Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vocabulary adoption seen through the lens of network effects and technology

In this week's New York Review of Books, I came across the following phrase in Joseph Lelyveld's review of "The Alamanac of American Politics 2012:

For the Republicans, this was "their best showing since the election of 1946," the psephologist - the fancy term for analysts of polls and elections - Michael Barone tells us in the introduction to the latest edition of the biennial manual he has been editing for four decades.

When I read that unfamiliar word psephologist, I noticed that I started thinking about whether I should bother to learn the term.

And my thought process was similar to the one I go through when I consider whether to join a social network or use a piece of technology that exhibits network effects.

While I like the word, and particularly the etymology (it was coined in 1952, based on the Greek word for pebbles, which the Greeks placed in urns to vote), if few other people are familiar with the word (i.e., using the technology), then it won't be very useful.

In fact, using the word could have some negative value, since people might consider me pretentious if I use it with a straight face. Note the apologetic "fancy term" with which Lleyveld introduces his definition.

As I evaluated whether to adopt this word (technology), I was also thinking about whether it solves a problem. And I decided that it doesn't. The terms "poll analyst" and "election analyst" might be clumsier technology, but they are legacy systems with insignificant maintenance costs and the protocol of those terms is accepted by all the other users I interface with.

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