"Overloading" — or, if you want to get fancy, "polymorphism" — in computer science refers to operators (or other constructs) that take on different meanings depending on the context. A plus symbol (+), for instance, might signify "add" when used between two numbers, but "concatenate" when appearing between two strings of characters. So 2+3 comes out 5, while "two"+"three" makes "twothree". That seems natural enough, but look at it more closely and it's quite strange.

In real life, words are constantly getting overloaded. "You" means something different, depending on which person "you" are talking to at any given moment. "We" can mean "you and I", or "not you but others and I", or royally and exclusively "I". ("We are not amused.") Overloading of words is essential to puns, poetry, and powerful language. (And right there was a petty play with alliteration — an overload-crossover from sound to sense.)

But at times overloading can be dangerous. Consider graphical user interface design: remember the "Trash Can" icon on the original Macintosh desktop? It represented the command "delete" when a user dragged and dropped a file into it. (That seemingly-simple symbolic act of "dragging" and "dropping" and pseudo-physical manipulation within a "desktop" metaphor is another huge topic for philosophical discussion.) If someone took a floppy disk icon and dropped it into the Trash Can, then, consistency and logic would suggest that the disk, or rather its contents, should be deleted. Instead, the disk is unmounted from the file system and ejected. But that's a relatively benign example; arguably the double-use overloading of the Trash Can is a neat hack, not a confusing inconsistency.

Likewise in the ZhurnalWiki, in a tiny way: as of mid-March 2004, inspired by a suggestion from RadRob, I renamed the home page What's New header. It now says "RecentChanges". Yep, it's an overload — and also a lie. The RecentChanges page is an autogenerated log of alterations, not an honest list of newly added material.

Maybe that's close enough, though, for practical purposes. Certainly it's convenient: RecentChanges is a frequently visited location, and having a link to it near the top of the wiki home saves a bit of scrolling and typing. And it's arguably æsthetic, or at least cute, to offer that service without wasting any screen real estate.

Perhaps overloads can be applauded, in Cardinal Newman's words, as "... venerable, beautiful, or useful ..." — even when they're not strictly true. And might not overloading be a key part of meaning itself? In Through the Looking Glass (Chapter 6), Lewis Carroll writes: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Maybe words have to, in order to mean anything at all ...

(see also MeanMeaners (3 Jul 1999), NamingNames (10 Oct 1999), SimplySymbols (7 Nov 1999), OnConventions (1 Jan 2000), StrandsOfTruth (2 Nov 2000), LyingVerses (15 Mar 2001), ... )

TopicProgramming - TopicThinking - TopicZhurnal - TopicLanguage - 2004-04-05

(correlates: TruckNumber, BovineMind, PoemCrazy, ...)