Monday, February 9, 2009

Combination of Factors

(image: Keystone Kops)

If a "mower" is something that mows, is a "factor" something that facts? For better or worse, language is never that logical, although there's an argument to be made that German is more predictable, if not "logical," than English. I'm not going to make that argument, partly because I'm unprepared to do so. Discretion is the better part of not getting trounced in a linguistic argument.

As one might imagine, the OED online is bursting with defintions of factor, used in a variety of parts of speech. Here is one especially interesting (to me), if obsolete, one:

b. One of the third class of the East India Company's servants. Obs. exc. Hist.
[1600 Min. Crt. Adventurers 23 Oct. in Cal. State Papers, E. Indies (1862) 109 Thos. Wasse to be employed as factor. Ibid. 18 Nov. ibid. 111 Three principal factors to have each 100l. for equipment..four of the second sort to be allowed 50l...four of the third sort 50l...and four of the fourth and last sort 20l. each.] 1675-6 in J. Bruce Ann. East-India Co. (1810) II. 375 We do order, that..when the Writers have served their times they be stiled Factors. 1781 LD. CORNWALLIS Corr. (1859) I. 378 We..have a council and senior and junior merchants, factors and writers, to load one ship in the year. 1800 WELLINGTON in Owen Desp. 719 Writers or factors filling the stations of registers.

In mathematics, a factor is a mode of simplification, isn't it? I am so distant from my days with algebra, alas, and algebra is the better for it.

It might be nice, however, if a "factor" were a machine that facted. "Bob, I'm telling you, if you want to make facts in a hurry, you're going to have to upgrade to the Black and Decker Factor-500."

For better or worse, the following small poem uses "factor" in the more customary and therefore vague sense.

A Combination of Factors

"A combination of factors"--such

a fine phrase, a wave of the hand

in the general direction of cause,

correlation, complexity, effect.

It's more droll than "I'm confused,"

less folksy than "Who knows?" It's

a nice place in phraseology to escape

to when the combination of factors

gets to be too much out there, or in here--

they appear to be ubiquitous, not to mention

multisyllabic, those factors, and

they do seem to prefer to combine.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

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