Annals of Euphemism

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When I tried to take a look at my calendar this morning, I got a little box that told me, in red letters:

There was a network error while attempting to log you in. Please try again. If this problem persists, please contact your network administrator.

Administrator diagnostic information: Failure logged on 21 Nov 2008 07:35:21,243 as incident 15,241; the original exception text is:

com.meetingmaker.sys.RpcException: Server execution error: 9334: Server is currently quiesced (auto-shutdown)

The server log has more information on this error.

(Emphasis added.)

The idea that a server is "quiesced" is apparently a term of art for some SQL systems, but it was a new usage to me.

But when I tried a few minutes later, things worked normally, depriving me of the opportunity to make a fully sincere version of the obvious "This is an ex-server" joke.


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    The term "quiesced" is not specific to SQL servers, but may be applied to any server indicating that it is no longer accepting new clients, but still continuing to do work for existing clients. When all current work is complete, the server will shut down. The word might justly be applied to doctors, lawyers, and university professors on the verge of retirement: "I can't accept you as a patient/client/student; I have quiesced."

    Interestingly, the first sense of quiesce given by the OED, dated to 1821, is linguistic: "Of a letter, especially a consonant: to become silent. Chiefly with reference to certain Semitic languages, especially Hebrew."

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    Mark's post here is a rare exception.

    The idea behind error messages like the one Mark saw is that they want to be as informative as they can for ordinary users up front, but they're also intended to be diagnostic in their details. A technician can often, given the full content of the message and relevant context, diagnose what's actually wrong. Sadly though, you rarely get this detailed information because users somehow don't grasp that it will mean more to somebody else than it did to them. Can it be that in Linguistics the knowledge that one man's hieroglyphics are literally another man's everyday writing system results in more respect for apparently unintelligible content of messages?

    I've never worked on IBM DB2 systems seriously (I had one undergrad course that used it many years ago) but my informed guess is that "quiesced" here means that the system is deliberately prevented from doing any work for ordinary users so that it can perform some maintenance task which wouldn't work or would be too slow or difficult while they were still using it. Maybe taking a "snapshot" backup. Once the task is finished, it will be "unquiesced" and you can use it again.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    I'm glad to have John Cowan's explanation of what "quiesced" means in this context, but I'm somewhat disappointed to learn that it's not limited to SQL servers. And I was already disappointed that my Google search turned up references to DB2 rather than MySQL. Why? Well, based on the headquarters of MySQL AB in Uppsala, I was hoping to be able to suggest that the server was "pining for the fjords". This is not the first joke spoiled by inconvenient fact-checking.

    (And I realize that the Fyris River is hardly a fjord — that just makes it worse.)

  4. ajay said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    "Quiesce" is obviously one of those words (for which there is certainly a technical term that I don't know) that still exists in modern English only in a small subset of all possible grammatical forms. You can say "this server is quiescent" but you can't really say "I'll deal with this in a minute, I just need to quiesce for a bit" or "don't make too much noise, the baby's quiescing".

    Like "uncouth" (no one outside Scotland says "couth"), "unkempt", and probably "unseemly". And "stride/strode" of course. And, a bit, "reconnaissance" – there is a verb for "doing reconnaissance" – "reconnoitre" – but no noun for the person doing it – "reconnoisseur"? "reconnoitrist"? It would be a useful one for military applications.

  5. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    Reconnoiterer. It does exist.

  6. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    there is a verb for "doing reconnaissance" – "reconnoitre" – but no noun for the person doing it – "reconnoisseur"? "reconnoitrist"?

    "Scout" performs that function instead of a version of "reconnaissance" (reconnoitre being mostly US, I gather).

    The Boy Scouts were the boy non-military version of the military scouts who used to go on a recce or go out recceing (British term, used in the UK film world at least).

    A "recceer" is conceivable but gets no real googlehits.

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    I've now posted a fairly extensive follow-up on the verb(s) quiesce. Too much to put in a comment.

  8. Adrian said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    It would appear that one geek, or one team of geeks, came up with this new use of quiesce, so well done to them, I guess, for inventing a non-idiotic usage that's stuck.

  9. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    Mark: The odd thing about pining for the fjords is that it means 'dead' in ordinary usage, but in the original context it meant 'not dead at all'. But I myself, living as I do in New York City, do pine for the fjord when I am away — the Hudson River valley is the most southerly fjord in the Northern Hemisphere, despite the obviously bogus claims of Saguenay Fjord in Quebec and Howe Sound in British Columbia.

    I entirely agree that transitive quiesce has been back-formed from quiescent.

    Ajay: see Jack Winter's classic tale of orphaned negatives, "How I Met My Wife".

  10. Gerg said,

    November 22, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    "Quiesce" dates to the mainframe era and is one of many words IBM coined for themselves. That's why it turns up DB2 references these days and not much from others, though I wouldn't be surprised if it has spread by now.

  11. MattF said,

    November 22, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    I think IBM has a corporate tic of making up new techno-words at the drop of a hat– a random example is 'pel' (i.e., 'Picture ELement') for 'pixel'. It's just one of their ways of being special.

  12. Bill Tozier said,

    November 22, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

    I have a strong feeling somebody, long ago, had a Popsicle on the day the term was applied in this context. Those being the "quiescently frozen confection".

  13. Terminologia etc. : Silenzio... the server is quiesced said,

    November 24, 2008 @ 5:45 am

    […] In ambito informatico, invece, quiesce è stato trasformato in un verbo transitivo che descrive l'azione "rendere temporaneamente e/o gradualmente inattivo", ad es. un processo, un server, un database, ecc.  Chi parla una lingua neolatina probabilmente riconosce questo significato (cfr. quiescenza) ma in inglese risulta nuovo, come si vede da questo commento al post originale: […]

  14. blahedo said,

    November 24, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

    There's an important distinction being made in the use of the word "quiesce" that many of the commenters, and possibly Mark, are missing: It's not just a fancy word for "shut down" (or "quieted"?) that someone co-opted into a technical term that meant something more specific. The "-esce-" morpheme is not productive in English, but can be seen in other words like "obsolescent" (roughly "becoming obsolete") and "adolescent" ("becoming adult"), and specifically means, or meant, that something is in a transition state that is qualitatively different from where it started or where it will end up. "Adolescent" is now quite detached from its relative-word "adult", and "obsolescent" is typically used as if a synonym for "obsolete", but this original inceptive sense of "-esce-" is just right for this usage of "quiesce" as described by John above.

    All of which is to say that the server is neither an ex-server nor pining for the fjords: it's giving a very clear message that says, "I'm not dead yet!"

  15. Bianca Steele said,

    November 26, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

    This Blog Has Unquiesced…

    Mark Liberman at Language Log wonders about the origin of the unusual verb quiesce, and gets some reasonable sounding feedback. I suspect Liberman's colleague Arnold Zwicky is right — in a sense — that it's a backformation from the noun…

  16. Rainer Brockerhoff said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 6:37 am

    I saw this a little late. In ye olde mainframe days, "quiesce" was indeed often used in code comments and system call names.

    A typical example. When a program was canceled by some outside condition, there usually was a "quiesce I/O" routine which identified all in-progress I/O processes, signalled them to terminate, and waited for them to terminate cleanly before proceeding.

    A non-computing analog would be for a dinner speaker to rise, as a signal that the speech is about to begin, and wait for conversation to die down.

  17. Irene said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    A related, but more ominous verb, is senesce. From Wikipedia:

    The blossoms of Hibiscus hastatus are pale yellow (occasionally with intermittent pale red petal margins) and a deep red center upon opening. Over the course of the day, the flowers deepen to orange and finally red before they senesce.

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