Archive for the ‘Technical and ordinary language’ Category

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.

No word for it: ‘erectioned’

October 18, 2014

In a discussion on ADS-L recently, the wonderful technical term ithyphallic came up (so to speak), and I realized that this was another case (of many) where English doesn’t have a word for something, in any useful sense of to have a word for.

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Our playful scientists

October 1, 2014

Sprites, elves, trolls, gnomes, and pixies!

From the NYT Science Times yesterday (9/30), “On the Hunt for a Sprite on a Midsummer’s Night” [oh, the rhyme; science writing has tons of language play] by Sandra Blakeslee, beginning:

Armed with sensitive cameras and radio telescopes, [Thomas] Ashcraft hunts for sprites — majestic emanations of light that flash for an instant high above the thunderheads, appearing in the shapes of red glowing jellyfish, carrots, angels, broccoli, or mandrake roots with blue dangly tendrils. (Weather buffs call the tall, skinny ones “diet sprites.”) No two are alike.

And they are huge — tens of miles wide and 30 miles from top to bottom. But because they appear and vanish in a split-second, the naked eye tends to perceive them only as momentary flashes of light. It takes a high-speed camera to capture them in detail.

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natural person

September 13, 2014

In the NYT on 9/11, an editorial “An Amendment to Cut Political Cash”, with the now-familiar retronym natural person:

There are 48 Democratic senators sponsoring a constitutional amendment to restore congressional control to campaign spending that is expected to come up for a vote later this week. They are not under the illusion that it will become the 28th Amendment soon, if ever. But their willingness to undertake a long and difficult effort shows the importance they attach to restoring fairness to American politics by reducing the influence of big money.

… Addressing the Citizens United decision, [the amendment] says that governments can “distinguish between natural persons and corporations” in setting those regulations, thus allowing restrictions on corporate or union spending that would not necessarily apply to individuals.

Ordinary people would simply make a distinction between persons and corporations, but once corporations are treated as persons for certain legal purposes, the ‘human being’ sense of person needs to be distinguished from these legal entities — and so we get the retronym natural person ‘human being’.

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I never promised you a rose garden

September 8, 2014

Yesterday I posted four birthday presents to  me, appealing to various parts of my life: a penguin, language, comics/cartoons, and the the lgbt angle (plus food). And then came a wonderful language-and-plants offering, from an old friend: a “rose garden”.

(#1)

Some actual roses (of the genus Rosa), plus primrose, Christmas rose, tuberose, and rosemary (none of them roses at all or botanically close to them or (for the most part) with names etymologically related to rose. A wonderful conceit.

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Charles Barsotti

June 22, 2014

In the NYT yesterday, an obituary by William Yardley: “Charles Barsotti, Cartoonist With Humor Both Simple and Absurd, Dies at 80″.

Charles Barsotti, a cartoonist for The New Yorker whose jaded canines, outlaw snails and obtuse monarchs made readers laugh for more than 40 years, died on Monday at his home in Kansas City, Mo.

… Mr. Barsotti made pasta talk. He drew hot dogs planning cookouts. His lines were spare and clean, whether drawn or written

That last sentence makes reference to two of  my favorite Barsotti cartoons, both of which happen to have a foodstuff talking on the phone; both have appeared on this blog.

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harvestmen

April 21, 2014

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s flower photos — piles and piles of them, since so many flowers, some with brief blossoming times, are in bloom now — include a number with spiders in them. Well, actually, not spiders, but harvestmen, a similar-looking but quite distinct creature. Here’s one on its own:

 

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Original pronunciation

March 21, 2014

Many people have written to me recommending a video by David and Ben Crystal on the “Original Pronunciation” (OP) of Shakespeare vs. the Received Standard pronunciation we’re become accustomed to in performances of the Bard of Avon.  Fascinating stuff, treated in a Language Log posting by David Beaver of 9/7/13: “Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)”.

Note that “Original Pronunciation” doesn’t mean the first there was, because that would take us back to Old English and Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European and beyond (insofar as we can imagine beyond). And the terminology is misleading because it suggests that there was only one pronunciation for the characters in the Shakespearean canon; there was unquestionably variation in the pronunciation of characters according to their place in society. But the OP label does highlight differences between current performance practices and the ones of Shakespeare’s time.

However, my point here is not to revive this discussion, but to note that one of my correspondents refers to the variety in question as ancient English, a label students of mine have often used for what is technically Early Modern English (not oven Old English). Well, it’s old, really old, so it must be ancient.

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Two Pearls

February 22, 2014

Two recent Pearls Before Swine strips:

(#1)

(#2)

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