Should Cecilia have said “insecure” instead of “unsecure”?

In this funny PhD Comic, the main character – Cecilia (the girl in red) – says:

“Do you realize how unsecure your coffee distribution system is?”

That made me wonder – should she have said ‘insecure’?

Even the WordPress spell-checker has a problem with “unsecure”.

It thinks that “unsecure” is a spelling error.

However, the word “insecure” doesn’t sound as if it were the right term to use in the context of computer security.

That is because the word “insecure” is usually used in the context of a person to mean a person who is not confident and self-assured.

To call a computer “insecure” would be a bit like saying that the computer had self-image issues.

Others have written about this cognitive dissonance as well (see http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/19653/insecure-or-unsecure-when-dealing-with-security for a nice discussion).

Given the problem, the author of the cartoon seems to be justified in using a newly-minted word (one not found in any dictionary) in order to describe the lack of security.

This is also very interesting because it throws some light on how words are born.

Before I can explain what I mean, I’ll need you to take a look the Oxford dictionary’s definitions of the word “insecure” (from the Oxford English Dictionary online search at http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/insecure?q=insecure):

insecure

adjective

  • 1   uncertain or anxious about oneself; not confident:  a rather gauche, insecure young man,  a top model who is notoriously insecure about her looks
  • 2   (of a thing) not firm or fixed; liable to give way or break:  an insecure footbridge 

                 not sufficiently protected; easily broken into:  an insecure computer system

  • 3   (of a job or situation) liable to change for the worse; not permanent or settled:  badly paid and insecure jobsa financially insecure period

There are three ways in which the word “insecure” can be used.

The second usage would have been perfect for the context of computer security.

But the first usage might be conflated with the second in that context.

And that is because (sorry, I no longer recall the references to support this claim) computers appear to the human mind to have human-like characteristics (we say things like “Google tells me that …” or “my computer has gone to sleep”).

So, the only word in the dictionary that can do the job – the word “insecure” – has a conflict of interest.

And therefore, a new word needs to be coined that is not susceptible to the same sort of ambiguity.

And if the new word “unsecure” catches on, then one day, the second sense of the word “insecure” could become extinct in the context of computers.

Oh well, “it’s only words!”

POST EDIT

A friend pointed out that the Google NGram Viewer shows a history of the use of the word “unsecure”: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=unsecure.

The word seems to have been in use between 1650 and 1850 (there is evidence of use in literature), and has in more recent times simply fallen out of circulation (being eclipsed by “insecure” in around 1750).  Thanks, Prashant.

(You can also search for those early usages in books – http://books.google.com/books?id=WmpCAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA12&dq=%22unsecure%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=aOcLUq7aA-3iyAHu8YGwAg&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22unsecure%22&f=false)

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One thought on “Should Cecilia have said “insecure” instead of “unsecure”?

  1. Hi – great post. We agree with the use of ‘insecure’ – an insecure computer system sounds a little self-conscious about the size of its processors, or needs a reassuring reboot.

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