Daily Archives: April 15, 2010

satisficing

To at least some people’s ears, this word surely does not satisfy. What you see is a common English word (satisfying) with just a slight addition making it a blend with another word (sufficing) – like mocktail (a word that I confess pulls my nose hairs). But this has the added bitterness of business-speak, and of seeming to try to sound clever or superior by dint of a slight modification while not necessarily succeeding, at least in the utterance of its average user.

It’s not that the guy who invented this word was soft-headed. Herbert Simon was one of the leading American social scientists of the 20th century, a Nobel prizewinner, a Turing Award winner, a seminal figure in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and economics (among other fields). He knew how people really do things: markets don’t work with perfectly rational consumers making fully informed decisions, for instance; the cost of getting full information and the effort required to attain perfect results often outweigh the perceptible increase in benefit over a less costly, easier result that is close enough. And choices are often made by groups of individuals with conflicting desires and positions, and simply coming to an agreement is often quite enough, never mind coming to the best possible agreement. So people do what is sufficient to satisfy. Anyone who has worked in the world of business – or, for that matter, just about anyone anywhere who has done anything, really – knows this very well. “That’s good enough – move on,” and the great mantra, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Satisfice.

And no doubt the association of this word with business buzzspeak is a strong factor in its distastefulness to those who dislike it. I think the sound of it is also a problem. To start with, it sounds a bit like a razor doing something I wish it wouldn’t to some usable part of my anatomy. It’s a real hiss festival, and those three i-dots are sort of like one’s hairs standing up at the sound. But beyond that, there’s something satisfying about the word satisfying – that big, wide-open [aI] is like a sigh of satisfaction. But with satisficing, just when you get to that part, there’s an [s], slicing into it. And if you’re Canadian, the vowel sound even changes: the [a] part raises up a bit in the mouth (say eyes; now say ice; repeat) – and the voiceless consonant following it also makes the vowel shorter (a standard effect in most English phonology). So it’s like relaxing in your easy chair and suddenly getting a sliver of ice down your back.

And then there’s the question of redundancy. If we’re talking business, what does satisfy mean, as in “satisfy requirements”? It means “do enough” – not “do everything” but “do enough” (it’s always meant that; it comes from Latin satis “enough” – also the root of satiated – and facere “do”). And suffice means “be enough, be adequate” (from sub “under” – which is often shifted in sense as an affix – and the same facere). It would seem that satisfice is rather more than enough, especially for a word that means, as Oxford puts it, “To decide on and pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal.” I guess satisfy, suffice, and various existing phrases had too much latitude for interpretation, and so Herbert Simon came up with this one to stand clearly for just the meaning he wanted. I do feel that he could have come up with a more aesthetically likeable word, but perhaps he didn’t see it as worth the extra effort.

Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie for wondering aloud about this word on the EAC list.

nonce

As I was on my nightly stroll through the Oxford English Dictionary, I spotted a word that quite fishhooked my eye: hirquitalliency. Needless to say, my hair Van-de-Graaffed. I clicked and looked. It referred to the state, in an infant, of acquiring a strong voice, and was ported over little changed from the Latin for the same, which in turn borrowed it from a Greek word for a male goat. I looked at the citations. How many times had it ever been used, then? Once! Yes, and the OED declares it a nonce-word. Apparently nonce-words used by Sir Thomas Urquhart in or about the year 1600 are worthy of inclusion (with the dagger of obsolescence clearly affixed), even if, in terms of actual usage, they are a non-see.

Of course, one couldn’t include every nonce formation out there. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would blow the doors off the project from the get-go. But nonce words are perfectly good and useful things, suitable in their various cases for entertainment, display of erudition, filling out a line of verse, and plain old directness. They may be non-correct English, ‘n once is enough, but many things are worth doing for the nonce, and neologizing is among them.

Borrowing, compound, derivative, formation, and phrase also all attach to nonce. But outside of linguistic terms, it is seen almost exclusively in the phrase for the nonce (though I suppose it is nonced in here and there on rare occasion, when speakers don their noncing shoes). You will probably already have guessed that its present form arises from a reanalysis – a transfer of the n from word word to another. This is true. However, if you surmise that it comes from for then once, you are mistaken. The transfer happened in the Early Middle English period, back when we still had somewhat more inflection than we do now. The old form of the word one was ane, and the genitive of it was anes; it could be used adverbially in a prepositional phrase, and the definite article had a different form for the genitive, so the phrase was for than anes (to than anes was also used). As the inflections reduced in use, this established phrase became a whole nother thing: for the nanes. And that came to be for the nonce today, without ever actually involving the word once.

So… shall we nonce? It has a nice, light touch to it, doesn’t it? Like the tip of the finger tapping a moment in time, no more than an ounce of eternity (though, ironically, the tongue taps twice, holding the second time). It’s all small, round letters. They could be logical operators: the n is like the intersection sign, the c is like the subset sign, the e could be the “element of” sign, and the o a Venn diagram with only one circle. A single set, a set of one, arising at the unique intersection of specific circumstances, a subset that is an element of… what? Of all the possibilities of that word. Or perhaps the ce is the eyes of a person running a cups-and-ball game (cup: n; ball: o), one eye winking at you: just this once I’ll let you have it, and he flips the middle cup to show you: non. Like that ball, what is for the nonce has a sort of spatiotemporal ubeity; it is, we may say, ad-hocsome. It is a party of one.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting nonce.