Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Word(s) of the week: Procrustean (and Procrustes)

From Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

procrustean \prə-ˈkrəs-tē-ən, prō-\ adj. (usage note: often capitalized)
1: of, relating to, or typical of Procrustes
2: marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances

From Wikipedia:

Procrustes (Προκρούστης) "the stretcher" or "the one who hammers out", also known as Damastes (Δαμαστής) "subduer" and Polypaemon (Πολυπαίμων) "harming much", is a figure from Greek mythology.

He was a son of Poseidon and a bandit from Attica, with a stronghold in the hills outside Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed into which he invited every passerby to lie down. If the guest proved too tall, he would amputate the excess length; victims who were too short were stretched on the rack until they were long enough. Nobody ever fit in the bed because it was secretly adjustable: Procrustes would stretch or shrink it upon sizing his victims from afar. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, who "fitted" Procrustes to his own bed and cut off his head and feet (since Theseus was a stout fellow, the bed had been set on the short position). Killing Procrustes was the last adventure of Theseus on his journey from Troezen to Athens.

Excerpt from Semantic Antics by Sol Steinmetz

A great gift for your favorite linguophile.

When explode came into English, before 1552, it meant "to reject, discard," as in "But the court una voce exploded this reason..." (1609, Francis Bacon, Works). Similarly, the first evidence of explosion was found in 1656, in Thomas Blount's Glossographia, where he defines the word: "Explosion, a casting off or rejecting, a hissing a thing out."

By "hissing out" Blount was harking back to the Latin meaning of the word. In Latin, explōdere was a theatrical word meaning "to clap, hoot, or hiss (an actor, play, etc.) off stage," and explōsiōnem meant "the act of rejecting or driving away by hissing, hooting, etc."

The modern meaning of these words are first found in the 1700s. Explosion, meaning "the action of bursting or going off with a loud noise," appeared in 1744, followed by 1790 by explode "(of gas, gunpowder, etc.) to burst or go off with a loud noise." The figurative meaning of an outburst or outbreak followed in the early 1800s in such phrases as to explode with fury, an explosion of laughter. A more recent figurative meaning of explosion, "a sudden and rapid increase or development," came into use in 1953 with population explosion. A corresponding verb appeared in 1959 in the New York Times: "The population in the Bandung area has exploded from 167, 1,200,000 this year."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"The Ideas of Chomsky", a BBC Interview:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Sunday, December 7, 2008

as Hell

One peeve of sticklers for precise language is the colloquial comparison "as Hell". The two-word juggernaut originated from the phrase "as hot as Hell". In this original form, the latter portion provides a liturgical allusion to a thermometric evaluation. Many current uses of "as Hell" stray rather far from this proper, albeit narrow, invocation.

The formal dilemma arises from the type of language object "as Hell" becomes from improper use. When used correctly (see above), "as Hell" closes out a simile. There is one important aspect of this structure. While the definition states that a simile is a comparison of "two unlike things", it fails to capture that these things are not completely unlike one another. As many philosophers and linguists have stated, it is not the meaning of the individual words, but the relation of those meanings, that makes a simile (and a metaphor, for that matter) an ingenious linguistic structure. Aristotle in the Poetics waxed about the worth of metaphors (here extrapolated in essence for its core thought on abstract comparisons) saying "a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars." And here is the single facet in which improper use of "as Hell" destroys, namely the similarity of those disparate elements.

To base this in a concrete example, consider the phrase "(as) cold as Hell". While structuralists (and Cratylus) may argue for this differently, this statement is untrue, meaningless, and, above all else, nonsensical in its raw form. This begs the (naive) questions, "What is meant by this phrase?" Clearly, "as Hell" is enkindled as a superlative or, at least, phrase of universal comparative degree. This shift of structure provides a (sigh) metaphor for more gross misuses of language and its structures on the whole.

The generalization of a simile disengenders the purpose of the simile. This is to say, by misappropriating "as Hell" people are far more likely to conceive of similes as structures for a wholly different purpose. Rather than comparing some inuitive, transcent trait (as in "as hot as Hell" providing the reference of the current heat to the ultimate heat, and, I presume, the desire not to end up there), the simile is seen as a (again, sigh) metaphorical structure for comparitive degree. Saying "as cold as Hell" means "very, very cold" in that "as hot as Hell" means "very, very hot".

The devaluing of such (formal) structures lends to the claim made earlier that this narrow shift indicates a broader one. As for this broader trend, it will be revisited at a later date.

Word of the week: Pareidolia

From Wikipedia:

The term pareidolia (pronounced /pæraɪˈdoʊliə/) describes a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse. The word comes from the Greek para- —"beside", "with" or "alongside"- meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)—and eidolon—"image" (the diminutive of eidos—"image", "form", "shape"). Pareidolia is a type of apophenia.

For current and future contributors, this will be a weekly (or more frequent) feature. If you are interested in taking on this task, leave a comment below.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


From Derrida & Wittgenstein by Garver and Lee:
The other thing that impresses us about Monet's paintings is the distinctive way this exactness of representation is conveyed. Its medium is pictorial rather than verbal, but it is pictorial in a way that is not photographic. Photographs have a kind of digital exactness, which now lets them be transmitted by electronic means.
In a book that focuses on two philosophers, both of whom primarily focused on language as the key to metaphysical and existential understanding, one would assume the authors would take great care to understand their own diction. This usage of digital is precisely the reason why people oftentimes conflate the ideas of digital, electronic, interactive, computerized, procedural, amongst a myriad of other related terms.

Digital stems from the Latin digitalis, meaning "relating to a finger" (originating from digitus, meaning "finger or toe"). Its correct appropriation, it would be safe to say, stems from the initial phalangeal understanding in two ways. The main facets of something that is, in fact, digital are (1) it consists of discrete units (e.g. fingers for counting) and (2) it relates to the fingers or toes. Hence, modern computers are properly digital in that they deal with binary units at their core, as well as can be manipulated with the hand via a keyboard and mouse. This secondary portion of the definition becomes difficult as technology outstrips physical limitations. For that matter, the primary portion of the definition, i.e. discreteness, will be the focus (though the secondary aspect will be revisited).

Now that digital has been pared down--consisting of discrete units--let's look at the quotation's use of the word. Here, digital is meant to convey something that is autonomous, objective, precise, and accurate. While Daston and Galison would surely take issue here with the objective part (as I do), the latter two are the the real culprits of misuse. The authors use digital in a manner in which digital tools, such as computers or video cameras, are described.

Photographs, especially those that influenced Impressionism, were actually analog, as many photographs are today (save the increasing number of digital photographs which are aptly named due to their use of discrete units called pixels). Analog technologies rely on a continuous scale. To compare, a pencil is analog and an early Etch A Sketch is digital--a pencil has infinite degrees of freedom (in the physics sense) and an Etch A Sketch relies on a grid (though later models were much freer). As discrete units shrink in size and explode in number, the comparisons between analog and digital is uncanny. Photographs are transmitted not because they are digital, but because digital technology can translate analog things into a workable form (this is the gripe many have with mp3s as opposed to records). But I digress.

One would be quick to point out the use of the (filler?) phrase "kind of". Maybe a terse "That is no excuse for muddling language" would be appropriate. However, the use of "kind of" only emphasizes their mistaken definition, further confining their usage I explained before. "Kind of" provides a buffer, making their loose speech looser and square-pegging their definition.

The point is clear--digital does not mean precise, nor accurate, nor objective, nor autonomous. Digital means, in the context of our world, discretely operating at some level. Photographs, for that matter, were not only non-digital when Monet developed his form, but they are non-digital now. (I would make the claim that digital photography is a wholly different art form and resembles traditional photographic methods as much as film does.) More startling is a photograph's perceived precision, accuracy, objectivity, and autonomy are derivative of its methods of capturing light without use of the hand. The photochemical reaction is not manipulated, i.e. "to touch with one's hands", and, as a result, looked at as more pure (again, Daston and Galison). In this sense (part 2 of the definition), the photograph is also non-digital.

A more precise (authors, please read as "digital") word would surely be mechanical or chemi-mechanical (though this latter option is kind of correct).

A few pages earlier, translating Blaise Pascal, the authors write:
"True eloquence makes fun of eloquence, true morality makes fun of morality; that is, the morality of judgment makes fun of the morality of intellect, which is without rules."

Eloquence and intellect, surely; language, not as much.