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So, Your Humble Blogger is reading a book set in, oh, 1950 or so, in an alternate universe, English Country House Murder after WWII doesn’t happen, and the following comes up:

Then here he came, tramping in police boots to disturb the hierarchies as they were laid down by bringing in an entirely orthogonal power.

And my immediate reaction was Orthoganal? Who the hell would have described the police and the aristocracy as orthagonal in 1950? My second reaction was How the hell do you spell orthaganal anyway? Then I went to a couple of dictionaries and found out that the use of that word in that manner seems to have come from computer programmer jargon, which, you know, not so much in 1950. Now, it’s possible that a Scotland Yard Inspector who was interested in statistical mathematics and other branches of the higher philosophy would have independently invented the metaphorical use of the term, particularly in an alternate universe. I don’t mean to suggest that the author is flat-out wrong, here. Just that Your Humble Blogger was thrown out of the book by it. Possibly given another chance to look at it the author would defend the word, and possibly they would conclude that it could be more perfect. It isn’t a big deal, either way, except for the delicacy of the window through which we look at the book.

Um, that is, in books such as I take this one to be, where we are supposed to fall in to the story, rather than stand back and look at the window. There are different levels of transparency that writers aim for and readers achieve; it would be silly to discuss Finnegan’s Wake in terms of the author getting in the way of the story. But I don’t think that applies here, and I’m going to continue not telling you the title and author, out of a misguided sense of fairness, so you’ll have to take my word for it, or do your own damn research, Pomeranz.

Where was I? Oh, the clunker in the sentence. I am no writer of prose fiction. I’ve written a bit of dialogue, trying to make voices consistent, individuated, appropriate, interesting and beautiful (or ugly, depending), and I find it very difficult indeed. And I’ve spent five years or so creating the Voice of Vardibidian, the which I’ve managed to throw in a bit of everything, so that I can eschew consistency if I want to. And, you know, it’s a blog. And a Tohu Bohu besides. There’s a lot that I slide into this thing that upon later reading appears to be badly composed. Ah, well.

I imagine it must be very difficult to work the historical novel thing, or in fact any novel thing at all. The writer has to balance the reader’s experience of hearing (or “hearing”) the speech patterns of the type of person in the story with the actual researched type, with the reader’s own expectations of his own context, with the writer’s limitations and talents, and the whole house of cards is built on guesses, trust and instinct. And here I come and pull the whole thing down because I don’t like orthogonol.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I would question the etymological assertions of those dictionaries. Now, I don't know that they're wrong, but I'm skeptical ;-)

Phrases along the lines of "those arguments are orthogonal" is pretty widely-used in physics circles (in my experience, more in Quantum Mechanics and Relativity than in Statistical Mechanics, but both of those would have been in vogue in the '50's). I don't think the physics use of the term comes from Computer Science, but both Physics and CS could well have gotten them from math.

Also, there was quite a lot of CS work being done in 1950, though it probably wasn't on the general public's radar. I've got one two-degrees-of-separation example in mind, and at least two three-degree examples.

Now whether the character in question is from a background that would have been exposed to or fascinated by Quantum Mechanics or Computer Science, I have no idea. But having the phrase be in use doesn't seem inherently jarring.

No, I was unclear. Physicists, mathematicians, geometers and other weirdos used the word from the late 19th-Century. It's the use of the term to describe the police and the aristocracy as being essentially independent powers, deriving authority from different sources and therefore (somewhat) powerless to act against each other in the others' home realms, that seems to me to come from programmer lingo, specifically the bits of programs that do not interact and can therefore be tested separately. The OED does not (as yet, on their site) have an entry for orthogonal in any but a math/physics/stats sense, but a quick look at their citations leads me to believe that it would have been odd to apply the word to a real-life power structure in 1950.

And the fellow in question went to a minor public-school and then into the army and then into the Force; it's odd as a matter of character that he would think the word anyway, but that's part of that whole character thing.


Our gentle blogger does not mention by name the dictionaries consulted for the history of the usage of orthogonal, but I find that the OED supplement, which covers the main stream of British English usage through the mid 1970s, shows no use of "orthogonal" to describe anything but specifically mathematical matters, although its meaning within mathematics and statistics did ramify during this period.

I wouldn't rely on OED as a comprehensive scientific dictionary, but their review of literary and journalistic writing is sufficiently broad that I think they are pretty reliable on the entry of usages into the main stream of British English. It's possible that the use of "orthogonal" in the fashion V. describes began in the United States earlier than in Great Britain (we saw that "decimate" took on its lamentably wider meaning in America before it did so in Britain), but, as the novel appears to be set in England, the author's use seems likely to be anachronistic.

I would think that a writer of historical fiction of a fairly recent vintage (say, 1950) in a recognizable subgenre (the English Country House murder) could control her or his vocabulary appropriately by more or less matching the vocabulary of major writers in the genre in the time period in question. In this case, what adjectives would Agatha Christie use?

Apologies for the redundant note: some putting-to-bed happened between the time I started my comment and the time I finished it, and I neglected to refresh in the mean time, thereby missing Vardibidian's response (to which I'll only add that mathematicians were using the term as early as the sixteenth century, though not to describe elements in computer programs).

The word was supposed to be "orthographical" but he just, you know, misspelled it.

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