What are words for?

14 06 2012

Orthogonal.

Been seein’ that word a lot lately. Orthogonal.

But what does it mean?!

Given the context in which it tends to be used (“this may be orthogonal to the conversation. . .”) my sense was:

  • indirectly related
  • related in some obscenely complicated manner in which it at first doesn’t appear to be related but with in time will be reveled to be directly related
  • perpendicular
  • coming out of nowhere but in fact crossing into the realm of whatever’s being discussed
  • origamically folded in geometric shapes
  • related in some origamically folded & geometrically shaped way

And then I remembered: dictionary! And thus I checked the very large third edition (1971) of Webster’s International Dictionary on top of a file cabinet at my day job (had to stand on a stool to be able to peer down and not just across) and discovered:

1orthogonal adj: lying or intersecting at right angels: RECTANGULAR, RIGHT-ANGLED. . . 2a: mutually perpendicular. . . b: completely independent

2orthogonal n: an imaginary line at right angles to wave crests in oceanography

So there it is! Some of my [more sober] guesses were correct, which is nice, but I also like that I now have the image of origamically-folded geometric shapes bobbing on the waves.

Anyway, I’m not quite sure from where this little wave (!) of usage of the term comes.  What is it that leads an obscure phrase of bit of academic jargon—and, again, I’m not against jargon!—off of the bench and on to the field?

Paradigm, peripatetic—I’ve talked about this before—why do some words or phrases bob up? Why do they sink? (An answer to the latter question would be particularly helpful, as I would like to term “meme” to sink lifeless to the ocean floor. I fuckin’ hate that word.)

“Metrics” also gets tossed about, as does “deploy”, and there was this one other academic concept which I thought of earlier but have since forgotten, and there are far too many people who toss around the word “genetic” as if it were interchangeable with “biology” and/or “fixity”. It is not.

Then there are the terms which arise from one corner of the culture and soon colonize the entire petri dish: clutching at pearls, get off my lawn, batshit crazy, and, perhaps, Overton window. There was one gent on Rod Dreher’s old BeliefNet blog who was fond of the phrase “bar-the-door-Katie”—which, I agree, is a fine phrase, but one best used sparingly. He did not.

I have regretfully (!!) given up the phrase “batshit crazy” because it has, in its ubiquity, lost its bite. Perhaps I’ll be able to resurrect it one day as a conscious bit of retro-retrieval (dandy! peachy! groovy!), but, in the meantime, I’ll have to content myself by watching these odd lexical bits float up from the depths and try to barnacle themselves to the good ship Pop Culture.

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