Saturday, June 14, 2008

To consense

People are Asking The Verb. Here's the next one, from syz of Beijing Sounds
Dear Mr. Verb,
Have you consensed with your team of experts how you are going to triage the firehose of requests sure to come from Ask The Verb? I hope so -- I'd hate for this little innovation (or as some will say: abomination) to go unnoticed.

It all happened yesterday in the context of a "faciliation training" session. Now as anyone who has played bullshit bingo knows, this sort of business meeting is pregnant with opportunity. Perhaps because of this expectation, people take most of the buzzwording in stride. Still, the moderator managed to stop several conversations mid-stream and incite psychological double-takes when she noted,

"Now, we're not all consensed on these items yet..."

It strikes me as precisely the sort of divisive neologism that will be loathed or loved, but you can't really deny that the meaning is pretty clear.

I hope you and the consultants have something more interesting to say about it. I took the minimal effort of looking it up in the OED, but found only "consense" as an obsolete version of "consent." Alas, that's as far as my dangerous lack of knowledge can take me, as I'm more inclined to dabble in the world of the Mandarins.

Well, syz, first of all, my sympathies for having to sit through faciliation training. I've often found that carrying a small-caliber pistol and shooting myself in one or another extremity is a less painful alternative. (Plus, the first couple times you do it, the looks of surprise from the moderators are notable.) I like bullshit bingo as much as the next guy, but there are limits. In fact, as this resistance to any kind of training might suggest, I abhor consensus. So, we haven't consensed and any member of Team Verb who proposes such will be severely punished. And, perhaps as a result, we were and remain utterly unprepared for the flood.

But enough about (con-)senseless violence. This is a very interesting case on several counts. To consense is, surely, a verbal back-formation from the noun consensus. I've heard this word, as it happens, and associate it with philosophical usage rather than business lingo. But it's such a natural derivation that it's surely happened repeatedly — the consent/consensus family has a lot of members, so adding another one isn't shocking: Hey, if English has consentaneous (Merriam-Webster's: "expressing agreement"; "done or made by the consent of all"), then why the heck not to consense? (This leaves aside the product name, in the image above.)

The suspicion of two paths of coinage looks like it's supported by the quotes here, which are split between these two realms. (If you poke around on the web, it shows up in political discussion too, in a way that might be a variant of the biz usage.) Consider two examples (where the second has a technical meaning different from the others in the article):
  • 1999, Mary Walton, Car: It’s overblown, it isn’t quite as consensus-oriented management as you might think—but did they consense on this over twenty years?
  • 2003, Milan Daniel, “Algebraic Structures Related to the Consensus Operator for Combining of Beliefs,” in Symbolic and Quantitative Approaches to Reasoning With Uncertainty, Thomas D. Nielsen and Nevin L Zhang edd.: Consensus of two opinions is Bayesian iff at least one of the opinions consensed (i.e. combined by the consensus operator) is Bayesian.
It is, then, not just a divisive neologism but maybe a divided one. Will people love or hate this biz version? I would have figured we'd see the usual path of peevologists hating it (if/when it gets noticed by them) but people like your moderator loving it. But poke around and you can read this (see also here), where William Safire himself appears to use it in his first-ever blog post. (What? God, I need a drink.)

But there's a little morphophonological wrinkle here that I wonder about. Here's where I should ask somebody who actually knows about this stuff, but what the hey … Our Latinate vocabulary is rich in derivational connections that a speaker could take as t or d ~ [ʃ] alternations, where the verb has a stop and the noun has a sibilant:
  • permit ~ permission
  • commit ~commission
  • decide ~ decision
  • deride~ derision
  • assert ~ assertion
To consent already exists in a different meaning, so backforming the meaning of 'to reach consensus' is presumably blocked, as morphologists would say, but somehow I thought there might be some pattern of -t ~ -sus like this out there. The above words have a different history (consensus was a very late borrowing), and none of the ones above has an [s] in the noun, and none of them would yield plausible backformation like this. I can't find another noun to a verb in -sus like consensus that's a plausible candidate for the process, so maybe this is just a unique pattern.

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks.


syz said...

I'm feeling that "ask the verb" love. This is a much better start than my OED half-assing.

The Safire reference is golden. (It doesn't speak well for his research that he's claiming to coin the word, seeing as how it's got plenty of online references. But I'll leave it to others to speak not-well of Safire -- volunteers are not hard to find.)

My own resolution is neither to love nor loathe the invention. It doesn't much matter to me. But I may steal the small-caliber-firearm idea for my next corporate event.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, syz. I'm lukewarm on this one too, certainly in this usage.

By the way, the firearm thing ... aim carefully, so you don't do ACTUAL damage.