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Learned Volume 5, Issue 48
This week: The chat bots are taking over. Resistance is futile. But navel-gazing and doomscrolling are always productive! And so we read on for new words and the same old fears.
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Like everyone else who uses words for a living, I am simultaneously galvanized and terrified of generative a.i. On the one hand, it'll make my job so much easier. On the other hand, it may actually take my job. Who knew that reading up on these hyper-modern tools would actually lead me to learning an interesting but somewhat obscure little word?
Our word this week is otiose, a relatively recent borrowing from Latin, first as the noun otiosity in the 15th century and subsequently back-formed into an adjective. Here's Merriam-Webster's definitions:
1: producing no useful result : FUTILE
2: being at leisure : IDLE
3: lacking use or effect : FUNCTIONLESS
Writing in Nautilus Magazine, Philip Ball relates the story of teaching a computer class at a prison. He, Ball, dutifully instructed his students in the names and functions of all the parts of a computer, only to be met with frustration on the part of the students who just wanted to know how to use the damned things. He continues:
I appreciate that sometimes schoolchildren must feel toward language learning somewhat as my prison class did to computers, being told the unfamiliar names of the components (noun, embedded clause, fronted adverbial; CPU, RAM, bits and bytes) while thinking, “But I just want to know how to use it!” But ChatGPT seems to make all that groundwork otiose, much as your average computer user needs to know nothing of coding or shift registers. English writing? There’s an app for that.
I'm not sure he's wrong. After all, I teach the language and I rarely use any of the arcane vocabulary he stuffs inside parentheses. In my job I've found that anything beyond noun, verb, adjective, and adverb should only be used with extreme considerationand forethought, especially said forethought is usually, don't.
But let's get back to otiose. Ball uses the word in a something of a fusion between definitions one and three. We could substitute either futile or functionless into his sentence and still retain the gist of his statement. But that's what I like about the word and the reason I'm drawing attention to it in this essay.
Dictionaries list definitions in numerical order as a way of demarcating the nuances in a word's meaning. There is no rule that says a word has to be used according to the confines of one sub-definition or another. Rather, the point is to have the full range of nuance available to the user of the word. In this case, that Ball was able to pull otiose out of his personal lexicon and deploy it in a manner that adds nuance and depth to his thesis is something to be enjoyed and appreciated.
Which made it all the more surprising that I had never heard or seen this word before. So I did some research.
As I noted above, otiosity entered English in the 15th century, but the coining of otiose did not happen until 1794. It's first usage was synonymous with futile, gaining the meaning of idleness in the 1850s. Google Ngram Viewer shows a slow but steady growth throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, peaking in 1999. But, as is so often the case, it is the corpora that tell the real story.
Of the 400 results returned from the NOW corpus (ranging from 2010 to two-weeks ago), a shocking number come from one source: Livelaw.com. Of the remaining sources, otiose is overwhelmingly attached to politics. While I did not read closely every resultthe impression I got was that both quadrants overwhelmingly used otiose in its first definition, as a synonym for futile.
I suspect that by the coming months, we'll see dozens more articles and blog posts and even newsletters debating the ethics and technologies inherent in using generative a.i. For my part, I don't think there is any choice but to learn to live with and make use of these new tools. As comforting as it might be to stick our heads in the sand and hope they go away, long experience and a certain Borg queen have taught us that resistance is otiose.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Sometimes I find myself deep down a rabbit hole and I have no recollection of how I got there. This is one of those weeks. But, where I ended up is the weirdly fascinating Wikipedia page for Hendiatris - “a figure of speech used for emphasis, in which three words are used to express one idea.”
I had always learned this as the rule of three, or even the tripartite motto, both of which are referenced on the same page. The idea that a modern, sappy, three-word slogan like “live, laugh, love,” is also a hendiatris never crossed my mind. So, that’s the rabbit hole this week. Short as it is here, just reading that wiki page is more than enough to get you started. Good luck!
From the Archives
This week, we’re looking back exactly one year, to February 2022, when I wrote about the humble coffee-table book. I love coffee table books but I haven’t bought any in a while. Most of my physical book purchases in the past few months have been textbooks or essay collections, and I kind of miss shopping for these massive tomes that have no place to sit on my shelves but that I can’t stop perusing. Here’s the essay. Enjoy!
I really like otiose but I am having a hard time learning to say it. Merriam-Webster helpfully offers a clickable sound file on each of their definitions; the sound hitting my ears is something like, "oh-she-os" but I've been learning Japanese and Spanish and even Cherokee for too many years. I keep wanting to say it as "oh-tea-oh-say." At least it's not the French derivation, spelled oiseux and pronounced wazoo, as in blow it out your...
Also, extreme consideration should be understood to mean, willingness to let half the class drift away into la la land.
Although I'm happy to undertake a semantic study of the word across multiple corpora and discourse markers for anyone with funding. Anyone? Hello? Anybody at all?