Typically, when we think of the term “alignment”, we think of the obvious: vehicle wheels. As we all have found out – or are all told by mechanics – if our wheels aren’t properly aligned, it can affect wear on our tires and it can cause a vehicle to not travel in a straight line. Essentially, these problems happen because our wheels are not properly aligned so that they can work together as a unit – meaning that they’re working individually and going in (slightly) different directions. Though this may be the most applicable and utilitarian use of the term, a little investigation will show that it has obtained many usages outside of the automotive world.
Originating with the Latin word for line, linea, our term comes from the Old French alignier, meaning ‘set, lay in line’, plus the suffix -ment, which denotes the action or result of a word. Putting it all together, our term can initially and loosely be defined as ‘the action/result of laying/orienting into a line or appropriate positions’. The first appearance of this general usage can be found in a translation of The Philosophical History And Memoirs Of The Royal Academy Of Sciences At Paris (1742) by John Martyn and Ephraim Chambers, translating that: “This Platform is here represented by 4 pricked lines… Its bend is 2 portions of a circle, which meet in the middle of the canal at the points B. B. the centres of which are about 30 feet below, and a little without its alinement.” As could be imagined, from this generalized usage, more specific usages were spawned.
A few decades later, in 1781, the term acquired a military usage, as William Dalrymple, in his book Tacticks, uses it to define the arrangement of soldiers, stating: “A Line in battle might be obliged to extend itself regularly on the same alignment to the right, or left, to follow the movements of the enemy.”
In the field of public construction and engineering, the term was first used in 1810 to represent the course or route of a road, railroad, or waterway, with The Gentleman’s Magazine mentioning that: “The intended alignment of the road..will offer opportunities of frequent access.”
Slightly differing from the initial, generalized definition of things actually forming or arranged in a line, a publication in 1829, Gleanings in Science, returned the term back to its “action” roots, by applying it to act of arranging items or bringing them back into line, recording that: “To the heel of the scale should be attached a thin plate of brass, bent so as to embrace the tube, from the alignment of which with the surface of the mercury the most correct adjustment may be made.”
Looking at recent history, we can see the term also being applied to biochemistry, with the 1958 book Advances in Virus Research (Vol. 5), writing that: “We..examine whether there is not such a connection between the forces involved in the replication of vegetative bacteriophages and the point-to-point alignment of homologous genetic structures.”
Still, in our own industry, the term has yet another meaning: essentially, in terms of machine translation, alignment means coordinating original texts with target texts to create a database. In other words, this technology will help to reduce repetitive work by maintaining a copy of specific text for applications; however, much like our aforementioned vehicle wheel example, different vehicles, much like different translation tasks/assignments, require different specifications and different alignments.