Monthly Archives: July 2009

data /ˈdeitə/

Before I offer any definition or etymology for the word data, take a look at the two sentences below and decide which one sounds right.

(a) The data is good.

(b) The data are good.

I’m betting that even if you are not quite sure which is technically correct you’ll have a preference for one or the other.

Data sheet

Data sheet

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the correct sentence should be (b) because the actual word data is the plural form of the singular datum. But curiously, this doesn’t make things feel better if you believed (a) was the more correct.

The good news is that it is not uncommon to find “The data is…” being used in the real world i.e. outside a dictionary that includes Latin etymology.

Using Google, the phrase “the data is…” scored 7,660,000 ghits compared with “the data are…” racking up 9,250,000. This supports the idea that more people get it right than wrong – but it’s hardly conclusive. And it also suggests that there’s no shame in using “the data is…” because another 7,659,999 other folks are on on your side.

The word datum is of Latin origin and means “A thing given or granted; something known or assumed as fact, and made the basis of reasoning or calculation; an assumption or premiss from which inferences are drawn.” (OED, Vol. IV, 264). Ultimately it is the past participle of the verb dare, which means “to give” – hence the notion of something that is given.

The plural form is much more common and relates to “facts, esp. numerical facts, collected together for reference or information.” In 1899, William Wade Pullen published the exciting tome Engineering Tables and Data, a thrill-a-minute page turner containing pages upon pages of… well, tables of data!

However, since the 1940’s and the rise of the Computer Age, the use of the word data as a mass noun has been evident. A mass noun is one that cannot be counted, such as food, music, or information. Check out the following examples and – as before – see which sound right:

(c.1) The food is good.

(c.2) The food are good.

(d.1) The music is good.

(d.2) The music are good.

(e.1) The information is good.

(e.2) The information are good.

If you opted for the examples that use “is” as being right, that’s because count nouns don’t take the plural verb.

The clue to how data has slipped into being acceptable in the sentence “The data is good” can be seen with the mass noun information. What appears to have happened is that the word data has become synonymous with information and also taken on its mass-noun characteristics.

In the 1964 AFIPS Conference Proceedings XXVI, you’ll find the phrase “Data is transferred to main storage as soon as two bytes are accumulated,” whereas the 1969 Condensed Computer Encyclopedia offers “Data are recorded on the tape…” Just one year later in 1970, Chandor et al. use “Data is sometimes contrasted with…” in their Dictionary of Computers.

Clearly what we are seeing is the flip-flopping of the word data as being either the plural of a count noun (datum) or a non-countable mass noun synonymous with information.

In my humble opinion – and even with the numbers against me – I’m up for recommending that we accept the fact that data has become a mass noun and is used more often than not as an alternative to information. I’m predicting that in 10 years time you’ll see the ghits for the is and are reversed.

To me, the data is mounting…


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hiatus /hai’eitəs/

Circumstances at home have meant that The Word Guy missed out on his target of producing at least one word per week. I took a little hiatus. It’s a simple little words that stems from the Latin hiatus meaning “gaping, gap, or opening.” This is turn comes from the Latin word hiare, which means “to gape.”

Way back in 1563, the word referred to a break in the continuity of am object, such as a gaping chasm or an aperture of some type. In Meteors, a book by William Fulk published in 1640), he wrote, “These holes called Hiatus differ from wide gaping, in nothing, but that they be lesse, and therefore seeme deepe pits or holes, and not gaping.”

Notice that the plural here is hiatus, but the form hiatuses is also acceptable.

By the 1600’s, its meaning had estended to include the more modern connotation of “a gap or interruption of continuity in a chronological or other series.” (OED, Vol. VII, p.203.) Thomas Jackson’s Commentaries upon the apostles creed (1613) contains the line, “To forewarne the Reader of the hiatus in our aduersaries collections.”

Hiatus - with misspelling

Hiatus - with misspelling

In the world of logic, a hiatus refers specifically to a missing step in a logical proof, or a more general gap in reasoning. In The Works of John C. Calhoun – who was the 7th Vice President of the USA – he wrote, “Where is that hiatus between the premises and the concluions?” (1874).

The word can also be used in linguistics to describe the break between two vowels at a syllable boundary with no intervening consonant. For example, in “cooperation,” there is a hiatus between the /kɔ/ and /ɒp/ of /kɔɒpəˈreiʃən/.

And if you are unlucky enough to damage your diaphragm – that sheet of muscles at the bottom of the ribcage – you could suffer a hiatus hernia as the upper part of the stomach pushes its way through the tear. Here, the word hiatus refers to the gap in the diaphragm.

Hiatus Hernia

Hiatus Hernia

If I get the chance, I’ll indulge in a little revisionist blogging and add a word for last week next week. Go ahead, parse that sentence!


Filed under Etymology

verisimilitude /vɛrɪsɪ’mɪlɪtʃu:d/

If you’re the sort of person who is either cynical or obsessively objective, then it’s likely you already know – and use – the word verisimilitude. In a world where Truth is slipperier than an eel in a bucket of grease, there are times when you have to fall back on acknowledging that something can’t be proved to be true but has the appearance of being true. Having the appearance of Truth is verisimilitude.



The word has the same root as the word verify, which means “to show to be true by demonstration or evidence” or “to confirm the truth or authenticity of.” (OED, Vol. XIX, p. 540). When signing the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the Soviet Union, he used the phrase “Trust… but verify” to signal that he was all for trusting the Soviets to remove nuclear missiles but physically checking it was happening was important.

"Trust but verify"

"Trust but verify"

The veri– element originates from the Latin verus, meaning true, or verum meaning truth. The second part comes from Latin similis, meaning like. So the word literally means “like the truth.” It makes an appearance in 1603 in Holland’s Plutarch’s Philosophie, commonlie called The Morals, in the sentence “If we wil use the rule of probability and verisimilitude.”

In 2005, the word of the year was the modern version verisimilitude; truthiness. This was first used by the comedian Stephen Colbert in the satirical show, The Colbert Report. The word itself was not invented by Colbert and exists in the OED as a variant of the word truthy. It was used by J.J. Gurney (1824) – “Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.” But it could be argued – and I will – that this is not quite the intended meaning of Colbert’s truthiness, which I suggest is more accurately being used as a synonym for verisimilitude.

The darker truth about verisimilitude is that it can give rise to the total denial of any Truth in the form of philosophical Relativism. This is not the place to launch into a debate on the pros and cons of Relativism (or Postmodernism) as a systematic viewpoint, but the danger is that if you start to see things as verisimilitudinous, you come to the conclusion that there is no Truth. Or as the Devil put it in Don Henley’s song, The Garden of Allah;

“And I said gentlemen – and I use that world loosely – I will testify for you.
I’m a gun for hire,
I’m a saint, I’m a liar
Because there are no facts, there is no truth
Just data to be manipulated.
I can get you any result you like.
What’s it worth to you?”

Henley’s modern Mephistopheles has a keen grasp on verisimilitude and is happy to use it to maximum advantage. Sadly, this might also be applied to some current attorneys – which is what Don Henley is getting at.

Mephistopheles and Faust - Delacroix

Mephistopheles and Faust - Delacroix

But used with discretion, the word can certainly be used to force someone to think a little more deeply about a supposed truth. We all know people who live in a world of black and white, right and wrong, truth and lies. Yet there are many occasions where the truth of a statement is not obvious and although it may exhibit the trappings of Truth, it is merely wearing a disguise.

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