Does not compute

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Sep 15 14:58:16 UTC 2001

The odd 'ergative' declaration "[Expression X] does not compute" (spoken by
a computer) must have appeared in some old "Star Trek" program or some old
science-fiction movie, I guess. I suppose it means roughly "[Expression X]
cannot be parsed" or "[Expression X] is invalid". It is now used like "...
doesn't make sense" or so, I think.

Is there any information on the origin of this clumsy declaration?

It was my unsupported casual impression, ca. 1970 IIRC, that this was an
alteration of "[Operator/variable X] does not commute".

As I recall, operators which correspond to simultaneously measurable
observables in quantum mechanics must commute ... or something like that.
And in classical dynamics, isn't it sometimes important to determine
whether something-or-other commutes with the Hamiltonian? I suppose this
sense of "commute" is not instantly familiar to the average citizen, but it
might very well have been familiar to an SF-movie technical adviser
(physics and SF nerd) or to an SF author/editor, back in the day.

[This came up in a recent conversation about 'ergative' constructions such
as "Campbell's Chunky Soup eats like a meal." (Sorry if I'm taking undue
liberties in my use of 'ergative'.)]

-- Doug Wilson

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