When obfuscation is a good thing

Working on a technical book reminds the Monitor's language columnist how language is about connotation as well as denotation.

About all that most of us know about obfuscation is that we should eschew it. And what about eschew? Have you ever, ever heard anyone use this word in conversation?

The word sounds, depending on which dictionary you take your cues from, variously like a sneeze or an effort to spit something out, perhaps after having bitten into it and found it wanting.

And the obfuscation we are to eschew, or avoid, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from a Latin word referring to darkening. It was originally a medical term, referring to the darkening of a sore.

Nowadays it's used to mean the confusion or bewilderment caused by someone who covers his utterances with a protective layer of blather.

But as I assess the lessons learned from a technical book whose publication I've just been involved with, I realize that some of the lessons were in vocabulary. And obfuscation was one of the words I learned a little more about. It has a technical sense referring to the business of creating computer code that is hard for people to read.

Such code is hard to understand and hence hard to tamper with. It provides "security through obscurity," in other words. And that is a good thing.

That wasn't the only word I got to know better while working on this book. Being of the "write it down and get it out of your head" school of thought, I started making a little list of words headed "Peculiar tech talk."

It included "obfuscation," of course. It also included redundancy. Techies always like redundancy – lots of it, in fact. Editors, not so much. A techie's redundancy typically refers to something like having more than one place to back up data. An editor's idea of redundancy is excess verbiage, needless words to be omitted.

In British English, "redundancies" are layoffs, and to be "made redundant" – ouch! – is to lose one's job.

Disruptive is less specifically a tech term and more a bit of business jargon, but it's a good example of a negative being recast as a positive. In school, kids who cut up in class are deemed "disruptive" and sent to the principal's office. In places like Silicon Valley, people who shake things up are considered "disruptive" and they become multimillionaires.

And what about default? Its original meaning has to do with failure, often quite specifically bankruptcy or insolvency. But the "default settings" on your new gizmo from the techie toy store have no such grim connotations. "Default" in a gizmo just means "unmodified, the way it came out of the box."

The common thread for these "peculiar" words was that they have negative meanings in general usage but positive or (as in the case of default) neutral meanings in their technical usage. Hey, you guys, I want to holler, don't you get that when you start using a word for one of your specific technical purposes, you should pay attention to how it's used in the larger community?

Why don't software "obfuscators" speak of "cloaking" their code, for instance? That term includes the idea of "covering," for good or ill, but also "protecting," as in "a cloak of privacy."

This may just be the lament of a former lit major. But language is not just about denotation but connotation, too. Careful writers and speakers pay attention to where a word has been and the company it keeps.

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