Adventures with ‘grok’

17 May

I was checking out a recommendation for Josh Kaufmann’s Personal MBA book by looking at his website – but got a bit distracted as the word ‘grok’ quite literally leapt off the page at me.

The quote runs this:  “I’ve run across few people who conceptually ‘grok’ how to get things done better than Josh Kaufman.”   The quote comes from the productivity guru David Allen, whose work I really like, so I decided that anything David Allen knows is worth me knowing and looked it up.

I imagined it was slang, so started with the Urban Dictionary.  There is a host of definitions, with the earliest dated from 2002, but the most common sense seemed to be of ‘understanding’:

Literally meaning ‘to drink’ but taken to mean ‘understanding.’ Often used by programmers and other assorted geeks.

It took me a long time to grok Perl, but now I can read it without going blind!

 Still curious, I decided to see if the word had escaped the realm of programmers and assorted geeks and made its way into the rest of society.  So I turned to OneLook, a website that searches multiple dictionaries simultaneously.  That also produced lots of results, and the definition from Encarta developed the Urban Dictionary further:  grok is more than understanding, it’s to understand something completely by intuition.

The Encarta definition also explained the strangeness of the word ‘grok’ – it’s described as an ‘invention’ by Robert Heinlein, the author of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ in the 1960s  – but I’d probably describe it as a coinage or neologism.  Or to put it another way, Heinlein simply made the word up.

And ‘grok’ seems to be in that very unique class of neologism in that it’s a word that’s genuinely new.  Most new words derive from other words – perhaps by adding a prefix or suffix, crunching two words together (anecdotage, the age where you tell stories about the good old days = anecdote + dotage), or by borrowing from another language.

Of the many different ways you can invent a new word (see more on the rule of word formation here), words that are invented from scratch and that really ensure in the language are comparatively rare.  One famous example is googol (the number represented by 1 followed by a hundred noughts), which eventually gave birth to the name of the search engine, Google.  Another is quark, a nonsense word borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that was adopted to refer to an elementary particle.

Grok also falls into another interesting category – words that derive from science fiction.  I’ve never been particularly interested in sci-fi, but on reading this blog post from the Oxford University Press about words that have come into English from science fiction, perhaps I should re-evaluate.

The blog post lists nine words that are now taken as ‘science fact’ in the sense that they’ve just become the standard word we all use.  And the list is quite extraordinary – robotics, genetic engineering, zero gravity, deep space, ion drive, pressure suit, virus (computer programme), worm (computer programme), and gas giant.

I’m not sure ‘grok’ will ever reach the same level of currency as ‘robotics’ or ‘computer virus’ – but I wonder if the author ever thought that his his little four-letter coinage would still be in use forty years on.


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