Vox ‘Populate’

Not long ago I attended a presentation on flex spending where the speaker assured the audience that funds deposited into a particular program would, in the course of things, populate our credit cards.

This announcement was met with some puzzlement—but not enough. A pained but polite questioner asked the speaker to explain what she meant. The reply came back that there was no problem, that the process being rolled out was a good thing, and that the credit card  you were issued would be populated so your money came back to you. The speaker meant the money would be returned, or more exactly, that after a certain period the funds would be transferred into the credit-card account. But it was clear that the speaker didn’t want to say return, or transfer, or refund. The speaker chose populate, which has become a term of art that has leaked out of computer science and into finance, and once things hit both computer science and finance it’s just a matter of time.

Populate, meaning to inhabit or to occupy, has a longish pedigree in English. But the newest usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates from the 1970s, when it came to mean “to fill the sockets (on a circuit board) with components.” Note that the sense of filling out did not spread to other industries. Chef René populated the platter with miniature vegetables, each more organic than the next.

More crucial is the OED’s further definition of populate: “To import data into (a database); to provide (a database) with content.” My speaker felt that she was correct because the process would provide my credit card with content, and that content was money (it was my money to begin with, but never mind).

Populate seems to be en route to becoming a word meaning to fill or to fill out, whether or not the context is electronic. Please populate the form completely. Would you like to populate your tank with premium or deluxe, sir? The autumn fashions are in—are you ready to populate your closet with the season’s best plaids? And the meaning “to provide with content” might enable populate to extend its borders. Mother Perkins populated the washer with a month of Elmer’s longjohns. Jessica populated the blue book with an essay on neural networking.

Overpopulation is an environmental problem. Now it’s becoming a linguistic one, too.

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