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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, April 02, 2007

an etymological interlude

so, the academic unit where I'm doing my Ph.D. is called the Department of Informatics. I'd never really thought about it until a little while ago, but what do you call someone who does informatics? biology is practices by biologists, chemistry by chemists, mathematics by mathematicians, statistics by statisticians, therapy by therapists, etc. so, what does one call a practitioner of informatics? I think there are two distinct possibilities:



this quandry was started when David Kay, for whom I was TAing last quarter, used the former term. it threw me off guard, as it took me a moment to parse it. after having done so, I thought, how cumbersome. first, how does one pronounce that? he said it with a small emphasis on the first syllable and a large emphasis on the fourth, the same emphatic pattern as mathematician. this isn't too bad, but it ends up making the "o" pronounced with that soft vowel sound denoted by an up-side-down "e," which I think masks the root word "information." I think the latter alternative, with an an emphasis only on the third syllable, is easier to pronounce, is clearer about the proper pronounciation, and pays clearer homage to the root word.

when I started thinking about that, I said, hm, I wonder what the etymology of information is. turns out it's from a participial form of the Latin informare (which is actually the origin of "inform," the root for "information"), meaning to form into, implicitly to form into a shape. I thought this was particularly striking, especially when one considers the way that one interpretation of informatics, according to Bill, is "the process of transforming data into information." the etymology would seem to indicate not only that informatics could refer to the process of informing, but also the study of that process. interesting indeed.

however, this gets us no closer to the goal of determining the proper form of the word to refer to one who practices informatics. so, I looked into the two suffixes, -ist and -ian. on first glance, it seems that -ist is more appropriate; "one that performs a specialized action ... a specialist in a specified art, science, or skill," as opposed to "one relating to, belonging to, or resembling." dig a little further into the etymology. -ist is from the Latin noun-forming suffix -ista, -istes, which is from the Greek agent noun suffix -istEs, and I believe an agent noun is exactly what we're trying to form. -ian, on the other hand, is from the Latin -ianus, meaning of or belonging to, hence noun forms like "Bostonian" or "Washingtonian." however, -ianus was, it seems (see the third bullet point under that link), used to refer to the original family name of an adopted person, quite literally indicating from whom they had come and to whom they belonged. why, then, do mathematician, statistician, physician, and a number of others use the -ian (or its derivative, -ician) suffix? it could be that these are fields to which one can belong or from which one can come, in a way that fields that get the -ist suffix are less focused on being a well-defined group and more focused on the object of study. in this way, it would be appropriate to say that someone was from mathematics, but not that someone was from physics. however, I suspect that this is far more likely an etymological artifact than as aspect that carries great amounts of meaning.

given all these considerations, I think that "inforamiticist" is a much more appropriate, if not accurate, form of the word. what do you think, which form do you prefer? or would you possibly suggest an alternate formation?

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  • Is the point of your blog to sound stuck-up? ;)

    By Blogger BiPolarMoment, at Tuesday, April 03, 2007 8:37:00 AM  

  • Can't edit my previous comment to add: Informaticister.

    By Blogger BiPolarMoment, at Tuesday, April 03, 2007 8:56:00 AM  

  • you know, when i find myself thinking about things like this, it's generally a sign i should get back to the work i'm actually supposed to be doing. looking up etymology is a dead give away.

    By Anonymous jofish, at Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:52:00 AM  

  • BiPolar - no, the point is not to sound stuck up (although I fear I occassionally come off sounding that way). informaticister is an interesting possibility, but it makes me think of informaticizer, which, while both have too many syllables to be pronounced cleanly, has an interesting ring to it.

    jofish - you caught me. I was actually trying to clear some of the bajillion firefox tabs I had open (while procrastinating on some writing), came across a bunch I had opened the other when I was thinking about this, and decided the best way to rectify the situation was to actually write the post. rest assured, I did get back to the stuff on which I should have been working to begin with when I finished my navel-gazing wrt etymology.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:37:00 PM  

  • Very convincing, though far from ideal. If we're going to distinguish ourselves as a field of C.S., we badly need to at least agree on what to call ourselves, and it seems like "informatician" has been colloquially dominating without ever being given any thought.

    I would really like to hear more alternatives. Have you tried asking around LUCI for thoughts?

    For what it's worth, neither term shows up in a grep of the Kay et al. flagship paper.

    By Blogger Sam, at Thursday, June 07, 2007 2:25:00 PM  

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