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  On Cursing
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A year or two ago, I had an idea about curse words. On the one hand, I don't like to use them; on the other, they do carry some amount of meaning … not a lot, maybe, but some. So, the idea was, I ought to find other ways to express the same meanings. But then … why stop there? Why not find ways to express more meanings, and more subtle meanings? And, somehow or other, I did … I found a nice new word, a modern curse word if you like, and it's been growing on me ever since. The word, of course, is “suboptimal”.

(By the way … although I didn't realize it at the time, I already had lots of ways to express the same meanings. The second half of On Cursing is all about that.)

What does this new word mean? Well, clearly it has to do with optimality, and with optimization; at root, it comes from the Latin “optimus”, “best”. The prefix “sub-” adds the meaning “below”, so “suboptimal” means “not quite the best”. So, as curse words go, it's pretty mild, for use in situations where the outcome was pretty good, but not quite perfect. Imagine you're Kasparov, at the final game of a tournament, and you've just made the winning move, leading to mate in 7 … and then you realize you could have had mate in 6. Suboptimal!

Any kind of logistics problem is ripe for suboptimality. If you're driving, for example, you might need to arrange errands in a reasonable order (the traveling salesman problem), or to find the best route between two points. So you plan it out, and then when you're halfway through, or halfway there, you come up with a better plan. Suboptimal!

(You run into the same kinds of logistics problems if you're walking or biking a significant distance … but then that's less likely, isn't it?)

Of course, saying “suboptimal” is probably only fun if you like to optimize … i.e., if you like the strategy “check all the options and pick the best”. For more about that, see the essay Indecision and its backlinks.

Last but not least, “suboptimal” is lots of fun as an understatement, too. Imagine you're in the kitchen with a cabinet door open, and you stand up and whang your head on the edge of it. Ow! Suboptimal! Or imagine you're talking at lunch, waving your arms to illustrate some point, and you tip your drink over, so that it spills all over everything. Pff! Suboptimal!

* * *

Well, this is embarrassing. I was just re-reading Quarantine again—what an excellent book—and there near the end of chapter 2 was this:

Vincent cursed softly: “Suboptimal!”

The word wasn't a running joke or anything, only appearing that one time, and I don't remember it making a big impression on me, but I guess my sneaky mind squirreled it away and then much later gave it back to me out of context so that I thought it was my own idea.


  See Also

@ December (2005)
o February (2010)