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Category: Language

What's the Use?
I’m driving along last Thursday, listening to public radio, and I hear Robin Young, host of WBUR’s “Here and Now,” tell me that the Senate Armed Services Committee is “zoning in” on Chuck Hagel’s record. I feel the gorge rising in my throat. My cheeks begin to burn; my breathing turns rapid and shallow. I am having an episode.

These are typical symptoms for people with my affliction so I am not alarmed. In these situations, I usually take a few deep breaths and try to find my happy place. Once there, I remind myself that Robin Young seems to be a pleasant, bright, and well-informed person. Unfortunately, that knowledge only heightens my anguish. She is in the communication business; she should know better than to use this kind of mushy, meaningless terminology.

To make matters worse, the phrase “zoning in” appears to be a confusion, on her part, with another phrase, “honing in,” which is in itself a garbling of the correct term —“homing in.” Homing pigeons, for example, home in on their homes as a destination; homing devices focus on a homing signal to carry them toward their intended targets. Honing, by contrast, is about sharpening, as of knives or arguments. Zoning is about land use restriction. Neither is about focusing or targeting, which is what the committee was doing with Chuck Hagel; the word in that case ought be homing, Homing, HOMING!

Okay, I’m starting to hyperventilate again. Got to get centered, or I’m liable to have a stroke, and then I’d be homing in on that bridge abutment. This is the nature of my affliction, you see: obsessing over English usage to such an extent that it begins to affect my health. You might ask, Who cares what word she used? Everybody knows what she means — the committee is focusing on Chuck Hagel, targeting him. So what difference does it make? Why be a slave to a bunch of tight ass rules? Why not just let the rules reflect how people actually speak and write?

This is the argument of the Descriptivist camp on the battlefield of English usage. Under its flag, the rules should reflect actual usage and simply describe the state of the language as it is rather than demanding adherence to outmoded standards. In other words: whatever. If enough of us use zoning or honing to mean homing, then that is what those words will mean. Under this construction, I would argue, cloning could also mean homing. So could phoning, gloaming, roaming, moaning, or any-old-word-I-like — as long as I can get enough of my fellow talking monkeys to buy into the usage. New meanings can be added to words willy-nilly, hilly-billy, and even Milli-Vanilli. It’s chaos, I tell you.

Across the battlefield from the Descriptivists is the cranky, fussbudgety camp of the Prescriptivists. These pains-in-the-ass insist that English usage should follow a set of prescribed rules. Words should have meanings, they say, that are certain and coherent within the context of all other words. Words are tools of clear communication, precise instruments honed (yes, honed!) by centuries of use to have very particular meanings. The more misusage and bastardization is allowed, the duller these tools become and the less useful.

It may be apparent that I prefer to encamp with the Prescriptivists. I have no doubt that Descriptivists are more generous in spirit and gentle of nature than Prescriptivists and that they live longer, happier lives. So be it. I break rules, including rules of grammar, but I try. At least I goddamn try. If I thought other people were trying too, I could probably be generous and gentle as well. It is not to be. This planet, it seems, has been zoned for mushy imprecision.

So what’s the use? Why even bother? It has been suggested that all of my fancy reasons for being a stickler are just a transparent effort to make myself feel smart and superior. Maybe, but what good is that? The world couldn’t care less about my futile quest. And if I’m so smart and superior, then how come all I get out of it is blurred vision, hyperventilation, and these shooting pains in my chest?
Naming Rights III
The Large Hadron Collider seems to have found something very important. The Higgs boson, or “God particle,” does indeed exist, just as Peter Higgs predicted back in 1964. The particle literally allows the universe to exist by “conferring” mass on other particles.

Please, no snoring in class. The quantum physics portion of this piece will end soon, I promise you. Just let me say that the Higgs boson isn’t really a God particle any more than it’s an atheist particle. Its discovery merely verifies that the potential for somethingness is inherent in all nothingness — and sets the stage for spontaneous creation of universes from an absolute void.

Any better? Okay, forget it. It’s a Very Important Particle is all I’m saying. So important that it needs a name worthy of its standing as the facilitator of Big Bangs.

Why not “Higgs boson,” as it is currently called? I know it’s common for discoverers of things to have the thing discovered named after them. Common, perhaps, but distasteful.

Permit me, if you will, a small digression here into my naming philosophy. Above all, names of things should convey something fundamental or meaningful about the thing itself. What does some one’s big, fat ego have to do with that? I can see naming a person after a thing (Pigmeat Markham and Twiggy come to mind), but not the other way around.

Now, I have nothing against Dr. Higgs. By all accounts he is a modest, personable, and very bright fellow. His personal identity, however, has nothing to do with the identity of this particle. The same goes for Dr. Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom the original boson was named. Nice guy and smart as a whip, but to name anything after a human being shows a lack of respect for the physical universe and a yawning void where humility should be.

In my naming universe there would be no Pike’s Peak, no Lake Champlain, no Strait of Juan de Fuca, no Magellanic Cloud. Europeans, and particularly the English, seem oddly fond of this lazy, misguided naming practice. Their maps of the world are filled with natural wonders that have been permanently diminished in this way. We should not be parties to this sad injustice.

My exception to this naming rule concerns things that have been created by the namer. Bring on your Hondas, then, and your Schwinns, and Eiffel Towers, and your Big Mac. Those naming rights are all theirs.

All right, then ... back to our task of naming the God particle. And no, I won’t even consider “the God particle,” even though it does attempt to transmit the essence of the thing. Too long and too flip.

I did consider “vip” (for Very Important Particle), but it’s just not definitive enough. Furthermore, vip might cause some confusion with the cartoonist Virgil Partch, who signed his work as “Vip.” I’ll admit that might not be a problem for most people.

For a time, the word “creon” was at the top of my list. It’s short, unique, and it fits the standard format used for naming other particles. Ultimately, though, I had to reject it. This particle does not really create anything. It simply permits the universe to be by conferring mass in differentiable amounts.

Then it hit me. Permitting the universe to be? That particle can only have one name: the “beon.”

That’s it, then. I invite you to use beon the next time the subject of quantum physics comes up. And really, there’s no need to mention my name (even though I did create it).
Naming Rights II
The prospect of involving physicists in the creation of new words might seem like a chancy undertaking. This is probably nothing more than liberal arts prejudice on my part, especially since they have done quite well over the years in making up names for things.

Quark is a good example. For those of you who don’t know what a quark is … I’m a liberal arts guy, remember? Let’s just say it’s an elementary particle and that it’s very small. It seems to fit the thing it names. Quark. A little strange, like the concept, yet short and pronounceable. It even smells a little bit like a laboratory, don’t you think? The quark, by the way, has a superpartner called the squark, which is its hypothetical twin as suggested in supersymmetry theories now current in high-energy physics. This is why I am in the liberal arts.

They’re both good names, though, as are many of the names assigned to these teensy bits. You’ve got your leptons, your bosons, and your tachyons of “Star Trek” fame. Also geons, dyons, muons, luxons, trions, and plektons. Special note is made of the pomeron, which is used to explain the “elastic scattering” of hadrons. I figured it was something like that.

What I like most about these words is that they have no other meanings besides these. I wish that were true about all words. But no; language suffers from its own form of elastic scattering.

In fairness, it must be said that physicists do not have a perfect record in this regard. Take flavor and charm. Others seem to like the idea of giving these names to hard physical phenomena. Perhaps they think these are cute, counterintuitive usages; I don’t care. We already have multiple meanings for those words. Should we dilute their clarity even further in the service of cuteness? (Please say ‘No’ here, out loud if possible.) I also have a small quarrel with the use of the –on ending for so many of the elementary particles above. Just a plekton more of imagination might have helped.

Despite the energetic naming efforts of physicists, however, they have missed a few obvious opportunities. Let me take on two of the challenges they have ignored. First up: the speed of light. It’s the "c" in e=mc2. Why are we still using four words for a concept so central to modern physics? For this position of honor, I nominate phtt. No vowels, I know; there just wasn’t enough time. The double T, in case you’re wondering, is meant to add a firmness to the ending emphasizing that this is the absolute speed limit for our universe: phtt and no faster.

Next comes nano-. Yes, it’s a prefix, not a word, and yes, it’s a perfectly good prefix. In fact, it’s one of a number of very fine size-related prefixes. Nano- indicates a high degree of tininess — just below micro-, in fact — but the tiniest of all is yocto-. The nano- prefix indicates a billionth; yocto- means a septillionth. What I propose to do here is crash through the frontiers of smallness with a brand new prefix representing sizes measured in octillionths.

For this heady task, I choose neenonano-. That’s teeny to 27 decimal places. This new prefix will be able to look above itself at the other prefixes as say, “Ha-ha. I am the smallest of all! Neenonano, neenonano.”

I invite physicists to comment on these creations or simply to begin using them in interactions with their peers. I certainly welcome input from liberal artists, as well — but shouldn’t you be out looking for a job?
Naming Rights
Let’s talk about your body for a moment. I don’t mean your body, per se, but rather your body as a representative of all human bodies, everywhere and forever. It’s hard to believe, given all that time and all those bodies, that some parts of your body remain unnamed.

It is my purpose to begin to fill in those blanks and thereby to exercise my right — the right of all sentient creatures — to put a name to anything in my sphere of experience. Whether these names stick, of course, is up to you and everyone else. I merely submit them here for your consideration.

First, let me identify the gold standard for the naming of body parts: thumb. Brief, unique, and manifestly organic in origin. Moreover, the word conveys the essence of the thing it names — sturdy, strong, yet nimble and savvy. The hut-dwelling Pict who thought up that word deserves a first-ballot induction into the English Language Hall of Fame.

So let’s get started — with the big toe. But that has a name, you may interject; it’s the Big Toe. Sadly, I am forced to reject that name. It is a sizeist term, and I think it’s time we moved beyond such divisive modes of thought. Instead, I submit the name flumb. Notice that I have honored the flumb’s common heritage with the thumb while substituting the F and L to intimate “foot” and “flat.” It’s one syllable, one-of-a-kind, and linguistically organic. Furthermore, it communicates the personality of the body part it identifies — modest, homely, trustworthy. (I should say in passing that the rest of your toes are low priorities on the List of Things to Be Named. They are so uniform in function that they could all have the same name. In fact, I endorse surgical unification of these redundant digits as a way of avoiding confusion. If you must name them, however, I recommend more familiar names such as Carl or Mitzi.)

Let’s move on. Have you ever looked closely at the underside of your tongue? Good, that’s where we’re going next. I refer in particular to that small flap of skin that runs along the axis of the tongue and attaches it to the floor of the mouth. You don’t even have to look at it; you can actually feel it with the tongue itself. For this nameless bit of flesh, I propose ulia. Three syllables, I know, but only four letters! And I think it captures the moist flexibility of this unsung body part. If you doubt me, try saying it out loud. Ulia. Did you salivate? I rest my case.

Finally, we will focus on a part of the body that has been the cause so much angst and shame throughout history. No, it’s not what you’re thinking, whatever that is. It’s the bald spot. “Bald spot,” in itself, is not a name; it is merely a description of a condition. The spot deserves better, and so does our language, but this is no easy challenge. We are trying, after all, to name something that doesn’t actually exist. A bald spot is the absence of hair; the unhair, if you will. It’s a vacuum, a void, a glistening expanse of nothingness, nothing but nothingness.

And so, let us call it the nuth. As in, “Is it my imagination, honey, or am I getting new growth right in the middle of my nuth?” Or, “Do you carry nuthwax?” You’ll have to admit: it works.

I place these humble offerings at the altar of the god of General Usage. Let them flourish or wither at the whim of my fellow English-speakers. If your body has been stirred in recognition at any of them, then I invite you — use them at your will.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee