Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Retrofit and Reverse Engineer: Shameful Synonymy

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2008

A year after I finished reading volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3 of the Harry Potter books to Doug and Adam, I decided we were ready to take on volume 4. I didn’t read this one aloud, though. It was too long and had too many characters in need of distinct voices for me to want to tackle it. Instead, we let a professional do it, and during our car rides for a month or so, listened to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on CD. In one passage, Harry and his friends are on their way to Hogwarts, and overhear their enemy Draco Malfoy in one of the compartments in the Hogwarts Express:

“…Durmstrang takes a far more sensible line than Hogwarts about the Dark Arts. Durmstrang students actually learn them, not just the defense rubbish we do….” (p. 165)

It’s been a few months since we finished listening to Goblet of Fire, but I found myself remembering that line while I read a section of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo (2007). One of the passages:

[T]he [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape] program, as practiced by the Army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has been indicted by a number of critics as now being misused by the Pentagon. They argue that top officials have “flipped the switch” from focusing on ways to increase resistance by captured American soldiers to developing effective interrogation techniques to use against captured “enemy combatants” and other assumed enemies of America. (p. 252-253)

And a paragraph or two later, Zimbardo writes:

The tactics developed by the SERE programs were part of the protocol for defensive training of military personnel in case of enemy capture; however, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, they were retrofit to be part of the arsenal of offensive tactics to elicit information from military personnel or civilians considered as enemies. (p. 253)

Zimbardo notes that since the information that would confirm these claims is classified, they remain unproven. Last week, of course, they were confirmed:

The documents and testimony at the hearing show how Pentagon officials “reverse-engineered” a military program that had been designed to help captured U.S. soldiers and aviators resist interrogation. Techniques used in the program to prepare U.S. service members were instead put to use against detainees at Guantanamo. (Warren P. Strobel, “CIA advised military on interrogation limits”, June 18, 2008, McClatchy Newspapers)

In the first passage, Zimbardo seems to look for a term that means “to teach something not for purposes of defending oneself against it, but to use it for one’s own benefit”, and settles for a metaphorical use of flip the switch. If I’d been writing, I might have chosen this one, too, since if there’s a word for this concept, I don’t know it. Or maybe I’d have called it reversing figure and ground.

In the second passage, Zimbardo needs to refer to this concept again, and this time lights upon the single word retrofit. I found this word interesting on morphological and semantic grounds. Morphologically, this looked a lot like the creeping irregularization of the past tense/past participle for monosyllabic verbs that end in lax, nonlow front vowels (i.e. “short E” and “short I”), so that you get pet instead of petted and grit instead of gritted. But retrofit? That’s not a monosyllabic verb, so why did Zimbardo write were retrofit instead of were retrofitted? The most obvious guess is that it’s because retrofit is morphologically and semantically related to the monosyllabic fit, and (I’m guessing) Zimbardo has fit for the past-tense/past-participle form of that.

In the above-linked posts I mentioned fit as a verb that had both regular (fitted) and irregular (fit) past-tense/past-participle forms. Now I wondered if everyone who had fit instead of fitted also had retrofit instead of retrofitted, or if there were some speakers who’d irregularized fit and hadn’t (yet) done so with retrofit. To find out, I completely bypassed my usual Google-searching. I’ve tolerated Google’s notoriously unreliable hit counts in the past because I didn’t have anything better, but now there’s Mark Davies’s Corpus of American English, a carefully selected corpus of more than 360 million words of American English from 1990 to the present, continually updated, tagged with parts of speech, and available for free. I looked for past-participial retrofit and retrofitted by asking for instances of these words occurring after a form of be or have. Out of 85 tokens, 13 were irregular, or about 16%. Then I looked for past-participial fit and fitted the same way. Unfortunately, many of my tokens of be+fit had fit as an adjective, as in this is not fit for human consumption, and when I tried to require that it be a past participle, I got zero results, even though I could see from my earlier search that I should have gotten at least some. (In fact, it was glitches like this one that kept me from getting at the simple past-tense forms of fit and retrofit too. Hopefully, they’ll be fixed as time goes on.) Anyway, looking at just the examples of fit/fitted after have, out of 182 tokens, 136 are irregular, or about 75%. So it looks like (at least in American English), the regular fitted is on its way out, which Lynne Murphy (aka Lynneguist) confirms in this post on Separated by a Common Language. But even if we assume that (1) these percentages can be taken to represent the percentages of American speakers who use these different forms and (2) that the 16% of the speakers who have retrofit as a past participle are a subset of the 75% who have fit as a past participle, it’s clear that there are a lot of speakers who have irregularized fit who have not done so with retrofit.

As for the semantics, this is a new meaning of retrofit for me. In the dictionaries I’ve consulted, and in the tokens I got from the CAE, it means to modify an already existing device so that it can perform some additional function that wasn’t part of the original plan. That doesn’t strike me as a good description of the figure/ground reversal between teaching torture-resistance and teaching actual enhanced interrogation techniques, although at a more general level the part about adding new functionality to an existing process does fit. And come to think of it, maybe it is a good fit — when Zimbardo talked about “flipping the switch”, it sounded as if teaching torture resistance had been abandoned in favor of teaching torture itself, but if the SERE program is now teaching both, retrofit would be a good semantic choice.

In recent news, though, I haven’t seen or heard retrofit used. Instead, it’s been the reverse engineering used by Warren Strobel in the quotation above, and also by journalist Mark Benjamin at, and one of his quoted sources, Brad Olson of the Divisions for Social Justice within the American Psychological Association. It usually appears in scare quotes when written, so evidently it hasn’t been fully accepted yet.

Like retrofit, this term is interesting both morphologically and semantically. Morphologically, the reverse engineer as a verb is another backformation of the very productive kind exemplified by babysit, people-watch, slowdance, and others. You start with an ordinary compound word, reverse engineering consisting of an adjective (reverse) and a noun (engineering). Reanalysis follows: [reverse [engineer -ing]] becomes [[reverse engineer] -ing]. Then when you strip off the -ing suffix, you’re left with the newly formed verb, reverse engineer. In other words, the verb reverse engineer did not give rise to reverse engineering; the latter came first, and gave rise to the former.

Semantically, this is another term whose meaning doesn’t fit the current situation — or at least, its old meaning doesn’t. If it becomes part of the lexicon in this figure/ground reversal sense, then we’ll have a new meaning for reverse engineer. The meaning I get in the dictionaries I checked, and in all the attestations I found on the CAE, is to take something apart in order to learn how it’s made; in other words, instead of going from design to finished product, you go in the reverse order, from finished product to design. The only part of that meaning that applies to the current situation is “reverse”.

Retrofit and reverse engineer: two words with a little bit of semantic similarity, now made synonyms. Certainly not the most significant outcome of the grotesque, unconstitutional, and incredibly stupid un-American activity of training people to commit war crimes — but nonetheless an interesting one.

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6 Responses to “Retrofit and Reverse Engineer: Shameful Synonymy”

  1. viola said

    Guantanamo–not our finest American moment. Having practiced SERE myself, (trained briefly and certainly not under foreign duress,) I find the idea of retrofitting or reverse engineering deplorable, cowardice, and far from noble. Seems like a couple of pretty, pretty words to describe something incredibly ugly and shameful. Abu Ghraib was an extremely shameful lesson on our part as well.
    On a positive note, there is an article in July’s subscription of Reader’s Digest that features Major General Doug Stone of the U.S. Marines. Major General Stone has developed a program for rehabilitating captured Iraqi insurgents and those who are sympathetic to insurgents. Quite a few impressionable Iraqi teenagers are involved in this detention center. It’s nice to know that lessons have been learned in the shady aftermath of Abu Ghraib. One would hope that something good will come out of the light shone on the injustices of the victims of Guatanamo.

  2. viola said

    Neal, can you insert an ‘n’ in Guatanamo? Right there at the end there….yep. Thanks. 🙂

  3. Ran said

    I think I always use “fit” in the intransitive sense (“the shoe fit”, “the shoe had fit like a glove”, with *”fitted” being ungrammatical for me), and in the synonymous transitive sense where the direct object isn’t a patient at all (“the shoe fit me perfectly”, “that punishment wouldn’t have fit this crime”, with *”fitted” being ungrammatical for me), but mostly use “fitted” in the causative transitive sense (“the salesman fitted his pitch to his customer”, “the researchers fitted the data points to their model”, with ?”fit” being iffy for me).

    I’m sure I don’t use “retrofit” as a past tense or past participle, and said use really jumped out at me in your quotation here, but seeing as the verb “retrofit” uses the causative transitive sense of “fit”, maybe that makes sense?

  4. Neal said

    Viola: Sorry, it looks like the latest WordPress software doesn’t allow me to edit comments. I couldn’t even edit my own; I had to delete it and rewrite it.

    Ran: My usage of fit/fitted is like yours, and I looked for it in the corpus data. I did notice there were exceptions in either direction, but because of time constraints didn’t try to see if there was a correlation between past-participle form and causativity. But maybe I will now.

  5. The Ridger said

    My usage of fit/fitted is the same as Ran’s and yours; though I don’t think transitive “fit” sounds wrong, passive “fit” does. Weird, I know. I think I’d say “retrofitted” but I’m not sure, to be honest.

  6. viola said

    Neal: c’est la vie BTW The Lucifer Effect sounds interesting.

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