Reloaded, rinsed or ridden, it's a bad word

'Matrix': No matter what it means -- or doesn't -- everyone's using it

Observations

November 09, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Staff

The other day, I decided to take in a movie.

First I shampooed, conditioned, amplified, hydrated and styled my hair, using the complete line of Matrix hair care products. Then I hopped in my new Toyota Matrix and headed to the theater to see the latest Matrix movie. I got home just in time to turn on the set and catch the new TV series, Threat Matrix.

OK, I'm lying. I don't use Matrix hair-care products or drive a Matrix. I have not seen the movie, The Matrix, nor either of its sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Nor have I seen the new TV show.

Why not? Because I'm anti-matrix.

I do not like the word.

Apparently, I am alone.

Seldom before in the history of English language usage has a single word burst on the scene quite like "matrix."

Thirty years ago, with the exception of a few nerdy mathematicians, nobody used the word "matrix." Now it is used -- sometimes correctly, but more often not -- to mean everything from a computer network to a database, from a spreadsheet to the Internet, from a hierarchy to a source of origin, from an information flow to a maze, from an alternate universe to a simple list. Not to mention its use as a brand name.

Today, you can cruise in a Matrix, condition with Matrix, read a literary magazine called Matrix, or purchase goods and services -- from consulting to aluminum siding to manicures -- from one of the thousands of companies that have seized upon the name.

On and on it goes: Matrix Regurgitated.

We need to set some limits, and we need to ask why this once obscure word is being used with abandon -- willy-nilly, as it were. Merely because it "sounds cool?" Because it makes one think of Keanu Reeves?

Or, far more likely, is it being used precisely because no one understands what it means? What we have here, I submit, is a failure to communicate, yet another example of the kind of obfuscation that we end up being force-fed and, most often, swallowing whole.

It's everywhere

It's the sort of word that your computer tech crew at work uses, and you nod and pretend you understand -- the kind of word that appears as a charge on your telephone bill, and, as extremely important as it sounds, you haven't a clue what it is.

Go ahead, try not to pay your "universal network interconnectivity matrix" charge. See what happens.

We fall for it. We'd rather pay up than admit we don't understand. We may even resort -- in an effort to appear technologically hip -- to using it ourselves.

In the Baltimore area alone, there is Matrix Communications Group, Matrix Educational Resources Inc., Matrix Engineering, Matrix Rehabilitation, Matrix Services, Matrix Technical Solutions and Matrix Technologies. And that's from the 2001 Verizon Yellow Pages, which is the latest edition I have, probably because I failed to pay my universal connectivity fee.

To fully understand how insanely out of control the use of the word is, one need only Google "matrix."

Type "matrix" into that Internet search engine -- so popular we now use it as a verb (using nouns as verbs, also very cutting-edge). Anyway, when you type "matrix" into Google, you get 20 million hits. That is more than twice the number you get if you type in "beer," three times as many as you get with "ham," and five times as many as "potato" will receive.

But unlike ham, potatoes and beer -- all staples of life that we can easily identify -- "matrix" has many and varied meanings, few of them clear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists six.

It can be something from which something else originates, develops or takes form, a meaning that derives from the Latin word it stems from, mater, meaning mother or womb.

It can also be a mold from which a relief surface is made; the material in which a fossil or other material is embedded; the intercellular substance in which tissue cells are embedded; the thick part at the base of your toe and fingernails from which the new nail develops; a rectangular array of mathematical elements; or a main clause that contains a subordinate clause.

The first use of the term in mathematics was in 1850, by Edward James Sylvester, who, years before he went on to teach at Johns Hopkins University, wrote:

"For this purpose we must commence, not with a square, but with an oblong arrangement of terms consisting, suppose, of m lines and n columns. This will not in itself represent a determinant, but is, as it were, a Matrix out of which we may form various systems of determinants by fixing upon a number p, and selecting at will p lines and p columns ..."

Evolving definitions

Things would only get more confusing in the centuries ahead. With the onset of computer science, "matrix" began spawning new meanings. And with the onset of the Matrix movies, it took another quantum leap.

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