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May 15, 2020  |  Friday words #220  |  271 hit(s)

I learned at term at work this week that's another example where I was familiar with the idea, but didn't know there was a name for it. The term is the XY problem. It takes a slight bit of explanation.

Let's say you're watering your garden and you notice that there's a leak in your hose. We'll call this problem X. You get out some duct tape and wrap it around the hose. We'll call this solution Y. But the duct tape doesn't stick to the wet hose. So you ask someone "How can I get duct tape to stick to a wet hose?"

Perhaps you see the issue. You have problem X and are struggling with solution Y, and you ask for help with solution Y. What you really want is help with problem X, namely how to fix the leaky hose. Thus the XY problem. As one page defines it, "The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem."

Most of the writing about the XY problem pertains to computer-y stuff. The classic example is someone writing code and asking "How can I get the last 3 characters of a filename?" when what they really want is the filename extension. If you're curious, you can read about other examples.

As I say, I was familiar with this idea. Many times over the years I've asked "What's your real question?", probably mostly at my kids. (I conveniently forget instances when it was me asking about Y.)

The XY problem is considered a problem, such as it is, because it takes longer for people to help you while they suss out what the real issue is. Like I said, the discussions I've seen of the XY problem are mostly in the realm of computers, and boy, people in that realm can be … not nice … about this.[1] (In one example, the would-be helper finally resorts to yelling: Then ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT!) But issues with personal interaction aside, it does seem useful to know the name XY problem, because it gives one (well, me) a framework for recognizing and dealing with instances of it.

Origins. One of my FB Friends had a thought-provoking question for these times: "Why am I carrying around cash in my pockets?" Thought-provoking in several ways, one of which is making a person wonder where the word cash came from.

As Douglas Harper says, "Like many financial terms in English (bankrupt, etc.), it has an Italian heritage." The word was originally cassa, which referred to a box to keep money in—that is, a case or chest. (You can see the family resemblance.) Naturally, this goes back to a Latin word (capsa), which likewise meant "coffer."

We imported the sense of cash as a box. Very soon thereafter, the name of the container became the name of the contents, an evolution we've seen before (as with marzipan, maybe). At least, it did in English; as the OED notes, this didn't happen in other languages.[2] The "box" sense eventually became obsolete. (You might wonder, as I did, whether the word cache is related to the "box" sense of cash. Answer: no.)

The Dictionary.com site suggests that cash might be a back-formation from cashier. But they don't explain this, and it isn't in other sources, though it sounds like an intriguing story.

To get back to my Friend's question, if you are carrying cash, may I suggest that you use it to generously tip anyone who delivers things to wherever you're spending this quarantine.

[1] Some people in the computer industry aren't nice?! Whatever will we learn next!

[2] I've always found it interesting that a Spanish word for cash is efectivo, because cash surely is effective.

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