Archive for the ‘Technical and ordinary language’ Category

tri-state (and quad-state)

October 9, 2015

Came across a news item on Facebook with a reference to the “tri-state area”, in this case around New York City. A common media usage, serving as “semi-technical” terminology: not subject to a technical definition for some sort of official purpose (like the designations of various metropolitan areas by federal agencies in the U.S.), but still not freely used by ordinary people in everyday speech. Instead, it’s special to some group of users and contexts; it’s a media term. (Though ordinary people might still use it, in effect quoting the usage of newspapers, tv news reporters, and the like.)


Food names, and plant names too

August 10, 2015

Some background for a posting on Italian names for pizza. It’s about the names for food, with some parallels to common names for plants.


Coleus Jade

July 23, 2015

The label on a plant that a friend gave me yesterday. Note the head-first word order, standard in botanical naming, in this case with the (supposed) genus name Coleus before the variety name ‘Jade’; the species name, not given on the label, is scutellariodes (that is, the plant is named Coleus scutelliodes ‘Jade’), or possibly the plant is a hybrid of several species, in which case it makes sense to leave out a species name.

Coleus plants are old friends of mine — wonderfully colorful ornamentals (for garden or house) illustrated in photos in this posting on the compound annual labiate, of which the coleus is one.

Notice that I just lowercased coleus, treating it as a common name rather than a term of botanical taxonomy. In my earlier posting, I reported, in fact, that my Sunset New Western Garden Book gives Solenostemon as the genus name for coleuses. Most seed and plant companies agree with that usage. But the relevant Wikipedia entry gives the genus name Plectranthus instead. We are in deep terminological waters here.


Homing lizards

July 8, 2015

From yesterday’s animal news in the NYT Science Times, a tantalizing story, “Mystery of the Lizards That Know the Way Home”, by James Gorman, about anoles.


Briefly: a technical term

June 18, 2015

From a piece by Gina Kolata in the NYT yesterday, “Antibiotics Are Effective in Appendicitis, Study Says”:

The results only apply to uncomplicated appendicitis, stressed Dr. Paulina Salminen, a surgeon at Turku University Hospital in Finland and lead author of the new study. She and her colleagues excluded from their trial the 20 percent of patients with complicated cases — people with perforated appendices or abdominal abscesses, and those with a little, rocklike blockage of the appendix called an appendicolith.

Yes, appendicolith, (with the stem of appendix plus the lith– ‘rock, stone’ stem), not a word you’re likely to have come across before. But an obviously useful technical term in this medical context, replacing the wordy explanation ‘little, rocklike blockage of the appendix’ or the somewhat more specific and compact ‘a calcified deposit within the appendix’ on the site. Let’s face it, we have no ordinary-language term for this referent.

(Phonological note: the word seems to have the same accent pattern as appendectomy, with alternating accent: primary accent on the third syllable, secondary on the first, tertiary on the fifth, with unaccented second and fourth syllables.)


June 2, 2015

In a posting on some cartoons yesterday, I mentioned what I described as an “aversion” to cilantro that affects many people, an aversion that turns out to be genetically determined: people with Yuck Cilantro genetics (hat tip to Benita Bendon Campbell on the term) find the taste of cilantro disgusting and don’t appreciate the pleasures that others experience. For some people, the effect goes well beyond distaste or aversion; they suffer extreme symptoms that cause them to characterize their condition as an “allergy”, treating the symptomology as a definition of allergy.

But the medical literature insists on a technical definition of allergy that requires an immune response involving the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE); without this antibody, we are looking at a food intolerance (or non-allergic food hypersensitivity), even if its manifestations are extreme: vomiting, even anaphylaxis. According to this literature, there is much less food allergy in the world than people think — because ordinary people use the term allergy loosely and incorrectly.

Now, from the point of view of ordinary people, it’s the symptomology that’s important, not the cause of the symptoms, and whatever the cause, the major part of treatment will involve avoiding the foods that trigger the symptoms. In the circumstances, it would be useful to have a technical term like true allergy or allergy proper (to distinguish those cases where antibody-suppressing drugs might be effective parts of treatment) versus a term allergy of wider application, or else a specially invented wider term, like allergoid condition.


Cavemen at the dawn of writing

May 23, 2015

Today’s Bizarro:

Self-reflective cavemen, with a keen sense of lexical semantics in English. Most people use the word prehistoric in a sense NOAD2 labels “informal”:

very old, primitive, or out of date: my dad’s electric typewriter was a prehistoric machine

But the cavemen understand it in its technical (and etymological) sense:

of, relating to, or denoting the period before written records: prehistoric man

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

New names for old

May 10, 2015

In yesterday’s NYT (and in many other news sources) we learn of an admonishment from the World Health Organization (in “W.H.O. Urges More Care in Naming Diseases” by Rick Gladstone) to avoid animal names, place names, people’s names, and names of groups or organizations in naming diseases — earnest advice that’s going to be hard to follow, since it seems to lead to names that are either short but opaque or cumbersomely long though informative.


The Pides of March

March 15, 2015

Yesterday was Pi Day — a particularly good one, 3/14/15 in American date format (for 3.1415) — and today is the Ides of March. So: the Pides of March.

Pi (that is, π) is a transcendental number (in a special mathematical sense of transcendental). Now, a few words about different kinds of numbers.

We start with the natural numbers, the ones we use for counting things: 1, 2, 3, 4, … Everything else is an extension from these: zero (0), fractions, negative numbers, imaginary (vs. real) numbers, complex numbers, irrational (vs. rational) numbers, transcendental (vs. algebraic) numbers, and more.

Most people deal with only a few of these types, and then usually in the context of calculating values for practical purposes, like calculating the area of a circle (A = πr2). For these purposes, we can restrict ourselves to non-negative real numbers, which will be dealt with in computations via decimal fractions.

The universe of these numbers:

1. rational numbers, expressible as the quotient p/q of two integers (q ≠ 0), with two subtypes as decimal fractions;

1a. terminating decimals, like .1 (for 1/10), .2 (for 1/5), and .5 (for 1/2);

1b. repeating decimals, like .142857142857142857… i.e. .142857, with an underline marking off the repeated part (for 1/7); for practical purposes in computations, approximations will be necessary (say, .14 for 1/7);

2. irrational numbers, not so expressible (so their decimal expansions will be non-terminating and non-repeating, and approximations will be necessary for practical purposes in computations), with two subtypes:

2a. algebraic irrationals; an algebraic number is the root of a polynomial equation with rational coefficients. For example, √2 ( = 1.414…), the positive root of x– 2 = 0.

2b. transcendental irrationals, ones that are not algebraic, like π ( = 3.1415…).

It took some considerable time for people to accept the existence of irrational numbers. Pythagoras balked at the idea. Now it turns out that most numbers are irrational, and indeed, nearly all numbers are transcendental. Most of us just don’t have to deal with many of them.

(Teachers often give approximations to irrationals for the purpose of computation; 22/7 or 3 1/7 is sometimes suggested as a approximation to π for these purposes, and then since 1/7 = .142857, you might want to approximate that, as 3.14 or 3.143.)

Animals on duty

October 19, 2014

In the latest (10/20/14) New Yorker, a hilarious and simultaneously disturbing piece by Patricia Marx, “Pets Allowed: Why are so many animals now in places where they shouldn’t be?” (starting on p. 36), about emotional-support animals. From p. 37, on E.S.A.s vs. service dogs:

Contrary to what many business managers think, having an emotional-support card merely means that one’s pet is registered in a database of animals whose owners have paid anywhere from seventy to two hundred dollars to one of several organizations, none of which are recognized by the government. (You could register a Beanie Baby, as long as you send a check.) Even with a card, it is against the law and a violation of the city’s health code to take an animal into a restaurant. Nor does an emotional-support card entitle you to bring your pet into a hotel, store, taxi, train, or park.

No such restrictions apply to service dogs, which, like Secret Service agents and Betty White, are allowed to go anywhere. In contrast to an emotional-support animal (E.S.A.), a service dog is trained to perform specific tasks, such as pulling a wheelchair and responding to seizures. The I.R.S. classifies these dogs as a deductible medical expense, whereas an emotional-support animal is more like a blankie.

In the piece, Marx attempts (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to take (purported) E.S.A.s into places where animals are in fact not allowed, using creatures borrowed from acquaintances: a turtle, a (large) snake, a turkey, an alpaca, and a pig.


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