with a special language (which also has the effect, deliberate or otherwise, of excluding those who do not understand it) to ubiquitous computing where communication is key I wonder if we really need to invent new words. There is so much talk about the “democratisation of IT knowledge” driving new technology adoption, that it seems perverse to seek to exclude people through language. But many groups do bind in part by using special words, or words that have additional meaning to the group.

It is not only the tech world that invents new words. The Oxford English Dictionary – which has some tight rules for inclusion and looks carefully at the etymology before insertion – had 3 supplements of words added in 2014. A cursory glance suggests the number of new words added (ignoring the derivatives) runs to several hundred, and there is a curious familiarity about many of them – indicating the conservativeness of the dictionary’s compilers.

But does any of this aid communication? At an abstract level if a word is tightly defined then it does allow discussion of a finer degree of granularity, which is helpful to advance knowledge at a philosophical level. But we’re deep into Stephen Pinker territory now, and I’d recommend “The Language Instinct” and his subsequent books as further reading.

Perhaps in creating this blog, I’ve now munged the original discussion sufficiently. I could have said described – but that doesn’t include my interpretation; distorted – perhaps but that suggests my description was inaccurate; interpreted – undoubtedly but not quite close enough. Perhaps we do need to learn new words… although this one won’t help much in my games of Scrabble.

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