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August 05, 2017  |  Friday words, 2017-08-04  |  1627 hit(s)

We finally moved this week, so we're now in an apartment that—hey, here's a surprise—is furnished generously with boxes in various states of openness. And we're running back and forth and back and forth between the old place and the new one for final transfer/cleaning/craigslisting. So words are delayed this week, but are still on my mind.

For a new-to-me term today, I have one that I can relate to based on our recent experience. The term is Ringelmann Effect, which is one name among several for a counterintuitive but well-attested phenomenon: adding workers to a job has diminishing effectiveness. It's kind of the opposite of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Ringelmann was a French agricultural engineer who observed the non-linear effectiveness of adding horses or oxen to a team pulling a wagon. (There's a good summary of his work in this IEEE blog entry.) Starting from that, he (and others) generalized this insight. For example, there's a version of this called Brooks's Law, named for the software theorist Fred Brooks, that goes "Adding manpower to a late project makes it later." Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a version called the two-pizza rule about productivity in meetings: "Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group."

We saw the effect in action this week. For our move, we hired a team of three movers, but they brought along a fourth guy. Well, it was pretty clear that he didn't add anything like 25% effectiveness to the team. But they seemed like they were pretty busy, so I didn't give them the benefit of my recent learnings about the Ringelmann Effect.

Moving to (haha) unexpected word origins. If you are like me, you might look at the word parchment and kind of suppose that it probably has something to do with parch meaning "dry," maybe because parchment is dried skin? Nope. Although, to be clear, parchment is dried skin.[1] I was reading about the history of printing, and the author mentioned that parchment is actually a toponym—that is, based on a place name. The simple version of the story is that parchment is from Pergamena charta, meaning "paper from Pergamum." Pergamum, as I also just learned, was a Greek kingdom in Asia Minor, and was presumed to be the place where dried skin was first used as a thing to write on. I guess I'm always a little surprised and delighted to find geography hiding in the origins of our words.

Slightly odd fact I also learned: the origins of parch as a verb ("parched") are unknown.

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[1] The slang-y term sheepskin to mean "diploma" derives from the fact that diplomas used to be written on parchment.