In conversation with Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky a few weeks ago, the topic of what to call what she does at Yahoo! (essentially, finding solutions to ill-defined problems involving networks) came up. She and some of the people she works with were inclined to refer to it as network forensics or simply forensics. This puzzled me, since I didn’t see how legal matters came into it.

And then I recalled a different non-legal use of forensic reported to me some years ago: as a noun referring to a gathering with a formal program, such as a speech or a film.

So, two different semantic extensions of forensic(s).

In standard uses, the adjective forensic and the noun forensics both have to do with legal matters (as in forensic linguistics). And that remains in the world of technology, as in this definition of computer forensics:

We define computer forensics as the discipline that combines elements of law and computer science to collect and analyze data from computer systems, networks, wireless communications, and storage devices in a way that is admissible as evidence in a court of law. (link)

Then comes the extension to information gathering more generally, as in this Wikipedia entry:

Network forensics is a sub-branch of digital forensics relating to the monitoring and analysis of computer network traffic for the purposes of information gathering, legal evidence or intrusion detection.

… Network forensics generally has two uses. The first, relating to security, involves monitoring a network for anomalous traffic and identifying intrusions. An attacker might be able to erase all log files on a compromised host; network-based evidence might therefore be the only evidence available for forensic analysis. The second form of Network forensics relates to law enforcement. In this case analysis of captured network traffic can include tasks such as reassembling transferred files, searching for keywords and parsing human communication such as emails or chat sessions.

In the first use, the focus is on detecting (and disabling) evil-doers, not necessarily for legal action.

Now, back to a Decembe 2005 posting of mine to ADS-L, edited here. Christopher Walker had written to ask if I was familiar with this usage:

Here at Penn State, “forensic” can be a substantive. It means a gathering with a formal program, such as a speech or a film. ‘There will be a forensic after the business meeting.’  There isn’t necessarily any element of analysis or even discussion implied.

Is this a Keystone State feature? or a Penn State bug?

I didn’t recall having seen this before, and didn’t find it in the ADS archives.  But OED2 had what was presumably the historical source, from the 19th century:

n. U.S. A college exercise, consisting of a speech or (at Harvard) written thesis maintaining one side or the other of a given question.

1830 Collegian 241 in B. H. Hall College Words, Themes, forensics [etc.]. 1837 Ord. & Regul. Harvard Univ. 12 Every omission of a theme or forensic.

So the extension here is from legal disputation to other sorts of disputation. And then, at Penn State anyway, to structured events more generally.

[A 1993 OED addition has an elliptical use of forensic ‘forensic science department, laboratory, etc.’, which isn’t directly related to the noun use above. Instead, it’s parallel to another usage that Walker complained about:

It reminds me of running into “epistolary” as a noun, occasionally, among lit crit types. ‘Clarissa is the longest epistolary in the English language.’  (I always wanted to shriek “Novel! epistolary *novel* !” )

Forensic and epistolary here are instances of “nouning by truncation” (see here). As perhaps the 19th-century noun forensic was, truncated from something like forensic exercise.]

2 Responses to “Forensics”

  1. J. Levin Says:

    From the only dictionary I have at hand, the Merriam-Webster web site, a definition of forensics [forensic (noun) def. 3] as “the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems; especially : scientific analysis of physical evidence (as from a crime scene)” — my understanding of the word has mostly been according to the ‘especially’ clause. Nowadays I think less of the legal aspect and more of the evidence gathering/analysis aspect.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    When I was in debate in high school (late 1950s), there were three organized speech-related competitive events for students: Drama, Debate, and Forensics. The latter was the catch-all term that covered Extemporaneous Speaking, Dramatic Interpretation, and a bunch of other speech events. We never used the term — we just called them all Speech — but everybody knew that was the official name.

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