Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Obfuscation for the sake of simplification

 It's the strangest thing. Anyone who's ever tried to read law, to name just one academic subject, will realise just how impossibly, ineffably dense it is, and how little sense it makes. The same is probably true of a newcomer to linguistics texts or mechanics/engineering texts or sociology texts, and so on and so forth. But the point is, they're so complicated. Just why is that?

Obfuscation is one of my favourite words, for the pure irony of it: it means to make something more complex/harder to understand, usually by someone going out of their way to make something more complicated than it is. And that's what's going on here, obfuscation. But it's not mindless or with the intent to fuck with our minds that makes professors of various universities speak in Oxford gobbledegook, there's a good reason for it: standardisation, or making everything consistent. Law texts have to use the same terms so that anyone well versed in Lawese can easily make sense of it.

For example, a term a friend introduced to me "mens rea" describes - correct me if I'm wrong - the intent to do something wrong. Now if every author of various law text used their own varying ways of articulating what mens rea was, you'd end up with very haphazard law texts. Not to mention that it's extremely important in Law in particular, because lawyers need to be able to refer to specific law terminology, in an environment where they will be understood anyway.

There's also another important factor, and that's length. Take the word "mamihlapinatapai". Sure, this untranslatable word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego is a mouthful on its own, but its meaning is best described thus: "a look shared by two people, each wishing that that the other will offer something that both desire but are unwilling to do." Ignore the fact that you're unlikely to ever need mamihlapinatapai, but if there ever was a situation whose meaning could be found in that word, would you rather use 23 words to describe it, or just the one?

So what all the complicated terminology does is not just set the standard, but keep the word count sensible. Academic books may be dense, but that's precisely because they're just packing it so damn tight. With good reason, too. Sure, reading the books really does require you to access a language in and of itself, but once you're fluent in it, you'll find yourself among a community of people where your ideas can be easily and instantly communicated.

It's obfuscation for the sake of simplification.

Simple, huh?

~Love Leonidas

1 comment:

  1. Hey,
    I had no idea what obfuscation was and was on the point of looking it up when I noticed you'd said :)
    That was interesting, and wow, mamihlapinatapai is a brilliant word! I'm gonna need to find how to properly pronounce it now.
    So ultimately you agree that obfuscation is necessary?
    I liked this one, I think because I learnt things.


The comment form beckons. I will love you forever if you let me know what you think of this post! You may even get a cookie. Not a real one, but... okay, you get a cyber-huggle. You get something!

...Pretty please <3.

Total Pageviews