On making up words…

style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Arial">I was just reviewing some pages for
an up coming book and the proofer didn’t like the word “canonicalize”… And, come
to think of it neither did href="http://www.m-w.com/">http://www.m-w.com. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  But, what I think is a better test for
what’s a word is this dynamic environment is to ask google. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> They certainly agree that canonicalize is
a word.  What do you think? style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Is it acceptable in formal language? What
are other similar words? How about “performant”? style="mso-spacerun: yes">  I am sure our href="http://blogs.gotdotnet.com/johnmont">local grammarian will have
comments…. "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Comments (20)

  1. Kevin Daly says:

    "Performant" is a particularly interesting one, because it’s slightly odd, and I first came across it in an article in French, and as a French word it is fairly unremarkable and consistent with others of its kind – since "-ant" is roughly equivalent to English "-ing" but arguably more flexible (words formed with it are adjectives when used to qualify a noun directly). It’s used not only of code but also high-performance machinery etc.
    So the first time I saw the word in English I was quite surprised, and frankly wondered whether it had been borrowed from French.

  2. David Dillard says:

    Personally, I’d stick with canonicalize. People know what that word means. Use "performant" and people are going to have to use a dictionary. Which is what I had to do by the way. And http://www.m-w.com doesn’t think it’s a word either 🙂

  3. Illumineo says:

    Here in Europe the (Dutch) word ‘kanoniseren’ or ‘kanonisch’ means ‘generic’ or ‘standard’, even ‘default’ or ‘common’. In mathematics you have all kinds of canonical mappings and operations; in set theory and topology e.g. there is the canonical partition based on an equivalence relation. Making this map could be termed with ‘canonicalize’ though nobody use it. Well, whatever, hope this gives you some feedback.

  4. George Chernyha says:

    Personally, I think the curent habit of making up words , which seems to be especially rampant in the IT world, makes one look less, rather than more, intelligent; several comedians have built very successful careers one the concept of malaprops.

    It may be more succinct to use"canonicalize" and hope the reader understands your meaning, but "convert to the canonical form" removes all doubt. Similarly, what is the benefit of using "performant" vs. "well performing" or "properly performing"?

  5. Peter Golde says:

    For "performant", I would prefer "fast".

  6. Kevin Daly says:

    The English language is arguably in danger of collapsing under the weight of hideous neologisms, many of which are the result of laziness, or ignorance of the existence of an existing alternative. There is a related and parallel trend in technical and business language to use any word or expression other than the common one simply out of pomposity (why say "prior to" instead of "before"?). But when all’s said and done, we know that the blame really rests with….Star Trek.
    Yep folks…it’s all those episodes full of people expressing alarm at the dangerously high levels of madeupium in the local environment…

  7. Ray Jezek says:

    I had a similar "debate" with some co-workers when i used the word administrivia during a meeting. They all started razzing me about how it’s not a word and so-on. Searches of the dictionary came up blank of course but google supported my use of the word. Oddly enough my co-workers also accepted the use of the word once they found out google accepted it and that it could be found in use on a plethora of web pages.

  8. Matt C. Wilson says:

    What’s the difference between canonicalize (meaning "make canonical") and canonize (meaning "make something a part of the canon")? Why not just use the verb the programming team already gave you?

  9. Ken Cowan says:

    Are you writing to communicate or writing a scholarly journal? 🙂

    After an editor at Fawcette rewrote a technical article for me, I finally learned what active voice means, and why it’s important. I try very hard to write at the 10th grade level, and assume the reader does not know our jargon. People skim material. I want to make my point in the few seconds I get.

    Think about the last time you read a legal document. It’s very slow reading.

    The point: do not make up words and keep your prose simple.


  10. I suspect that the reason that people don’t use "canonize" is because it’s a speed bump. You hear the word "canon" and think "cannon" and then you miss the next sentence because you spent three seconds wondering why the person you’re listening to is going to blow up their computer with an artillery shell. I’d probably use "standardize" instead of canonicalize.

    "Fast" isn’t a replacement for "performant" because it is less precise. If you say "I’m working to make this system faster," what do you mean? Are you making it perform better, or making a faster user experience, what? I wish I could think of a more performant replacement because "performant" actually sets my teeth on edge.

    I agree with what George said up there, that these kinds of coinages oftem make smart technologists seem dumb. At the same time, I’m not a language purist — I think it’s OK to bend words because they’re our tools. But I would definitely not ask Google for a canonical answer about good grammar.

  11. Kevin Daly says:

    The BIG problem with "canonize" is that its most common usage refers to having someone declared a saint.
    So I’d go with "canonicalize", except that it’s ugly, and the questions remains as to whether we need to express the idea in a single word.
    It could be argued that *not* coining terms for situations like this helps to make technical language more accessible, since people don’t have to find out what all the new words mean. Obviously there are many cases where the introduction of new concept *requires* a new word or a new usage for an existing one (a problem with technical language…it *looks* like English, but…) – but we shouldn’t do it just as a matter of course.

  12. Matt C. Wilson says:

    In the spirit of avoiding sainthood ambiguity, and sheer flippancy, I suggestivize the following alternivators:


    In seriousness though, I agree with Kevin – if it’s this much trouble to find an effective term, maybe a new single word isn’t the best approach.

  13. Aronne says:

    Just to clarify, the word is GREEK. It is not an English word….

  14. Kevin Daly says:

    As for it being not an English word because it is Greek, that’s a tricky one…at what point does a word become naturalised?
    A lot of very common words in English are not even of Old English origin, they were borrowed from Old Norse (including "weak", "she", and yes, "they"). Are they then not English words? And does it matter?
    Actually, this reminds me of a wonderful word I came across the other day in a list of phobias: hellenologophobia – the fear of Greek words. Can you imagine someone delivering the diagnosis?
    Doctor: "What you have is a clear case of hellenologophobia"
    Patient: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrggghhh!!!!"
    It’d be like The Knights Who Say "Ni!".
    It must be a bit like Catch-22: if you can say you’ve got it, you can’t really have it.

  15. Aronne says:

    Kevin wrote in his message:

    "As for it being not an English word because it is Greek, that’s a tricky one…at what point does a word become naturalised?
    A lot of very common words in English are not even of Old English origin, they were borrowed from Old Norse (including "weak", "she", and yes, "they"). Are they then not English words? And does it matter?"

    Of course it matters if the word is English or not and what is its origin, in order to know a) if its actually a word and b) what is its meaning…

  16. Kevin Daly says:

    While it obviously matters to know whether something is a word or not, and its meaning, the origin of the word is not relevant to that end.
    With compound words for instance it is important to know the meanings of the elements, but that doesn’t require a knowledge of the source language, only of the meanings of those elements which are used in English. "tele-" is a prefix meaning "far", "homo-" is a prefix meaning "same": their Greek origin is less important than the way they can be used to form English words.
    People do not base their ability to understand new words on a familiarity with West Saxon or Anglian.
    To someone who is unfamiliar with the meanings of either "deem" or "subterfuge" (to take random examples of native and imported vocabulary), what difference does it make that one is of native origin and one is not?
    I think I should shut up now, I can see everybody’s eyes glazing over…

  17. B Riddick says:

    Speaking for myself, I think Canonicalize is probably not the best choice in this case.
    I speak 5 languages, (American English being my mother tongue) and I find canonicalize to be more difficult in both pronunciation and visualization. I would reccomend "make canonical".
    However, my opinion and $2.55 will get you an Americano at Starbuck’s.

  18. Pete says:

    Funny, I’ve always taken canonical to mean something in it’s most general form (the ‘canonical form’ — used a lot in electronics), but dictionary.com says that in maths it mean the standard form (a subtle but distinct difference). I’ve never come across it in use with software before.

    Also, google disagree’s with you as ‘canonicalize’ doesn’t show up as a link in the top bar when searched for (which is powered by dictionary.com anyway).

    Probably best to avoid the word altogether and use simpler language. You’ll be better understood that way (especially for a book).

  19. Vania Lemus says:

    Can someone give me the origin of the word " guideline"? I can’t for the life of me seem to find any dictionary that can give me such a thing. I need the approximate year or century in which it was first used, too. The word is used casually in the Disney film The Pirates of the Carribean, but it sounded anachronic in the film the way it was used. Any linguists out there who have seen the movie, I’d like to hear what you think. 🙂

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