Wherefore art thou ‘Context’

I love the contextual nature of language. It’s fascinating the way it can shift and change a phrase.

An advertisement this evening for a current affairs program had a man saying, “That’s the allegation, sweetheart.” What do you suppose he meant by that? Go on take a guess.

It could have been a heartbreaking moment of despair between a man and his wife in their kitchen. Facing false charges that carry with them the penalty of jail time, he is bearing his soul about the depths of his trouble, the heinous accusations levelled against him. “That’s the allegation, sweetheart.”

And yet it doesn’t quite fit because a current affairs program is unlikely to have such intimate footage (or probably even care so much). Contextual awareness of our society is already helping us to shape our understanding of the phrase. Perhaps it is a Father tending the wounds of his son who has fallen and skinned his knee. In tears the boy looks up at his Father asking the question, “It’ll be all right won’t it?”, and tenderly the reply comes, “That’s the allegation, sweetheart.”

A beautiful picture but again it doesn’t quite fit. Most children wouldn’t readily understand the word allegation. There are countless other contexts in which the phrase can carry with it a variety of implications and emotions. In this particular case, it was the reply of an self-assured and quick mouthed car dealer when confronted with an allegation of ripping customers off. “That’s the allegation, sweetheart”

In this context the phrase shifts again, the word sweetheart this time taking on a condescending, horribly dismissive connotation, the phrase palming off the need to answer and the authority of the questioner as a mere joke. It’s fascinating.

However this nature is not solely related to the domain of human language. Upon reflection, there are many ways in which contextual relativity changes the meaning and/or results of things in computers too.

A certain piece of code may work perfectly when running in the context of a certain user login, whereas different permissions may cause it to crash or fail gracefully to achieve its intent when executed under the context of a different user.

A database query may return a result when run in the context of a lightly loaded system. However under a heavily loaded system, the resources may not be available for it to complete without a timeout, or it may block other queries or itself be blocked depending on transaction boundaries.

I’m sure with more thought, the same could be found for many spheres of life. Relationships, medicine, politics and more. As people, we live in a nuanced world and our capacity for dealing with the changing context is quite remarkable. There are clearly many times we fail to interpret it, but I suspect that if we were always failures, then we probably would not have survived or continue to do so.


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