Mind your language

‘Iteration’ has escaped from the computer shops

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

‘They should say, irritation, not iteration,’ exclaimed my husband as a voice on the wireless spoke about men’s fashion and the promise of ‘a new iteration of softer suiting’.

Suiting in itself is a comical word when found outside the technical pages of Tailor and Cutter. In that respect it belongs to the same family as trouserings, which P.G. Wodehouse (already convinced that trousers are inherently absurd) liked to deploy. Bertie Wooster often referred to evening-wear trouserings. Similarly, the determinedly humorous Owen Seaman, born over an artificial-flower shop, and editor of Punch from 1906 to 1932, cheered up a parody of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam with lines like ‘We sit in sable Trouserings and Boots.’ Quite separately the verb to trouser came to mean stowing profit, licit or not.


Nonetheless, my husband’s gripe was with iteration. It should, by rights, mean ‘repetition’ but is now a fashionable word for ‘version’. I rather think this came via computing, for there is in mathematics a method by which an approximation is fed back into an operation several times to produce an increasingly accurate result. Something similar is done in computer science.

So when a new machine is marketed in computing it is called an iteration, rather than a model. Even the Sun has come out with phrases like: ‘Surface Pro 6, the latest iteration in Microsoft’s productivity-oriented tablets.’

Previously the best known use of iteration had been in Henry IV Part I. Prince Hal says, ‘Wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it’; to which Falstaff replies: ‘O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint.’ Dr Johnson noted that the Shakespearean critic William Warburton had changed the word iteration to attraction in his edition, but he commented: ‘An editor is not always to change what he does not understand.’ For himself, Johnson took it as meaning ‘a wicked trick of repeating and applying holy tests’. That seems right.

I’m afraid that iteration has now escaped from the computer shops. I saw a reference recently to ‘a new iteration of Daesh’. One seems as hard to extirpate as the other.

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