Behold RELATIONSHIP, a vocabulary for describing relationships between people. I don’t know if I’m the one to shoot these particular fish in this particular barrel, since both mme. boyd and Herr Weinberger are more eloquent than I on the subject of of making the tacit explicit, but this thing is self-critiquing. Here, just in case you were wondering, is how you should be characterizing your relationships with one another:

friendOf, acquaintanceOf, parentOf, siblingOf, childOf, grandchildOf, spouseOf, enemyOf, antagonistOf, ambivalentOf, lostContactWith, knowsOf, wouldLikeToKnow, knowsInPassing, knowsByReputation, closeFriendOf, hasMet, worksWith, colleagueOf, collaboratesWith, employerOf, employedBy, mentorOf, apprenticeTo, livesWith, neighborOf, grandparentOf, lifePartnerOf, engagedTo, ancestorOf, descendantOf, participantIn, participant

Describing relationships with a controlled vocabulary can sound credible right up to the moment you see the vocabulary, but this thing is a mess. Consider the world of work: They’ve given us worksWith, colleagueOf, collaboratesWith, employerOf, employedBy, mentorOf, and apprenticeTo, but take any moderately complex real-world work relationship of yours and try to fit it here. We start off with employerOf/employedBy, models of clarity, but what if you are employed by a colleague you collaborate with? Or, more realistically, what if you would call someone your boss in one setting, colleague in another, collaborator in a third, and say they are someone you work with in a fourth? And what if you cannot specify in advance which of those words you would use in any given situation and yet, _mirabile dictu_, you are not at a loss for words when those situations arise. The whole list is like that — we get friendOf, then for a semantic richness bonus, closeFriendOf. But if we’re going that route, where’s veryCloseFriendOf? sleepsWith? usedToSleepWith? Where’s wentToHighSchoolWith? Take the relationship closePersonalFriendOf. The designers of this list somehow overlooked it, possibly on the grounds that it’s tautological, and only of use on talk shows. (“Oh yes, Julia Roberts is a close personal friend of mine.”) But it is nevertheless informative — you would only use closePersonalFriendOf if the person in question was someone of relatively high fame or station. In addition, anyone claiming to be a “close personal friend” of someone else is talking about a domain where a high degree of social interaction is the norm, e.g. show business. By extension, the seemingly oxymoronic friendYouDontLike is also a valid category, as anyone in highly social environments can tell you. (You often run into friendsYouDontLike at partiesYouHaveToGoTo.) So here’s the dilemma — the point of a controlled vocabulary is to de-thesaurisize. Instead of one doctor offering a diagnosis of manic depression and a second opinion of bi-polar disorder, a controlled vocabulary says “If everyone uses bi-polar, linguistic interoperability increases, and we’ll get better sharing of diagnoses.” No such luck with human relations, however. Manic depression and bi-polar disorder are both labels for an external condition. Human relations have the additional and curious property of changing the relationship through the act of labeling, and anyone who has ever said “I love you” can attest. So either we add closePersonalFriendOf and friendYouDontLike (and sleepsWith, usedToSleepWith, wentToHighSchoolWith, gotArrestedWith, etc.), or we say “No, you can’t say wentToHighSchoolWith, that’s stupid.” But once we go the route of disallowing certain characterizations, we are destroying real-world meaning in the name of controlled vocabulary, a strategy that is internally consistent but useless. The RELATIONSHIP list should make it obvious that explicit linguistic clarity in human relations is a pipe dream. It probably won’t though — the madness of the age is to assume that people can spell out, in explicit detail, the messiest aspects of their lives, and that they will eagerly do so, in order to provide better inputs to cool new software.

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