English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A technical question

Q: The NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, recently emailed employees to announce the creation of a new position: Associate Director for Technical. If you are not as disconcerted as I am by this use of “technical” without a noun, please help me to accept it and move on.

A: It takes a lot to disconcert us, but we do feel the need for a noun here. Associate director for technical what? Because “technical” is principally an adjective, we expect it to be followed by the noun it modifies.

In this case, the adjective could be short for “technical support,” “technical services,” “technical management,” “technical operations,” and so on.

In fact, such terms appear in many titles at other NASA centers: “associate director for technical management,” “associate director for technical issues,” “associate director for technical activities,” “associate director for technical efforts,” and “associate director for technical affairs.”

However, the NASA website also has many noun-free titles, including “associate director technical,” “associate director/technical,” “associate director, technical,” and “associate director (technical).”

To be fair, a title like “associate director for technical efforts” may be more idiomatic than “associate director for technical,” but it doesn’t tell us much more about what the job entails. That may explain why NASA apparently doesn’t have a consistent style for using the word “technical” in job titles.

We’ve emailed NASA to ask what “associate director for technical” means in the announcement that disconcerts you. But we’ve gotten no response.

The word “technical” is occasionally used as a noun in itself, but not in any way that would clarify that job description.

We sifted through the definitions in major American and British dictionaries and came up with four principal uses of “technical” as a noun. Here they are, along with the earliest dates recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, where available:

  1. In sports lingo, the noun “technical” (1917) means what it’s short for, a “technical foul” (1878).
  2. In stock-market terminology, “technicals” are indicators of how markets typically behave. The OED has no entry for this noun, but it has one for “technical analysis” (1902), which tries to forecast market activity based on past trends.
  3. In business-speak, a “technical” (or a “tech”) can mean a technology company. This use isn’t recorded in the OED, but it’s found in Longman’s Business Dictionary, which says it originated in journalism.
  4. In military language, and usually in the plural, “technicals” (1992) are small, light trucks fitted with machine guns or other weapons, generally used by guerrillas or irregular troops. The fighters who ride in such vehicles are also called “technicals” (1992).

As for the etymology of “technical,” Oxford says it was borrowed either from post-classical Latin (technicus) or from ancient Greek (τεχνικός). The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the Greek word (tekhnikós in our alphabet) is the most likely source.

Chambers makes a good case. The Greek adjective tekhnikós means having to do with art, and is derived from tékhnē, a noun for art, skill, craft, or trade. But the Latin technicus, Chambers says,” was known only as a noun in the sense of a teacher or skilled artisan.”

When the adjective “technical” entered English in the early 1600s, the OED says, it was used to describe a person with knowledge, expertise, or skill “in a particular art, science, or other subject.”

The first known use in writing is from a 1617 sermon by the English clergyman and scholar John Hales, who had taught Greek at Eton and Oxford. In the sermon, Hales warns against abuse in the interpretation of obscure and difficult Bible passages:

“Nor to think themselues sufficiently provided vpon their acquaintance with some Notitia, or systeme of some technicall divine.” (Here “divine” is a noun for a theologian.)

Later, as the OED says, the adjective was used to characterize someone “expert in or concerned with applied and industrial sciences.” The dictionary’s most recent example is from the July 19, 1998, issue of the New York Times:

“Microsoft’s technical people think it’s completely obvious that an operating system in 1998 should include Web-browsing services.”

Of course the adjective “technical” is also used more broadly, and these senses are also several hundred years old.

For example, since the 1630s “technical” has referred to “the specialized use or meaning of language in a particular field,” the OED says. The dictionary has citations for “technical sense” (1635), “technical terms” (1666), “technical language” (1808), and “technical classification” (1835).

And since the late 18th century, the dictionary says, a writer or a book that uses specialized terms or requires “specialist knowledge to be understood” has been called “technical.”

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1779 issue of the Mirror, a short-lived periodical published in Edinburgh: “I have since been endeavouring to make it a little less technical, in order to fit it more for general perusal.”

Another familiar sense of the adjective means “so called” or “strictly so considered.” The earliest example in the OED is a 1779 reference to “a technical, artificial title,” but this 2008 citation from the Styles section of the New York Times is a better illustration:

“Several weeks later Mr. Byrd and Ms. Kalos went on what she described as ‘our technical first date.’ … Two days later they went out alone on what she considers their first real date.”

We won’t go into the many other senses of the adjective “technical,” as applied to products, equipment, processes, activities, and so on. Needless to say, they shed no light on NASA’s use of the word in that job title.

It’s worth mentioning that many other words are related to the ancient Greek noun tékhnē (art, skill, craft, trade). Some of them—along with the first dates given in the OED—are “text” (circa 1369), “context” (perhaps before 1425), “pretext” (before 1535), “architect” (1563), “technology” (1612), “textile,” (1626), “tectonic” (1656), “technicality” (1764), “technique” (1817), “technician” (1833), “technoculture” (1946), and, inevitably, “technobabble” (1981).

Their ultimate ancestor is a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as teks-, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It has been variously translated as meaning to weave, make, build, or fabricate.

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