Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ad hoc

Friday's syndicated New York Times crossword has taught me a couple of things:

1. The first words of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" are "Yo, V.I.P., let's kick it." (52 Across: "1990 #1 rap hit that starts" — you already know the rest.)

2. The Latin phrase ad hoc is more complicated than I thought. (7 Down: "Having a single purpose.")
I've known ad hoc as a matter of administrative improvisation, as with various ad hoc (i.e., not standing) committees I've served on in my academic life, committees put together as impromptu ways to address unexpected issues. The Latin words ad hoc (which I've never before bothered to think about) mean "for this." The phrase's first use as an adverb in English (1659) carries that meaning: "For this purpose, to this end; for the particular purpose in hand or in view." In the 19th century, ad hoc functions as adverb and adjective: "Devoted, appointed, etc., to or for some particular purpose."

It's in the 20th century that the phrase's emphasis on a response to the needs of the moment ("in hand or in view") becomes associated with flying by the seat of one's pants or, to change the metaphor, winging it. Thus ad hoc is now also a verb: "to use ad hoc measures or contrivances, to improvise." And the phrase gives rise to several ugly nouns: ad hoc-ery ("the use of such measures"), ad hocism / adhocism ("the use of ad hoc measures, esp. as a deliberate means of avoiding long-term policy"), and ad-hoc-ness ("the nature of, or devotion to, ad hoc principles or practice"). Thank you, Oxford English Dictionary.

By the way, I'm not merely ad hocking in writing about ad hoc. This post is in keeping with a "long-term policy" of writing about anything that prompts my thinking and seems potentially useful and/or delightful to others.

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