I saw an interesting article on Hacker News today. It was called The Meaning of 'su', and it outlined the author's quest to understand the name of the su command in Unix. It's a great read. He starts with the assumption that su stands for super-user, and then infers that it means switch-user, and, well, it goes on from there. But, there is an assumption behind all of it (and the comments on Hacker News) that really should be explored. The assumption is that things have one meaning.
Among friends (ones who will put up with it, at least), I have a habit of saying one thing that can be taken three different ways and meaning every single one of them. It's fun, but I think it is more than fun. It highlights what are, to me, a few deep truths:
- Nobody has just one opinion about things. We are complex swirls of ideas and feelings, many of which may conflict yet be simultaneously true for us in our experience.
- Meaning isn't objective, it is subjective. When someone asks for the meaning of something, it's fair to ask: for whom? Meaning is a form of valuation, and without someone for whom there is meaning, or a mean-er, it doesn't really exist.
- Your meaning is as good as my meaning. And, in fact, your meaning can mean more to you than mine. In other words, it doesn't matter what the authors of the su command intended, you get to decide what su stands for too.
Here's the thing. I enjoy etymology. It's great to see how words came to be and what was originally intended by them. But, the unstated assumption is that once we understand that, we have some advantage. For instance, if we understand the core of the word property, we understand what is common between the notion of, say, personal property, and the notion of an object having properties. Powerful stuff. But, I think there's also a lot of power in recognizing that maybe there never was one single intended meaning. Maybe there were many. It's possible that the people behind Unix were having some fun with multiple meanings too. I wouldn't put it past them.