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By Jack Ganssle

On Language

Published 3/21/2003

William Safire writes a NY Times column titled "On Language" in which he explores the evolving meaning of commonly used words. His March 9 installment ( (Sorry - requires both registration and paying a fee to read the article) discusses our favorite word: embedded.

Mr. Safire tackles a usage rooted in the current Iraq conflict. He quotes Newsweek's Verne Gay: "[embedded is] military jargon for a reporter who is to be stationed with a `unit', which is more jargon for a division, or corps, or perhaps an aircraft carrier group. Hundreds of reporters will be embedded in units during a war in Iraq."

This is an interesting and novel use of "embedded". But Mr. Safire, the nation's most recognized language guru, completely missed its most important definition, the one that defines our industry, and that has reshaped our world, as well as the world of that very military he describes.

In a very unscientific poll I conducted on a street corner here in Baltimore, not one of the dozen random folks I asked knew of embedded in the context of embedded systems.

I long ago gave up describing my job at parties, instead telling folks I'm an engineer. Their eyes immediately glaze over for a moment till they turn to talk to someone, anyone, else.

I bet Mr. Safire thought about his column while driving a car chock full of microcontrollers. He might have called it in via a cell phone employing a DSP and a 32 bit processor, while his microwave electronically counted down the minutes till breakfast was cooked. Pundits predict that by 2005 the average home will have 280 microprocessors. A few of those will be in PCs, but clearly the vast majority will be embedded devices. A fabric of smart electronics, all enabled by embedded systems, enrich our lives. Mostly. Admittedly some just add needless complexity. But no person is untouched by the fruits of our labors.

I looked up the word "embedded" in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a 20 volume set which forms the definitive description of the English language. This tome was originally published in a massive effort between 1884 and 1928. (For a fascinating biography of the OED read "The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester, a tale of two of the principle characters, one of whom went bonkers and cut off his. well, let's say it's not a book for the squeamish.)

The OED defines embedded as: "To fix firmly in a surrounding mass of some solid material". Apparently both embedded and imbedded are equally valid words, though the former is the more common form. Credit for the first usage goes to imbedded, which appeared in a biology book in 1778. Embedded appeared in 1794 in a text on natural history. Two hundred years ago random spelling was common and accepted, so the two words, which sound the same, received equal play till the modern era.

Subsequent OED supplementary volumes don't improve this definition. There's not a hint of any electronics context.

Of 12 on-line dictionaries I searched only Wikipedia ( had anything to say about embedded systems. But of course Wikipedia is more encyclopedia than dictionary, one created and maintained by techies like us.

We're still working in a field whose name isn't part of the English lexicon. We can't get no respect!

Immediately following embedded in the OED comes embedlam, which means "to drive mad". Surely that's an appropriate description of the final phase of any embedded development project.