## Semi-interesting

Reader RP sent along a link to a recent story in the Washington Post (Marjorie Censer, "CACI says it's buying Fairfax tech firm as it announces record earnings", 11/1/2010):

Paul M. Cofoni, CACI's president and chief executive, praised the company's strong quarter as well as its newest acquisitions. In contrast with other defense chief executives who in earnings announcements last week warned of tightening budgets, he was bullish on CACI's future performance.

"The opportunity pipeline is as robust as it's ever been," Cofoni said. "It's almost semi-infinite."

Mr. Cofoni was not referring to any of the mathematical uses of semi-infinite, such as semi-infinite programming ("optimization with a finite number of variables and an infinite number of constraints, or an infinite number of variables and a finite number of constraints").  Rather, he's using it as a vaguer sort of hedge, to indicate that his company's growth is not limited by the number of (government contracting) opportunities, because there are many more opportunities than the company can effectively pursue.

The OED glosses the prefix semi- as "half, partly, partially, to some extent".  For someone who's used to thinking of infinite in mathematical terms, the concept of a number that is "partly or to some extent infinite" is a bit jarring — my correspondent calls this "one of the most mystifying quotes from a CEO I have ever seen" — but it seems plausible to me to interpret "almost semi-infinite" as "more extensive than we can take advantage of".

This semi-unexpected use of semi- reminded me of the 1972 Dan Jenkins book and 1977 Burt Reynolds movie Semi-Tough, where "semi-" is a hedge that the semi-good-ole-boy narrator and his friends use to back off from certain kinds of predicational commitment. This is an entirely standard usage, for which the OED gives citations like

1828 MISS MITFORD Village Ser. III. 63 A simpering *semi-bald apothecary.
1837
DICKENS Pickw. xxviii, A *semi-cannibalic leer.
1838
DICKENS O. Twist xliii, A look of *semi-comical woe.
1871
BAGEHOT in Fortn. Rev. 1 Aug. 158 A *semi-abstract discussion of practical topics.
1891
Anthony's Photogr. Bull. IV. 130 A short *semi-dark passage between the studio and dark room.

But the characters in Semi-Tough use this standard hedge so much that it becomes a kind of lexical signature, echoing the novel's title. Here's a modest sample of the six dozen instances that Google Book indexes in this 309-page book:

I could halfway fall in love / For part of a lonely night / With a semi-pretty woman in my arms.
I guess I ought to explain so it will give me a semi-clear conscience with my teammates.
Shake also said there was a whole stack of semi-starlets down there that I ought to see.
You can take out anything you think's semi-libelous, anyhow.
The best way I can describe Earlene Padgett is to say that she was a semi-fleshy clerk at the bank who had a nice ass that stuck out when she danced.
As for last night, there isn't much to say about what happened except that it was semi-exhausting.
Just one of those striped-tie, Ivy League, midtown, semi-lockjaw, Eastern motherfuckers you run into.
When I first knew Elroy Blunt he was a semi-talented defensive back.
Shake says this is true, and Shake is semi-intellectual about the game.
In fact, Shake once said he'd be perfectly happy if the whole world was semi-dark and indoors.
It's the penthouse on the eighteenth floor of a semi-new building at Sixty-fifth and First.
That place we were at, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was what you might call semi-O.K. if what a man has on his mind is drinking and smoking and fooling around with goddess women.

The key passage for semi- exegesis is the narrator's explanation of "this rating system for girls" that "way back in college at TCU, me and Shake and Barbara Jane had worked up". A few highlights:

Anything below ten was a Running Sore. That was something that only a Bubba Littleton or a T.J. Lambert would fool around with …

A Ten was a Healing Scab. Had a bad complexion, maybe, but was hung and could turn into some kind of barracude in the rack. […]

A Seven was just rich. […]

A Four was a Homecoming Queen or a Sophomore Favorite and a hard-hitting dumb-ass. Fours married insurance salesmen and got fat and later in life stayed sick a lot.

A Three was a Semi, which a Texan pronounces sem-eye. You had to beware of Semis because you might marry them in a weak minute. Threes had it all put together in looks and style and sophistication. […]

A Two was a Her. With a capital. If a Semi was tough, a Her was tougher. You might marry the same Her twice. Or three times. Barbara Jane was a Her, or a Two.

And there just never had been a One. Ever.

1. ### Rubrick said,

November 7, 2010 @ 10:01 am

I think "semi-infinite" is only a little odd; it's the "almost" that elevates it to ridiculous. I'd be hard-pressed to pin down the difference between an opportunity pipeline that was semi-infinite and one that was merely almost semi-infinite.

(As Stanislaw Ulam didn't say, "The infinite we shall do right away. The almost semi-infinite may take a little longer.")

2. ### Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Semi-interesting [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

November 7, 2010 @ 10:04 am

[…] Language Log » Semi-interesting languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2759 – view page – cached November 7, 2010 @ 9:28 am · Filed by Mark Liberman under Words words words Tweets about this link […]

3. ### Jon Weinberg said,

November 7, 2010 @ 10:09 am

See The New Hacker's Dictionary entry for "infinite," http://www.outpost9.com/reference/jargon/jargon_24.html:

The term semi-infinite', denoting an immoderately large amount of some resource, is also heard. "This compiler is taking a semi-infinite amount of time to optimize my program."

The same source's definition for "semi" reads"

A prefix used with words such as immediately' as a qualifier. "When is the system coming up?" "Semi-immediately." (That is, maybe not for an hour.) "We did consider that possibility semi-seriously."

[(myl) According to his CACI bio, Mr. Cofoni was a math major at URI in the 1960s, and later VP of information technologies at General Dynamics, so hacker culture is a likely source. But the historical connections between jock and hacker cultures remain largely unexplored.]

4. ### Faldone said,

November 7, 2010 @ 10:15 am

Normally infinite in mathematical terms is the interval from -Aleph null to +Aleph null. Semi-infinite would be any part of that interval where one of the limits is some finite number. It would be like a semi-perfect game in baseball where the pitcher allows one or more batters to reach first base but subsequently getting them out by picking them off, catching them in an attempted steal, or getting them in a double play.

5. ### groki said,

November 7, 2010 @ 10:21 am

almost semi-infinite = ∞ / 2 – (a couple), or else a couple-dotted demi-semi-infinite.

to my ears, his combination of hedges makes Cofoni sound too bullish by almost half.

6. ### Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine said,

November 7, 2010 @ 11:01 am

@Faldone: that's not quite accurate as to how aleph_null is used, and there's no single such thing as "normally infinite" in mathematics. But as you say, semi-infinite is a well-established technical term in mathematics, roughly meaning "infinite in one direction", in contexts where there are two (or more) possible directions to be infinite in. So, for instance, the set of all positive real numbers is "semi-infinite", bounded below by 0 but unbounded above. A "semi-infinite line" starts out somewhere and continues indefinitely from there, as opposed to extending indefinitely in both directions.

7. ### Mr Punch said,

November 7, 2010 @ 11:01 am

Mark has it right, and it makes sense. My read: "You could almost say that there are more opportunities than we can pursue."

8. ### Ray Girvan said,

November 7, 2010 @ 11:27 am

@myl: "Ray Girvan sent … Ray calls this …"

Are you sure? I've no recollection of this, and even if I did read the Washington Post, I'd have gone unconscious half-way through the first paragraph of CEOspeak, and never seen the "semi-infinite" quote.

[(myl) Oops. It was someone else named "Ray", and being somewhat rushed (or on the road to dementia?) I got some wires crossed and substituted your name for the actual correspondent's. I've fixed the text to remove the false attribution. This is especially embarrassing since the other Ray is someone well-known whom I've known for many years. Spinning this in the most positive way, I can say that in the context of Language Log, you've become my default "Ray".]

9. ### Ray Perrault said,

November 7, 2010 @ 11:52 am

To relieve Ray Girvan, I'm the Ray who sent the original quote to Mark. I do like the link to the Hacker Dictionary.

[(myl) Apologies to you as well — I do remember you! Setting aside its value as a sign of incipient dementia, this episode offers a clue to my standard LL compositional process, which is to accumulate quotes and then add the commentary. In this case, when I went to type the last name of the Ray who sent the original observation, my fingers seem to have decided to follow "Ray" with "Girvan", and my brain was apparently already out the door to our regular Sunday Brunch in McClelland Hall.

I'm also interested to note that the corporate context was enough to trigger my association to Semi-Tough's jock-speak, though of course the Jargon File's discussion of semi-infinite is also immediately recognizable.]

10. ### Barry said,

November 7, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

He probably figured it was more professional to say "almost semi-infinite" rather than "ginormous".

11. ### Nelida said,

November 7, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

Mathematical definitions and other cited uses notwithstanding, as this was a financial-cum-pep talk extolling the excellent outlook for the company, I believe that "almost/nearly/quasi/practically limitless opportunities" would have been by far a better choice. IMHO. Style-wise, of course. "Semi-infinite possibilities" (or possibility pipeline, if you will) sounds, to my ear at least, faintly ridiculous.

12. ### MattF said,

November 7, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

My guess is that it's a mixed metaphor– part biz-talk and part tech-talk– that happens, accidentally, to almost make sense. Cofoni could, e.g., have said 'unbounded upside potential' and no one would have noticed.

13. ### The Ridger said,

November 7, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

Weird. "Had a bad complexion, maybe, but was hung and could turn into some kind of barracude in the rack."

Hung is an adjective I've only see applied to men. I'd have thought "stacked" or somesuch would have been used here.

14. ### Coby Lubliner said,

November 7, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

I, for one, find that Mr. Cofoni's formulation makes perfect sense and is rather elegant. Having worked in and taught applied math for decades, I must have used "semi-infinite" hundreds of times in the sense of 'stretching from (say) zero to infinity.' "Almost semi-infinite" naturally means that what it modifies (the opportunity pipeline) stretches (in one direction, in this case the future) almost to infinity, that is, so far out that it might as well be infinite. Analyses based on this approximation are commonplace in classical continuum mechanics; the title of my thesis includes the term "half-space," which is the same idea in three dimensions.

Paul Cofoni, incidentally, has a bachelor's degree in math, so he probably knew what he was saying.

15. ### Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine said,

November 7, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

@Coby Lubliner: Ah, interesting! Yes, if Cofoni has a maths degree, he would almost certainly have the technical usage at least in the back of his mind, nudging his wording. Especially as a pipeline is something to which the mathematical usage applies perfectly.

16. ### alex said,

November 7, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

As a side note, the headline itself is pretty ambiguous. Which company reported good earningd?

17. ### Spell Me Jeff said,

November 7, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

The math connection makes enormous sense. To the lay person (or maybe just me) semi-infinite comes off as two concepts yoked together on the nonce. If I understand what I'm reading here, a math-oriented person understands it a single concept. This being so, the "additional" modifier in a non-maths context seems inevitable.

18. ### Will said,

November 7, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

I too just assumed it was a double-hedge of sorts, but after reading this comment thread I'm convinced Coby Lubliner is right. I've never heard "semi-infinite" before, but I also don't have a degree in math. Now knowning what "semi-infinite" means mathematically, a single hedge on a precise mathematical meaning makes much more sense than a double hedge on a a vague popular meaning.

And I second The Ridger's opinion that hearing "hung" to describe a woman is jarring and nothing I've heard before. Also, most "rating system[s] for girls" I've seen before are ordered in the opposite direction, with 1 at the bottom and 10 at the top. So that doubly confused me when I was reading that passage.

19. ### Nicholas Waller said,

November 8, 2010 @ 9:16 am

"A Ten was a Healing Scab. Had a bad complexion, maybe, but was hung and could turn into some kind of barracude in the rack."

Maybe that is supposed to be "in the sack"?

And best not approach with only a semi on.

20. ### Rodger C said,

November 8, 2010 @ 9:36 am

@Nicholas Waller: "Rack" is a Navy word for bed. How many TCU grads join the Navy, I wonder?

[(myl) I don't know where it originated, but rack meaning "bed" (in expressions like "hit the rack" and "in the rack") was part of the general slang that I learned as a child.]

21. ### Chris Cooper said,

November 8, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

A line from the great SF classic 'Forbidden Planet' has always lodged in my mind. Travellers from Earth survey the vast numbers of dials on a machine built by the lost civilization of Altair 4. Each dial records 10 times as much oomph being delivered by the machine as the one before. (The machine is an IQ-booster, as it happens, but that's by the by.) One of the Earthmen says thoughtfully: "Why, the power of that thing must be getting on for … mmm .. pretty near infinite…"

To the mathematically initiated, "pretty near infinite" is even more jarring than "semi-infinite".

22. ### Jonathon said,

November 8, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

In something I was editing a few weeks ago, there was a mention of a committee meeting on a "semi-regular basis". I wondered how that differed from either a regular basis or an irregular basis.

23. ### John Cowan said,

November 8, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

Jonathon: It's a synonym for semi-periodic.

24. ### Catherine said,

November 8, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

And what about the corporate-speak of the "robust opportunity pipeline"? I hear this kind of jargon all the time at the PR agency I work at, e.g. "Our new biz pipeline is robust." Drives me semi-crazy. . .

25. ### J Lee said,

November 9, 2010 @ 1:36 am

"Moreover, within this continuum any language might once more choose any number of points depending on whether there are 2,3,4,.. levels of vowel height, pitch, etc. The number of possible language types here is infinite, although not uncountably infinite." — Joseph Greenberg

26. ### Mark P said,

November 9, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

This struck me as typical of the language I hear in the defense business when it's business that's being spoken of. There is a mix of semi-technical jargon and business-speak that I find more than a little grating.

27. ### Robert Furber said,

November 9, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

Of course, Conway's system of surreal numbers has one called omega, which has a definition similar to the usual ordinal omega, and since the surreal numbers are a field of characteristic 0, you can form omega/2.