Archive for the ‘Technical and ordinary language’ Category

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 Radiopaedia.org 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.)

Allergies

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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’.

(more…)

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.

(more…)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 853 other followers