“Orthogonal”

Orin’s post about the use of “orthogonal” in a Supreme Court argument brings back memories: I used to like using “orthogonal” in that sense, too, perhaps because of my background with math. Then one day my father, who knows perfectly well what the term means — in his university days, he came up with what he called an “orthogonal basis method” for solving linear equations — saw it in a computer program user’s manual I was writing, and suggested I remove it; lots of people won’t know what it means, he told me. But the word is so apt here!, I said. Not if people don’t understand it, he said.

Of course he was right — as the lawyer in the story that Orin described learned, to his cost. (It sounds like the Justices weren’t much upset with the lawyer, and they did figure out what the word means; but it was a distraction from the lawyer’s point, and took up time that could have been used for substantive argument.)