Parsing our words carefully

A verb rooted in the world of picky grammarians finds new roles in the larger public discussion.

In journalism, three data points can make a trend. I'm going to lower the bar here: If within one morning newscast I hear the same unusual verb twice in completely different contexts, there may be something worth noting.

It happened the other day, and the verb is parse. In its original meaning parse is, as verbs go, rather a specialized one, the lexical equivalent of a fish knife.

But checking around online, I find parse showing up in a variety of different contexts.

"Researchers try to parse the meaning of the secretive regime's decision to air a heavily edited version of 'Bend It Like Beckham,' about a young soccer player pulled between the sport and her South Asian family's expectations," the Los Angeles Times said of the North Korean government's broadcast of an hour-long version of the flick.

National Journal columnist Eliza Newlin Carney wrote recently, "We'll leave it to constitutional scholars to parse whether Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may resume the Senate's first legislative day (which began on January 5) when senators reconvene on January 24, allowing just 51 votes to prevail."

And deep from the world of geekspeak, reported not long ago, "Motorola Solutions Unveils Next Generation Retail Solutions." The story, about a new hand-held computer, said it "is offered with an optional on-board parsing engine to read and parse PDF417 bar codes on United States driver licenses."

I'll digress to note that engine has come a long way since the dawn of the 14th century, when it meant simply a "mechanical device." Today's "engines" are likely to be virtual gizmos, lines of computer code, ultimately. But parsing has come some distance, too.

Parse goes back to the 1550s, when it meant "to state the parts of speech in a sentence." The Middle English pars, from Old French, was a noun meaning "part of speech." Following a pattern still widespread today, pars the noun became parse the verb. (If you don't like the way I verb a noun, we can dialogue later.)

When 16th-century students parsed sentences, it was in response to a question still posed in Latin: Quae pars orationis? "What part of speech?"

I've never studied Latin, but I know oration when I see it. Suddenly the picky grammarian's task of sentence analysis and diagramming is linked to oratory, and there's a reason that this basic classification of words is called "parts of speech." Cicero, Caesar, Mark Antony, are you listening?

Nowadays the literal process of parsing has left us with a useful metaphor for analysis, just as stereotyping, once a respectable skilled trade, now is a useful term for a bad habit of thought.

When North Korea-watchers are "parsing" Pyongyang's call on "Beckham," they are analyzing it. National Journal columnist Ms. Carney used "parse" in a similar way, but the context suggests a decision based on classification: Mr. Reid's ploy either is constitutional or it isn't.

"His sentences don't parse." That was how a colleague put down some public figure who was giving us heartburn some years ago. He meant that the man wasn't too bright, but the specific implication was that his public utterances didn't bear up under grammatical analysis, let alone political analysis.

It sounds rather like an English major's way of saying, "That dog won't hunt." Remember that one? And now that I reflect, that colleague was an English major. Does that parse?

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