The Grammarphobia Blog

Sense and synthesis

Q: I have long used “keyboard grabber” for the person who organizes the creative, smart, or silly ideas generated at a meeting of hand-waving academics or lawyers. But I heard only derision when I used the term recently and had zero hits when I googled it. What term can you recommend for this concept?

A: It’s a good thing you’re looking for an alternative, since “keyboard grabber” brings to mind “keyboard capturing,” which usually refers to the covert recording of computer keystrokes by hackers. The term is also called “keystroke logging” and “keylogging.”

What should one call the person who organizes the clutter of silly, smart, and creative ideas from a meeting of academics or lawyers?

Terms such as “arranger,” “coordinator,” “developer,” “facilitator,” “orchestrator,” and “organizer” would do, but they lack a certain je ne sais quoi, while éminence grise may have too much of it.

Our choice would be “synthesizer,” which can refer to someone who organizes ideas, as well as to the electronic keyboard instrument that combines simple wave forms into complex sounds. Both could be described as “keyboard grabbers,” we suppose.

When the word “synthesizer” showed up in the mid-19th century, it meant someone or something that synthesizes, or combines things into a complex whole.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the January-April, 1869, issue of the Contemporary Review:

“Then for the next ten, twenty, or more years, the competent synthesizer, designer, prescriber, writer, statesman, theorist, is found.” We’ve expanded the citation.

In the 20th century, the term came to mean “one of various types of instrument for generating and combining signals of different frequencies; esp. a computerized instrument used to create music electronically.”

The first OED example is from the 1909 supplement to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “Synthesizer, in acoustics, an instrument for the production of complex tones of predetermined composition.”

The term “synthesizer” is derived from the earlier verb “synthesize” (1830) and noun “synthesis” (1611).

All three terms ultimately come from the classical Latin synthesis (a collection, a set of dishes, a medicinal combination, or a suit of clothes), and the Greek sunthesis, a combination or a putting together.

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