Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Parvum Opus 351: Guessing at Meaning

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere.


Christmas Hiatus, Unplanned

What with one thing and another, this and that, main computer down and then downer, and activities up, shopping, wrapping, mailing, working, selling, partying, I just didn’t write PO last week. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, or just the Happy New Year if that’s your preference. Be merry anyway. Here’s my Christmas piece, “Light is never wasted.”

A man called into a radio talk show last week complaining about Christmas lights. He resented his neighbors who put up lights because they use energy and they're going to destroy the planet. He even invoked the children: Christmas lights will kill our children, or destroy their future, or something to that effect. He had a mind to complain to the authorities.

He had a spiritual ancestor in one of Jessamyn West's novels about nineteenth-century Quakers, probably The Friendly Persuasion, in which the Quaker family installed gas lighting when it became the newly available technology. They had a party and invited all the neighbors in to witness this miracle as they turned on the new gas lamps. One miserable old Scroogey sort of man complained about the extravagance of using gas for light. Of course he didn't know whether gas would use more or less material than wood or candles, but he was biased against anything new or beautiful, against anything that wasn't essential to bare survival, and probably would have been satisfied to sit in the dark. He called gas lighting "the wasting away of the world." Too much light is extravagance.

This fearful and irrational feeling about energy is a kind of Puritan hangover. Environmental extremists share these tendencies with the strictest of the Puritans, at least Puritans in popular understanding: they feel more virtuous than everyone else, they want to control everyone else, and they lack trust in the universe.

Physics tells us that matter and energy may be converted but not lost. Human intelligence and creativity, not fear, can convert matter to energy and vice versa.

This fear is precisely why Christmas exists: to light up the world, to shine light in the dark corners, and to show us how to be joyful.

Guessing at Meaning

Erin McKean, writing in William Safire’s old New York Times “On Language” spot, is working on Wordnik, a new online dictionary, because:

The near-infinite space of the Web gives us a chance to change all this [i.e. the flaws of dictionaries and thesauri]. Imagine if lexicographers were to create online resources that give, in addition to definitions, many living examples of word use, drawn not just from literature and newspapers but from real-time sources of language like Web sites, blogs and social networks. We could build people’s confidence in their ability to understand and use words naturally, from the variety of contexts in which words occur. Indeed, this is what my colleagues and I are trying to accomplish at the online dictionary we’re using text-mining techniques and the unlimited space of the Internet to show as many real examples of word use as we can, as fast as we can.

The Great Oxford English Dictionary, of course, uses examples of usage along with the definitions, but examples alone do not explain a word, even aside from the issue of “proscriptive” and “descriptive” dictionaries. For example, I looked at a random word in Wordnik, Pharmacology, and the first five usage examples were:

  • Antihistamine Pharmacology * Cost Management - According to drugpriceinfo. com: - — Recently Uploaded Slideshows
  • Participants may choose from sessions in the following tracks: Nutrition / Fitness, Emerging Science, Professional Issues, Pharmacology, and Acute Care. — Health News from Medical News Today
  • Dr. Badmus has a first degree in Virology from the University Of Ilorin and a Doctorate in Pharmacology, he is the founder and President of the African Center Foundation (ACF) which has over 200,000 members and is presently active in seventeen countries working in the African communities to develop local industries and primary health care. — Headlines - Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick
  • A second study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, also appearing online in March, showed which PCBs affected brain-cell circuits in the hippocampus, a region of the brain known to be impaired in several complex neurodevelopmental disorders including autism.. — Health News from Medical News Today
  • Germany, 5Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology, — innovations-report

If you had no idea what the word might mean, say if you were just learning English and did not speak a European language and had no scientific vocabulary, or if you were ten years old, you might possibly guess that it had something to do with health and possibly drugs, from the context. You might guess correctly, or you might think it had something to do with animal drugs (pharm = farm) or drugs made from cola. But Wordnik had no actual definition until the twelfth example in the list. Also, the random word was capitalized, which brought up a different set of examples than the lower case word, thus all the journal names. If you don’t know right off the bat that the idea is “knowledge of drugs” then you waste a lot of time. What’s the problem with learning that “logy” means knowledge or science, and “pharma” means drug? It’s not that hard.

McKean and partners possibly learned to read by word shapes in elementary school, rather than by the traditional alphabet + sounds method.

As well as both and

I ran across another misuse of “as well as”, which is not equivalent to “and”; the errant sentence was structured like this:

The weather today is both gray as well as wet.

It should be:

The weather today is both gray and wet.

It could be:

The weather today is both gray and wet, as well as cold.

“As well as” always points to something in addition to whatever item, or series of items, form the compound phrase. “Both” and its object need to be followed by “and”.

Racial Facial Gestures

One Mr. Khoja, both victim and victimizer, was accused of making “racial facial gestures”. I like the rhyme. The race of the person he made faces at was not specified but it would be fun to guess, in the privacy of your own home, of course, while repeating “racial facial gestures” quickly ten times. Of course you will begin with your own race.

Legless in Gaza

In his book Drinking with George, actor George Wendt lists “legless” as one of the many terms for “drunk”. It’s a new one to me.

Babelfish Is Back

Beth Fridinger wondered where the Babelfish link went; she uses it for her foreign correspondence. I removed it from the end matter of Parvum Opus to make it a little shorter, not realizing that anyone really ever used Babelfish from here. Babelfish translates into a dozen languages, including two different kinds of Chinese. Now it’s back. Thanks, Beth.

The Scientific Mind

Herb Hickman, who is a scientist, wrote:

A small quibble, I guess. Not about PO, but the Gizzard CRU piece. Ellen Goodman would not be precluded from publishing in a scientific journal by virtue of not being a scientist. Nobody would be precluded on that basis. Technically, you referred to her "opinions," and of course a scientific journal doesn't want to publish ANYONE's opinions, except in a separate part of the journal and clearly labeled as an editorial. To all appearances, Ellen lacks the skills to perform any significant science work, and would likely find that an impenetrable barrier — but science per se doesn't recognize anyone's qualifications. Here's a link to one journal's guidance on author qualification: (Scroll down.)

Two Weeks of the Weekly Gizzaard: Moi on

Dems buy senators' healthcare votes so senators can buy votes

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

From the new Louisiana Purchase to the Full Nelson (for Nebraska), some of the Senate holdouts on the healthcare...

Obama administration punishes Navy Seals

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Jonathan Gurwitz of the San Antonio Express-News wrote today about three Navy SEALs, Matthew McCabe, Julio Huertas,...

The Travel Channel is a political propaganda channel

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

The Travel Channel is running a documentary series called Meet the Natives in which five men from the South Pacific...

Light is never wasted

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

A man called into a radio talk show last week complaining about Christmas lights. He resented his neighbors who put...

Police overtime is not a scandal

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Today's Cincinnati Enquirer ran a long story plus an editorial about overtime pay for police officers....

Save Christmas with a motion to enjoin the Grinch from impeding delivery of messages

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

Pamela Geller, of the Atlas Shrugs blog, started a campaign to have people send Christmas cards to Rifqa Bary, the...

Salazar gives Shell the go-ahead to drill offshore Alaska

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

This week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that offshore exploratory drilling by Shell will be allowed in...

LA Times sees rise in home-grown jihadist terrorist threat

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

This is not about jihadist threat. This is about the LA Times saying there is an increasing terrorist threat within...



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Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at; 2009 issues are at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2009. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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