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October 12, 2018  |  Friday words #142  |  466 hit(s)

This week's new-to-me word is Voldemorting, which I learned about from an article in Wired. As you can guess, it originated in the Harry Potter series, where characters avoided saying the name of He Who Must Not Be Named. (As it turned out, avoiding the name was wise, because simply uttering the name Voldemort had consequences.)

The new use of Voldemorting is also about avoiding names—but in this case, it's so as to not give the name more search "juice" on the internet. In its original use, the idea was to avoid naming trashy celebrities, thereby not helping build their fame (and search result ranking). As the Wired article explains, this has extended into the political realm, where people use euphemisms and work-arounds to avoid naming politicians they disapprove of, and (potentially) to avoid being tracked by people who track mentions of particular names.

What I find fascinating about this term is how it ties into our collective unconscious about the power of language. Probably since language was invented, people have felt that certain language was special: using certain words (abracadabra) or names (YHWH) had powerful, perhaps mystical effect. We still have societal customs around performative language ("I now pronounce you man and wife," "You're out!"), and even in these latter days, there are words that are so powerful that they're simply taboo: we may not utter them for fear of consequences.[1]

Voldemorting extends this sense that certain words have special powers, but with a new and technological twist. Using certain words (on the internet, anyway) has actual, trackable effect. And as with taboos of the past, we can fend off certain undesirable outcomes by avoiding those words. You don't want to accidently summon any demons, right?

Origins. You might know that when I wear my editor hat, there are cetain words that I'm constantly trying to remove from technical documents. Among them are consider ("Consider increasing the memory size") and desire ("Specify the desired operating system"). I found out just recently not only where these words come from, but that they have a common root.

From the lexicographer Serenity Carr, I learned recently that desire is de ("removed, away") and sire is really sider, a Latin word for a star or heavenly body. (Compare sidereal.) The connection between "long for" and heavenly bodies isn't entirely clear ("the sense-history is unknown"—OED), but being away from a star makes you long for things. I guess.

And we can now see the connection to consider, whose origins I learned just this week. Consider is of course con ("with") and sider ("star" again). To consider is to "examine closely"; as the OED says, the relation to stars "might thus be originally a term of astrology or augury." But they're not sure.

Notwithstanding these interesting origins, I'm still going to try to spike every instance of desire and consider that I encounter in the docs I edit. Fair warning.

[1] The list of taboo words of course changes over time. Words that we can freely speak today were taboo in previous times; words that our forefathers used routinely are now taboo.

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Julian   12 Oct 18 - 7:33 AM

As someone who has used 'consider' that way without any inkling of it being a problem, I am interested in how you suggest rewording such a sentence (and, perhaps, why.)

My attempts to search for existing advice from style guides just revealed dozens of style guides that use 'consider' in that same way.

mike   05 Nov 18 - 7:56 PM

Hi, Julian. I'm not actually ignoring your comment. I'm just pondering it, because I think it's worth a blog post. But that's going to require some time, plus I haven't pondered enough yet. Soon, though!

I think that my starting point is going to be with the relative weakness of "consider" in any prescriptive guidance. But I'll need some examples that will help me clarify my position.