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June 05, 2020  |  Friday words #223  |  1983 hit(s)

The new words are coming fast and furious these days. Tony Thorne and Nancy Friedman have been tracking Covid-related terminology. But that was last week's news.

This week it's about protests. I saw a couple of related terms that emerged this week: optical allyship and ally theater. My understanding is that these mean essentially the same thing, namely talking the talk but not walking the walk. Another term is performative allyship. The term optical allyship was apparently invented at the beginning of May by Latham Thomas, who was observing that doing something like posting allyship messages on social media can look like allyship but isn't by itself the whole story.

There are some interesting things to examine here. First, there's allyship. There's a neutral definition ("The state or condition of being an ally"), but in the context of optical allyship it's defined this way:

Allyship is an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person holding systemic power seeks to end oppressions in solidarity with a group of people who are systemically disempowered.

The disempowered in this context can be any minority, including LGBTQ people and people of color. (There are initiatives where I work for people who want to learn and practice allyship, which is good, because tech has its issues with privilege.)

Then there's the optical part. Optics has referred for a while to the appearance of a thing, as in the phrase bad optics. Ben Zimmer wrote a column 10 years ago in which he found a member of Jimmy Carter's administration in 1978 saying "It would be a nice optical step." It's easy to unpack optical allyship as someone who only appears to be doing allyship.

I'm not aware offhand of other optical-type compounds like this (and I can't devise a search that finds such compounds), but I can see it being productive in forming new "only the appearance of" terms.

I also mentioned the synonym ally theater. This was reminiscent to me of the term security theater, which was coined by the security expert Bruce Schneier. Security theater refers to measures that look like they're providing security but aren't particularly effective—except perhaps at making people feel more secure. (The example people usually point at is TSA checks in airports.) Thus also ally theater, which might make people feel good, but is not very effective.[1]

If you're interested in non-optical allyship, a web search will give you plenty to read. And if you know of other optical-type compounds or more [concept] theater terms, let me know.

Ok, origins. This week it's percolate. When I was a wee lad, people made coffee using a percolator, a method that ends up boiling the coffee, which probably makes a lot of people today shudder. There's also of course a metaphoric sense of "spread gradually."

The origin is almost clear from the word, it turns out. The per- prefix means "through." And the -colate part is "to strain." It's pleasing to me that we've seen this root before, in the word colander! Who knew. Although in the case of percolate, the word doesn't have that "excrescent N" that somehow found its way into colander.

And speaking of origins, here's another quickie word origin, one that's been in the new this week: loot (via Nancy Friedman) and looter (via Ben Zimmer in the WSJ, paywall).

[1] I have a grumpy feeling that some part of what we're seeing with the anti-COVID measures is "hygiene theater."

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