Validate: To make legally valid; to sanction; to confirm or corroborate; to authorize; to verify. (“The court validated the contract”; “The judge validated the election”). From Latin validatus, participle form of validus: strong, powerful, effective. Related to valiant.
Those are the primary definitions of validate in all of the major dictionaries I consulted: American Heritage, OED, Merriam-Webster, and Macmillan. But validate has some specialized meanings, too, one of which baffled me recently.
No, not this one:
Image from Peds.org.
This usage is common in the U.S. “Parking validation” refers to a stamp on a parking receipt that gives the bearer discounted or free access to a parking space. (This usage does mystify some people, mostly non-Americans: see anxious questions at WiseGeek, Yahoo Answers, and Trip Advisor.) Here, “validate” has the “sanction” meaning: a validation sticker or stamp confirms the bearer’s right to park in a private lot or garage. (I couldn’t determine when this usage first cropped up, or who the original parking-validator was. I’d love to know.)
And because I survived the Psychobabble Era, I know another usage of validate: “to cause a person to feel valued, significant, or worthwhile; to affirm that a person’s feelings, opinions, desires, etc. have validity, truth, or worth.” (Adapted from OED, whose earliest citation for this usage was published in a 1951 journal of child-development research.)
The validate usage that confused me came from a prospective client, a marketing person who works in technology. This person asked me to “validate” a product name the company already uses. I read the request in the legal sense: “Confirm our position; tell us we’re doing the correct thing.” And I was flummoxed, because I don’t see my role as that of a rubber-stamp.
But it turns out my client had a different definition mind. This validate means something closer to “Evaluate the correctness of the name.”
My realization came when, soon after I got the “validate” request, I happened to be chatting with an acquaintance who does data analysis for drug companies’ clinical trials. I asked her whether she’d ever used “validate” to mean anything other than “confirm,” and she, well, confirmed that she had. In drug testing, she said, “to validate” means “to demonstrate that a process maintains a desired level of compliance at all stages.” (I’ve subbed in the language of a Wikipedia entry to be sure I got it right.)
Wikipedia opened my eyes to a whole spectrum of validations. There’s data validation: ensuring that data inserted into an application satisfies defined formats. There’s regression model validation in statistics: determining whether a model fits the data well. There’s forecast validation: verifying prognostic output from a numerical model.
The “evaluate” sense of validate comes from software engineering (and from engineering generally). Here’s how a Wikipedia entry on validation and verification puts it:
Validation checks that the product design satisfies or fits the intended use (high-level checking), i.e., the software meets the user requirements. This is done through dynamic testing and other forms of review. … Software validation confirms that the product, as provided, will fulfill its intended use.
Software validation is one thing, but name validation? I’ve been doing naming development in many areas, including technology, for many years, but I’d never been asked to “validate” a name. It was as though I were encountering a new language; no wonder I felt at sea.
I’m a quick study when I need to learn about arcane subjects like cybersecurity, surgical stents, or field-programmable gate arrays. I like learning my clients’ specialized vocabulary. But when we’re discussing my specialty, I’d prefer that they drop the jargon. If my clients aren’t familiar with my own lingo (sound symbolism, naming brief, suggestive names), I’ll use common, non-shibboleth-y English in our discussions of branding. Otherwise we risk misunderstanding, as we did with validate.
What I experienced with validate was what, in a series of posts for Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum has called nerdview*. Here’s how Pullum defines nerdview in his most recent post on the subject, published September 12:
Nerdview stems from a failure of something fundamentally human and highly relevant to linguistic communication: to do linguistic communication you have to appreciate that the other human has a viewpoint, a perspective, and it may not be the same as yours. You have to be able to think about things from their point of view.
In his new book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that a lot of jargon-packed writing can be blamed on the Curse of Knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” When you’ve learned something so well “that you forget that other people may not know it,” Pinker writes, “you also forget to check whether they know it.”
I’ll have more to say about The Sense of Style in a future post. Meanwhile, I’m just grateful I’ve learned to define validate in Nerd Dialect.
* Some would argue that the more technically correct term would be geekview. That argument may itself be an example of nerdview.