Thursday, 28 April 2011

Law and Definitions

Emeritus Professor Cecil Law died last week, and flags at Queen's are at half-mast until tomorrow. He had served as acting head of what is now the School of Computing during the search for the first capital-H Head in 1969. I never met him (likely because of geekish lack of attention to professional networking); I had plenty of time to do so (he retired from the School of Business eight years after I arrived in what was then the Department of Computing and Information Science), and he would have been worth knowing. Prof. Law was more into operations research and business than what we'd now consider the core of computing, but his association with the Department led to his serving on quite a few Master's degree examinations – where the other members usually conspired not to warn the candidate about his standard question:

“You are studying computer science. Can you tell me exactly what is a computer?”

Go ahead, try it. Don't look up anything, don't consult friends, and don't take hours or even minutes to think about it. Imagine being stared at by four or five august members of faculty, under the illusion that their reaction affects whether you get your degree. And then imagine your subsequent panic when Prof. Law says, “By that definition my X is a computer” where X might be a bicycle, a sewing machine, possibly even plumbing.


If you were a physicist in the early 20th century, you'd have said “an unmarried woman whose only chance of applying her mathematical talents is to perform complex computations with pencil and paper for hours on end.” In the late 1940's, what we now abbreviate “computer” needed a whole phrase: “electronic stored-program digital computer” – and every one of those adjectives was significant: “electronic” to distinguish from human or mechanical or photonic; “digital” to distinguish from analog, and stored-program to distinguish from hard-wired for a fixed task.

The French word, coined after “computer” had already narrowed to its current usage, is “ordinateur:” essentially, something that puts things in order. Boy, did that turn out to be wrong! Prophetically, the coiner asks “un ordinateur met-il vraiment en ordre ce qu'on lui confi?” If you use an automated translator, don't trust the mangled results: It means “Does a computer really put things in order as we trust (literally, “entrust”) it to?” Interestingly, Professor Perret considered “ordinatrice” – a feminine ending instead of the masculine “-eur.” I wonder if the alternative might have subtly influenced a few more Francophone women to enter the field.

I suppose this topic is more word-freakitude than typical-geekitude, but it's yet another aspect of being fascinated by things other people find irrelevant, boring, or weird. Language inevitably evolves, which is often a good thing, but it's a little sad when that evolution leads us to lose track of alternative possibilities.