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AWADmail Issue 652A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language
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From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
From: Lawrence N Crumb (lcrumb uoregon.edu)
There is supposed to be a church in England with a plaque in honor of a former vicar “who preached in this church for forty years without enthusiasm” (i.e., fanaticism). A search on Google reveals a reference to a similar plaque in Westminster Abbey. There had been so much “enthusiasm” during the Commonwealth that most English were glad to have an absence of it.
Lawrence Crumb, Eugene, Oregon
From: John Stinson (olmiller auracom.com)
Saw this word today AFTER having spotted in my latest issue of Maclean’s a feature on the celebrations being held this year to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of this treatise on Optics. Seven Volumes, no less!
What are, he muses, the optics of THAT?
John Stinson, Margaree Forks, Canada
From: Martin Johnson King (via website comments)
In Britain, optics would commonly be dispensers for single shots of liquor, fastened in a row to the edge of a shelf behind a bar. An inverted bottle of gin, whisky, or the like would be inserted in each optic. The clear glass measuring element of an optic allows the suspicious customer to check that the bar owner has not introduced a small coin or similar object to prevent pouring of the full amount claimed to be on offer. (photos)
Martin Johnson King, Melbourne, Australia
From: Alex McCrae (ajmccrae277 gmail.com)
As a thirty-five-year-plus resident of Los Angeles, today’s word epicenter, (its seismic related meaning) has major resonance, having experienced multiple quakes and sundry temblors over the years. The historic Jan 17, 1994, 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake was the most violent, destructive and memorable for yours truly, as my girlfriend and I were situated a mere two miles from the very epicenter of the slip-fault event located near the junction of Parthenia and Reseda Bvlds, in the community of Reseda.... several miles, straight down, mind you.
You could say for some obsessive, quake-fearing native Southern Californians, the imminent possibility of “The BIG ONE” is at the epicenter of their waking thoughts; yet for most others, a mere fleeting, periodic reflection, as life-on-the-edge-of-the-fault-line plays out in the Southland.
Alex McCrae, Van Nuys, California
From: Al Padilla (glands optonline.net)
One extraordinarily common word is “acute”. In medicine, it’s the opposite of chronic, whereas in common English it’s usually used as the opposite of mild. This can be used as a shibboleth for physicians in Congress. When Bill Frist said “this chronic problem has become acute” (something absolutely impossible in medicine, barring reverse time travel), we knew he had gone to the Dark Side.
Al Padilla, Armonk, New York
From: SarahRose Werner (swerner nbnet.nb.ca)
It’s been some decades since my last quantum chemistry course. As I recall, atoms cannot absorb photons on a continuous range of energies. Rather, they absorb those photons whose energy levels correspond to the precise amount of energy needed to bring about a shift in the arrangement of the electrons in the atom from one configuration to another.
There are no halfway points between configurations. The electrons are either in one configuration or the other. Thus, quantum changes are indeed small but they’re also significant.
SarahRose Werner, Saint John, Canada
From: Richard Chamberlin (kingart cox.net)
Subject: Science words
The most problematic word of all, though, is “significant”. To the public it usually means something that is major, consequential, or important, as in the report years ago that oral contraceptives were found to pose a “significant increase in the risk of pulmonary embolism”. In the newspapers it was reported as doubling the risk, which seemed huge (VERY significant), and which in turn scared many women, so much that they stopped taking the pill.
In science, “significant” actually means almost the opposite, generally expressed as “statistically significant” and meaning that a result is distinguishable at a chosen level of confidence, say 95%, from baseline noise; in other words a significant difference in science often means one that is just barely detectable, and often only with a sophisticated statistical analysis. In the example I gave above, the statistically significant increase in risk reported for women on the pill to develop pulmonary embolism was from 1 in 100,000 to 2 in a 100,000, which indeed represents a doubling of the normal risk as reported in the press. BUT, while doubling a tiny risk to a just slightly less tiny risk may be statistically significant, it is not really significant as normally understood by the public.
In fact, when this report came out in the mass media, many women were afraid to continue taking the pill and the pregnancy rate increased because less effective birth control methods were being used. What wasn’t even mentioned in the press was the relative risks of alternatives to the pill. The fact is that both outcomes of unintentional pregnancy -- childbirth or therapeutic abortion -- carry risks of pulmonary embolism that are FAR greater than that of taking the pill, both at least 10-fold greater. Now THAT’S a significant difference in both senses of the word!
Richard Chamberlin, Professor of Chemistry, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Pharmacology; Chair, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of California, Irvine
From: Mike Montgomery (mikegomy gmail.com)
This week’s topic (and specifically the example of ‘quantum’ for which the everyday and scientific usages are opposites) reminded me of the expression ‘a steep learning curve’. In everyday usage this implies that the subject matter is difficult to learn, whereas in scientific usage it implies that one would progress from a low level of learning to a high level of learning in a short period of time, i.e. that the learning is very easy.
Mike Montgomery, Dujiangyan, China
From: Barry Palevitz (bpclaylover8 gmail.com)
Your definitions and explanation are right on target. Bravo. As a former researcher and professor of biology (but always a scientist) I have had to deal with the word on an everyday basis, especially in class and in discussions with lay people. Even trained scientists confuse the usage, especially those in the physical sciences. Another related example is the difference between ‘believe’ and ‘believe in’. I don’t believe in evolution, I believe it.
Barry Palevitz, Athens, Georgia
From: Eric Miller (ericmiller1957 gmail.com)
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. A note on your note. Evolution itself is not a theory. Evolution, like gravity, is a fact. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is, at present, our best theory for explaining the fact of gravity. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection (together with Mendel’s Theory of Genetic Inheritance) is, at present, our best theory for explaining the fact of evolution.
Eric Miller, Norwich, Vermont
From: George Reynolds (georger1998 yahoo.com)
I believe that your definitions of theory make too sharp a distinction between scientific and popular usage. An example is string theory. This has been an active branch of physics for at least 25 years but it has no observational support (other than internal consistency). In other words, we have a verifiable group of scientists using “theory” as “hypothesis”. See the Wikipedia entry for string theory.
George Reynolds, Whately, Massachusetts
From: Bertil Magnusson (bertil.magnusson sp.se)
Another word with different meanings is ‘precision’, which in measurement science means spread, and in normal use means accuracy.
Bertil Magnusson, Borås, Sweden
From: Jim Tang (mauijt aol.com)
Entropy is integral to the second law of thermodynamics that every reaction has a net cost. But its application goes to every other field of human endeavor, from philosophy (life is a negative sum game, not a zero sum game) to economics (there is no such thing as a free lunch) to movies (chaos theory and the law of unintended consequences taught via Jurassic Park). While we may argue about how we measure chaos, I think we can all agree that anything worthwhile is going to cost you, because entropy is the default setting.
Jim Tang, Kula, Maui
From: Pete Martin (PLMartin usbr.gov)
This week’s theme of words from science that have taken on different meanings in everyday use put me in mind of a word I recently found to have made the opposite transition. As a teenager, nearly 50 years ago, I attended a “forensics workshop” at Ohio University. At that time, it was commonly understood that “forensics” referred to public speaking, period. But since then a stepwise transition has occurred: People called to speak publicly in court hearings were called “forensic witnesses”, and if they had a particular expertise to share, they were “forensic experts”. After a while, the sort of background investigations such an expert might do, in order to prepare to testify, became “forensic research”. (Most often this referred to crime scene investigation). Now I see increasingly that “forensics” is used for any sort of scientific or technical investigation -- a complete departure from its original meaning, which has happened just within my lifetime.
Peter Martin, Denver, Colorado
A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. -George Orwell, writer (1903-1950)