Overloading words in research and programming

In research and academia, one of the fundamental activities is the invention and subsequent examination of new concepts. For concepts, we need names.

One way of making a name is stringing words together until the meaning is sufficiently specific. E.g. “morphism averse co-dependent functor substitutions in virtual machine transmigration systems”. Thus the abstruse academic research paper title is born.

Sciences sometimes give new meanings to existing words. This could be called overloading, following the example of object-oriented programming. E.g. a “group” in mathematics is something different from the everyday use of the term. A “buffer” in chemistry is something different from a software or hardware buffer, even though a fragment of similarity is there. And so on. This overloading of words gives newcomers to the field a handle on what is meant, but full understanding is still impossible without understanding the actual definitions being employed.

Sometimes new terms can be created using inventors’ names and everyday words. E.g. a “Lie group” or the “Maxwell equations”, or “Curry-Howard correspondence”. This is potentially useful, but perhaps not something you can do freely with your own research without seeming like you’re trying to inflate your ego excessively. (Even though researchers love inflating their egos, nobody wants to admit it.)

There’s a similar problem in software development. When we invent names of functions, classes and variables, the lack of words becomes very clear. Intuitively, what is an “adapter registry”? An “observer list”? Or an “observer list mediation adapter?” My feeling is that we often end up compounding abstract words because we have no better choice. And here lies a clue to some of the apparent impermeability of difficult source code. We need better ways of making names. We’re inventing ideas faster than our language can stretch.

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