Parsing Our Words Carefully

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview

Parsing Our Words Carefully


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


A verb rooted in the world of picky grammarians finds new roles in the larger public discussion.

In journalism, three data points can make a trend. I'm going to lower the bar here: If within one morning newscast I hear the same unusual verb twice in completely different contexts, there may be something worth noting.

It happened the other day, and the verb is parse. In its original meaning parse is, as verbs go, rather a specialized one, the lexical equivalent of a fish knife.

But checking around online, I find parse showing up in a variety of different contexts.

"Researchers try to parse the meaning of the secretive regime's decision to air a heavily edited version of 'Bend It Like Beckham,' about a young soccer player pulled between the sport and her South Asian family's expectations," the Los Angeles Times said of the North Korean government's broadcast of an hour-long version of the flick.

National Journal columnist Eliza Newlin Carney wrote recently, "We'll leave it to constitutional scholars to parse whether Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may resume the Senate's first legislative day (which began on January 5) when senators reconvene on January 24, allowing just 51 votes to prevail."

And deep from the world of geekspeak, TradingMarkets.com reported not long ago, "Motorola Solutions Unveils Next Generation Retail Solutions." The story, about a new hand-held computer, said it "is offered with an optional on-board parsing engine to read and parse PDF417 bar codes on United States driver licenses."

I'll digress to note that engine has come a long way since the dawn of the 14th century, when it meant simply a "mechanical device." Today's "engines" are likely to be virtual gizmos, lines of computer code, ultimately. …

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