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July 19, 2019  |  Friday words #180  |  2491 hit(s)

When I was in college, I enjoyed the aspects of research that involved hunting down sources.[1] In my day, that was all stuff on paper, so I ended up checking out books from the library and photocopying articles.

These days I do these sorts of things virtually. When I work on something, I end up with Word files or Google Docs that have dozens of links to promising-sounding articles. Or maybe I have PDF files of actual articles, tucked away in folder.

But there's a difference between collecting up all these sources and actually, you know, reading them. Having a stack of books on the desk, or a manila folder with several inches' worth of photocopies, or lists of links, or folders of PDFs, is not actually the same as knowing what's in all of those sources.

The education researcher Pat Thomson calls this PDF alibi syndrome, which she defines as …

The habit of downloading and saving PDFs in the vain hope that one day I will get around to reading them. It’s not a technical problem at all, or one of lack of time, but rather that I’ve been seduced by the lure of information.

She derives some comfort that the novelist Umberto Eco—no slouch, he—knew all about this issue. As Thomson notes, in his essay "How to write a thesis," Eco says "There are many things I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it." Photocopies, books, PDF files—collecting is fun, but that's just an alibi for doing the work.

I learned this excellent term on Twitter via the editor Iva Cheung, who has actually managed not just to find useful sources, but has used them to write her thesis, in spite of this moment of PDF alibi syndrome:

In response to this plaintive cry, Laura Patsko pointed Iva and the rest of us to Thomson's post about PDF alibi syndrome.

This week’s unexpected origin is for a word I see pretty much every day: detergent. If you look at the word (and if you’re me), you might think that there’s deter and there’s gent. So maybe detergent is some sort of (a)gent that deters … something?

Nope. The first surprise, a mild one, is that detergent seems to have started its life in English around 1600 as an adjective. But soon enough it was a noun in the same sense that we use it today.

We got it from French, no surprise, but its ultimate origin is of course Latin. In Latin, it was a compound of de, meaning “off, away,” and tegēre, meaning “wipe.” Note carefully: in Latin, it was a verb. And here’s the unexpected part of the origin: we actually have (or had) a verb form of this in English as well—to deterge, meaning the same as in Latin: “to wipe away.” There’s a medical sense of deterge for cleaning wounds specifically. I asked my wife about that, since she’s in healthcare, but it’s not a term she knows, in spite of having cleaned many wounds in her career.

Clearly, detergent is more versatile than I’d thought. And I think it’s time that we brought back to deterge as a verb, don’t you think?

[1] "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book." (Samuel Johnson)

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