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Language nerd registers protest in the name of humanity

As some of you know I have taken a hiatus from public writing since the death of my son 10 months ago. I have made several attempts to get back to writing about books and literature and have not quite been able to do it – though I have continued to write privately and have written quite a bit on my blog about losing Jesse; but writing about anything other than Jesse and seeking eternal truth has been difficult. This week I was contacted by an author who asked me to write a book review of a new biography about Claude Shannon, a 20th century genius and, apparently, father of information theory. I love biographies and know very little about Claude Shannon, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get back on the writing wagon. I agreed to do it.

As for books in general, since Jesse died my reading life has fallen into two categories: accounts of near death experiences and novels by PG Wodehouse, author of a zillion humorous books, not one of which I had read before Jesse died. As of today I have read a dozen of them and plan to keep going until I’ve read them all. I find PG Wodehouse gives me breathing space — temporarily transports me out of the heaviness of grief and into a lighter space where rich British people say clever things and constantly get themselves into outrageously awkward situations. PG Wodehouse has been very therapeutic. Also his books improve your vocabulary and raise your awareness of language usage.

So, now that my awareness of language usage is raised, I need to get something off my chest before embarking on the next phase of writing career — an irritating issue that has been simmering under my skin since I first entered the software development world as a technical writer fifteen years ago. The issue is this: the widespread use of the word “populate” to describe the practice of entering data into a software interface, as in “Now we need to populate the fields” — meaning we need to type or import information such as names, addresses, and numbers into a form on the computer screen. Sometimes this word even appears in a technical manual. Never in my technical manuals, mind you, but in some. And no one ever bats an eye at this outrage!

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word populate as a verb comes from Medieval Latin and means “inhabit, to people.” The word populus was used in the Roman Empire and meant “a people, tribe, or nation” and referred to the multitude of citizens in classes lower than the Roman Senate. So, it seems, somewhere along the line some computer geek decided to take a 2000-year old word that specifically refers to human beings and appropriate it willy-nilly to mean bits of data on a computer screen. Unless you mean you are relocating people into your computer screen, I find this to be an insensitive insult to human language. As if computers have not already dehumanized us enough. At least leave words that mean human beings out of it and stop turning people into numbers.



This is picture of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island illustrates a proper use of the word “populate.” Lewis HineOnline Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum


But I do not want to register a complaint without offering a solution. I don’t want to leave my colleagues in the computer industry hanging. I understand they desperately need a one-word verb to replace the grossly inaccurate populate. To that end I have done some hard thinking on the matter: let’s see….you want a word that means putting something into a previously empty space. What you are putting into the empty space is a bit of data. Transitive verbs such as load or insert or type demand to be combined with a direct object; also they don’t cover both manual and automated input. Hmmm.

I propose datize. As far as I can tell this word does not so far exist, but words are coined every day, especially when dealing with an industry that did not exist a century ago. Datize it is both shorter and more accurate than populate. I think it could catch on. Also it has the advantage of not cannibalizing the soul of humanity.

P.S.: Recently I attended a certain training session in which I heard the shocking statement “Leadership is a verb.” No. Sorry. Leadership is a noun, has always been a noun, and will always be a noun. Is nothing sacred?

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You've reached the Creative Space of Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse. Author of six books of fiction; and numerous short fiction, poems, and articles. Welcome. For info on my writing, services, and more, scroll down. If you need to contact me directly, email I update this space regularly; book reviews to news of my own books, #theWritingLife, and my CREATIVE SPACE column. Sharing with links and credits is fine but unauthorized use and/or duplication of site content without permission and credit is strictly prohibited. For my other blog, go to

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