E-MAGAZINE 694: SATURDAY 10 JULY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Boot camp George Ernsberger e-mailed: “My father was in boot camp in the US Navy in 1944, and I in 1955. Recruits (‘boots’) wore leggings (‘boots’) just about all the time, and nobody else did. Boots were the things that we wore that identified us as under training and distinguished us from full-fledged sailors. Everyone assumed that was the sense of the word. I guess none of this adds anything to what you’ve said, but it really sticks in my mind that the obvious explanation is the correct one.”
Gordon Schochet communicated a fine example of popular etymology: “I was told that ‘boot camp’ was related to ‘tenderfoot,’ a term that I first encountered in cub scouting as a name for a newcomer and more generally a recruit who had not been around long enough to develop the calluses that permitted him to walk barefoot through the woods and so had to wear boots to protect his tender feet. It’s probably another baseless myth, but it has a certain romantic charm and is related to the ‘rubber-boot sailor’ of your column.”
Three words for the price of one this time: xeric, hydric and mesic. Something xeric is very dry. It’s a term in ecology and might be applied, for example, to a bare rock exposed to the sun. Though formed from Greek xerōs, dry (also the source of Xerox, a method of dry copying), it’s a comparatively modern creation:
We offer the terms ‘xeric’, ‘hydric’ and ‘mesic’, to be defined as follows: Xeric (hydric, mesic): characterized by or pertaining to conditions of scanty (abundant, medium) moisture supply.
A Suggestion to Amend Certain Familiar Ecological Terms, by W S Cooper and A O Weese, in Ecology, 1926. Both authors were pioneering ecologists, in a period in which the term was hardly known to the general public. The Ecological Society of America commemorates one of the authors in its annual William Skinner Cooper award.
Until then, the only word available was xerophytic, which could be used solely of plants (because of the ending -phytic, from Greek phuton, a plant) that were adapted to dry habitats. Messrs Cooper and Weese wanted a term to describe habitats in general.
The second word they invented, hydric (from Greek hudōr, water), of a habitat that has a plentiful supply of water, was potentially confusing, since it already existed as a term in chemistry for hydrogen in chemical combination. And mesic (from Greek mesos, middle), for a habitat having an intermediate supply of water, has since been independently recreated by atomic physicists to refer to the subatomic particle called the meson. But in practice ambiguity in either case is unlikely.
These days, though xeric is hardly an everyday word, serious gardeners will know it in connection with dry landscaping or xeriscaping:
Instead of seeing the park as half empty, he saw the opportunity to design drought-tolerant gardens to promote the benefits of planting native and xeric plants.
The Denver Post, 21 May 2010.
Plummeting profits In May 2007, a report was published by the business information researchers Datamonitor on the financial outlook for pharmaceutical companies. It warned that so many drugs were about to leave patent protection, from 2011 onwards, that profits would nosedive, figuratively fall off a cliff. Patent cliff has since become fairly common in specialist business publications and in the past year or so has started to appear more widely, particularly in the UK. It was in the Financial Times on 4 May: “J P Morgan notes that GSK [GlaxoSmithKline] becomes the first big pharma to hit its patent cliff this year. As investors fully grasp its post-cliff outlook, its trading performance will provide some guidance to the rest of the market.” Note post-cliff: it’s a sign that a term has become accepted when derivatives start to appear.
Is cleaning a crime? We’ve all seen those sarcastic messages on dirty vehicles, in which some wag has traced out “clean me!” by removing some of the grime. I’ve only just learned that the trick has a number of names, including eco-tagging, grime writing and clean tagging, but is perhaps best known as reverse graffiti. A report about it in the New York Times on 3 June noted that it’s used by advertisers in several countries. One method is to pressure-wash dirty surfaces to leave behind a promotional message, though some advertising firms have been more inventive — a London company is said to have tagged snowbanks after a storm in 2008. The first example I can find is from the Toronto Star of October 2006, which featured the British graffiti artist Paul Curtis, who runs a business creating such advertising and who was threatened with prosecution for vandalism in Leeds in 2004 because of his reverse-graffiti advertisement in an underpass.
In the shadows The word umbraphile turned up this week in a piece about the total solar eclipse that will take place this Sunday near Tahiti. Literally, umbraphile means a lover of shade (from Latin umbra, shade + Greek philos, loving); biologists occasionally use it for shade-loving plants (the adjective is umbraphilic). But it has been borrowed, or reinvented, by astronomers to refer to someone who is “addicted to the glory and majesty of total solar eclipses” as the American astronomer Glenn H Schneider put it. In 2003, the New Scientist wrote, “There are people who like solar eclipses and then there are umbraphiles, those who like them so much they’ll drop everything to see one.” Professor Schneider says he recalls using it in that sense after the total solar eclipse of 1976, but thinks that it may be older; however, the earliest published example I’ve found was in the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1991.
4. Reviews: Through the Language Glass
In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created Newspeak, a language constructed to render its speakers incapable of articulating any idea contrary to the dogma of the ruling party. The implication behind Orwell’s creation is that the language you speak controls the way in which you think, limiting the concepts you’re able to understand.
One formulation of this idea is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though neither Edward Sapir nor his student Benjamin Whorf actually published anything so succinct and even the name is a construct of later commentators. The hypothesis has largely been dismissed, in particular because of Whorf’s many errors, which have overshadowed the work of his teacher, and has been out of fashion among linguists for the past half century.
The covers of (above) the UK edition
and (below) the US edition.
Many of these experiments have involved colour perception and Guy Deutscher starts his exploration with this aspect. Many societies have a curious lack of colour words, often limited to black, white and red, where the first two are used generally for dark and light colours respectively. Their speakers have perfect colour vision, but in the environment in which they live they don’t need colour descriptions that are more complex. The reverse of the Sapir-Whorf view is therefore certainly true — that one’s environment and culture control one’s language. However, recent research has demonstrated that colour concepts in one’s mother tongue do interfere subtly with the way the brain processes colour.
Another major theme in Deutscher’s book is the way that languages describe directions. Most use schemes related to the observer (“turn left at the traffic lights and take the third turning on your right”). A few languages, however, use absolute directions, including Guugu Yimithirr of Australia (famous as being the source of the word kangaroo). Speakers might warn you that a stinging ant was “north of your foot” or say that they left something “on the southern edge of the western table” in a room. Their scheme is appropriate for a group living in open country with few natural or human-made landmarks, but in our more complex civilisations the relational one works better. The Guugu Yimithirr method requires its speakers to acquire an absolute sense of direction, a marvel to the rest of us who don’t possess it and a strong indication that language does indeed in some cases modify thought.
Deutscher argues that the key to differences between languages is a contained in a maxim of the linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” As an example, he quotes the English statement, “I spent last night with a neighbour”, in which we may keep private whether the person was male or female. In French there is no such privilege: one must say voisin or voisine.
This is a most entertaining book, easy to read but packed with fascinating detail.
[Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World; published by William Heinemann in the UK on 3 June 2010 and in the US by Metropolitan Books on 31 August 2010; hardback, pp310 including index; ISBN 978-0-434-016900-7 (UK), 978-0-8050-8195-4 (US); publishers’ list prices £20.00 (UK), $27.50 (US).]
• Jan Matthews reports, “Our local paper, Margaret River Mail, in the south-west of Western Australia, has featured for consecutive weeks an advertisement for a new emporium in town which will sell ‘French Provisional Furniture’.”
• A personal ad in the “men seeking women” section of the contacts page of the Stockport Times on 1 July ought instead — Ian Colley suggests — to have been listed under the “fairground situations vacant” heading instead: “Caring male, 44, 5’ 11”, stocky build, goatee beard, seeks similar female for good relationship”.
• The Geelong Advertiser of South Australia, Ralph Sinclair noted, featured this advertisement on 2 July for a cool property: “Located on the fridge on Belmont and Highton it is a walk or short drive to shopping precincts, public transport, medical and local schools.”
• A Daily Telegraph blog on 30 June had the headline, “Andy Murray could save England coach Fabio Capello’s job at Wimbledon.” John Daly commented, “No wonder the England team didn’t do too well at the World Cup, if their manager was moonlighting at the tennis.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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