Repurposing words

Esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities

Only, there's no such word. The fabricated esquivalience was included in the recently published second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary as a copyright protection strategy.

This caught my attention because we're working on the vocabulary for the next version of DPM, the terms and definitions that will populate its glossary. And thinking about esquivalience as a fabricated term made me conscious that we repurpose words much more frequently than we create them. I haven't been able to identify a single term that I've encountered in Microsoft's products that was a new, invented word, even when it might describe a function or action or process that no existing word described, which made me think about why we choose to redefine rather than to create.

And that path of research led me to Human computer interaction theories and the idea that, in general, software is designed around a story of user actions that rely on metaphoric symbols to evoke familiar concepts. The action of putting a file in a recycling bin on a computer isn't the behavior you perform when you put a file in a recycling bin physically, but the underlying context -- "I am done with this file and want to get rid of it" -- is familiar to the user. So we repurpose words that users can extrapolate to a new application.

For example, take DPM's file agent. This phrase uses conceptual combination to leverage familiar meanings into a new concept. We might just as easily have called it a grollep, and defined grollep as "Software, installed on a file server, that records changes to protected data in a synchronization log, and transfers the log from the file server to the DPM server".

We didn't. We didn't discuss whether to invent a word. It was taken for granted that we would add new, specialized definitions to familiar words or combinations of words. And ease of learning is a compelling argument for that practice. But now I have a new question to ponder in idle moments: Would there ever be a software application that could find no metaphor?

Comments (1)

  1. An argument against metaphor design: "The biggest problem is that by representing old technology, metaphors firmly nail our conceptual feet to the ground, forever limiting the power of our software." (

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