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When obfuscation is a good thing

Working on a technical book reminds the Monitor's language columnist how language is about connotation as well as denotation.

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About all that most of us know about obfuscation is that we should eschew it. And what about eschew? Have you ever, ever heard anyone use this word in conversation?

The word sounds, depending on which dictionary you take your cues from, variously like a sneeze or an effort to spit something out, perhaps after having bitten into it and found it wanting.

And the obfuscation we are to eschew, or avoid, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from a Latin word referring to darkening. It was originally a medical term, referring to the darkening of a sore.

Nowadays it's used to mean the confusion or bewilderment caused by someone who covers his utterances with a protective layer of blather.

But as I assess the lessons learned from a technical book whose publication I've just been involved with, I realize that some of the lessons were in vocabulary. And obfuscation was one of the words I learned a little more about. It has a technical sense referring to the business of creating computer code that is hard for people to read.

Such code is hard to understand and hence hard to tamper with. It provides "security through obscurity," in other words. And that is a good thing.

That wasn't the only word I got to know better while working on this book. Being of the "write it down and get it out of your head" school of thought, I started making a little list of words headed "Peculiar tech talk."

It included "obfuscation," of course. It also included redundancy. Techies always like redundancy – lots of it, in fact. Editors, not so much. A techie's redundancy typically refers to something like having more than one place to back up data. An editor's idea of redundancy is excess verbiage, needless words to be omitted.


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