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August 24, 2018  |  Friday words #135  |  437 hit(s)

Interesting week in Seattle and Portland and Vancouver BC. Due to smoke from wildfires, we had worse air quality than Beijing.

Fortunately, doing words is an indoor activity. Today's new-to-me term comes from internal jargon at Google. Not long ago I saw some email that referred to fishfooding. This puzzled me, so of course I stopped whatever it was I was supposed to be working on and went looking into the term.

Let's start with a term that many people already know: dogfooding. This is used in the software industry, possibly elsewhere, to mean using your own product: "to eat your own dogfood." Let's say you're a startup that's creating a new form of payroll software. If you want to find out what it's really like to use that software, you run your own payroll system on it. You will very soon discover technical problems or usability issues, plus you will reassure customers, since it's obviously good enough for you.

To fishfood is a variant on this idea. At Google, the term is used for very early testing, often with only a limited audience. For example, fishfooding might be done by a small group within the larger development team.

As far as I can tell, the term to fishfood was not coined in a particularly calculated manner. As described in a thread on Reddit, the team that originated the term happened to be working on a product whose code name had a marine flavor ("Emerald Sea"), so they came up with a fishy alternative on dogfooding. As with dogfood, fishfood is used as a verb and noun and adjective: to fishfood, a fishfood release, to be in fishfood (i.e., to be in early testing).

It seems to me that at Google, fishfood has carved out a bit of semantic space that used to be occupied by dogfood. Early uses of the verb dogfood (for example, at Microsoft) referred to using a product internally before it was released. If you look at the definition of dogfood in the venerable Jargon File, it emphasizes this: "Dogfood is typically not even of beta quality"—in other words, it's not ready for prime time. Fishfood has some of this flavor (sorry); something that is somewhat functional but is definitely not in a state to be widely released. As it's used in the company, fishfooding is to dogfood your own product, whereas dogfooding just means to test a product internally, including for other groups. (Many people at the company dogfooded the recent update to Gmail, for example.) Anyway, that's my interpretation of the difference.

It will be interesting to see whether fishfood spreads outside of Google, perhaps as people familiar with the term migrate to other companies. Stay tuned. (Resist urge to make pun.)

You know the word stevedore, right? Maybe, sort of? I ran across it not long ago and made a quick jaunt to the dictionary to make sure that I did in fact have it right: "one who loads and unloads ships." And while I was there, I thought I should look up where it came from, because its origin did not seem obvious at first glance.

It appears we got stevedore from the Spanish word estivador, which has the same meaning ("one who packs"). If you were here recently for penthouse, you might remember the process of aphaeresis, which is the process that chopped off that unstressed initial e-. So it's a simple borrowing, really.

But wait, there's more. We used to have a verb to steeve, which meant to pack (tightly), as you might with cargo in a ship's hold. This verb, along with the Spanish and French cognates, goes back to a Latin verb stipare, meaning "to crowd" or "to press." A weird wrinkle, as noted, is that although we had to steeve, we didn't create the word steever from it ("one who steeves"), as we probably should have. Instead, we borrowed stevedore as a unit from Spanish, complete with its -or ending ("one who …").

I briefly got excited because to steeve … doesn't that sound a lot like to stow? And don't stevedores stow things? But no. To stow seems to come from a Germanic root, not from stipare. Sometimes you really want an etymology to work out neatly like that, but the historical record thwarts you.

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