Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions

Regular Rambles readers will recall my friend Alan Kennedy‘s last contribution: RIKE ORION. In it, he recounts some of his experiences teaching English as a Second Language in New York City. He’s back this week with some more transcultural observations.

The way names move across language barriers makes for a good spectator sport. I am reminded of what my nephew Ben wrote about the English names his students chose for an English class he taught in China. The difference, for example, between Shelly and Cherry can take a few tries to work out. And I recall a conversation from long ago in which Alan told me about some frustration he had with a Russian class. Russian names require special grammatical handling depending on the context. Ordinarily an imported American name escapes this special treatment, making life for an American student of Russian slightly easier than it might otherwise be. But Alan shares his last name with a former American president, and presidents (particularly Cold War presidents) get the full name treatment. So Alan was stuck managing complicated endings for his own name. Ach du lieber Himmel!

Here’s Alan…

Continue reading “Teaching Tricks to Sea Lions”

Calibrating cliché velocity

During a work lunchtime conversation that touched on a rude topic, one of my co-lunchers remarked: “That’s so wrong in so many ways!” That sentence is an odd construction, I thought to myself. She didn’t make it up. Where did it come from? There was a time when it didn’t exist. Somebody made it up one day, and it started spreading. How does that process work? It occurred to me that search engines can help you figure out just how widespread a cliché is. In no particular order, here are some clichés that not only annoy me but also make me wonder about their trajectories.

When were they born? What helped them spread? How much longer can we expect to endure them? Search technology can quantify some of these very fuzzy questions. This is not a new observation. The web seems to be peculiarly thick with wordheads who obsess about things like this (i.e. people like me). You can find Wikipedia articles about catchphrases and Bartleby references for clichés. But the real find was coming across the Language Log, where they have coined a word, snowclone, for hackneyed phrasal templates. These people are prose… sorry, I mean pros … and they devote long discussions to forms like Homer Simpson’s “Mmmm, X” (which I used only the day before yesterday, but let’s not go there).

I came across the Language Log while researching the phrase “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords“. This post on ant overlords and cliché velocity makes a good point: the distance between trendy and trite has grown increasingly short. At least that’s what all the hep cats say.

Wordie and Ninjawords

If you like words (and I know that you do), then you need to pay a visit to Wordie. They have a really good tag line: “Like Flickr, but without the photos.” The premise is so simple that you can’t possibly suspect you’ll get sucked into it until it’s too late.

Here’s how it works. Get a free account, start typing in words. Any words will do, but if you’re a natural fit for Wordie, you’ll start creating lists of personal favorites in no time at all. In addition to my first list of words, I made Fancy-pants words for rhetorical devices and Words that sound naughtier than they are. Like Flickr, there’s a social aspect to the whole thing that links you, through your words, to other people’s lists. Not much to it, really, but good clean fun.

And since I’m on the topic of words, here’s a resource that you may find useful: Ninjawords.com. It’s just a really fast dictionary. Again, it’s a very simple tool, but well made. If you use a dictionary server very much, you’ll find that they have long load times, mostly because of all the ads attached to them. Ninjawords is based on a non-proprietary dictionary, so they don’t feel the need to advertise. Also, they have an appealing URL structure, if you’re linking to definitions from a document: http://www.ninjawords.com/tundish. Couldn’t be simpler.

Stump the Semiotician

I just got back from a vacation in northern California, and while I was strolling down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, I happened across this sign at the Mediterranean Cafe.

I haven’t seen a sign like this in a long time, but I suspect partial nudity is a bigger problem in Berkeley than in most of the places I frequent. Seeing this sign reminded me of another sign outside the playground just around the corner from my house. I often go there with my kids.

These signs have similar syntactical construction. What about their semantics? If we believe both signs follow the condition-consequence model, then the following is clear: Unless you bring two or more dogs to my park, you may not play golf. Or maybe you can play golf if there are dogs on the premises somewhere. On the other hand, if each is merely a list of negatives, then it follows that patrons of the Mediterranean Cafe should expect neither a shirt, nor shoes, nor service of any kind. How they stay in business is anybody’s guess, but presumably they have no objection to partial nudity, since they dispense no clothes.

Do you find semantic sharpshooting entertaining or intensely irritating? Know any weirdly ambiguous signs? I want to hear about them.

Self-contradictory words

janus.jpgThe old Roman patron saint of January was Janus, the god of thresholds and transitions. In honor of Old Twoface, today’s special word is “contranym.” A contranym, sometimes called a “Janus word,” can take on either of two opposite meanings. One of the nicest examples is “fast,” a word with the nautical connotation of being fixed in place. Curiously, fasten and hasten both mean “make fast.”

I was reminded of contranyms when Matt sent me an email about the word quiddity which means both “essence” and “hairsplitting distinction.” Why would so many words evolve in two different directions at once? In some cases, it’s not much of a mystery. The word “root” can be used in the sense of rooting something out (removing it) or of growing roots (becoming established). But clearly these are just two ways of looking at the same thing. Two specific phrases have been eroded down to an ambiguous noun residue. And if you are skimming, are you removing something or keeping something? It depends on your opinion of the thing being skimmed. Consider that you and your dog have very different views of the word “fixed.” One of you thinks something was improved; the other is likely to take exception.

Other contranyms, like cleave (split) vs. cleave (cling), have separate etymologies that resulted in coincident spelling. The most interesting ones, like fast and temper, are more mysterious. Why should so many words (bolt, bound, stand) connote both motion and inaction? But as I read about these contentious beasts, the thing that interested me the most was the great variety of synonyms for the word contranym itself. The list goes on and on: contranym, contronym, autoantonym, self-antonym, antagonym, antilogy, Janus word, and (most thrillingly) enantiodrome. It is only fitting then that we add our own version to this list: how about poke-yourself-in-the-eye-onym? Or paradoxonym?

Finally, here’s one more nice long list to end with. Now go waste some time. Some more time, I mean.

Toponymy – the naming of places

Linguists and sociologists have, for years, been making dialect maps on which are displayed, for example, those places where people would be likeliest to refer to a water fountain as a “bubbler.” Professor Bert Vaux keeps an excellent archive here on his website at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (where, strangely enough, people sip their water from bubblers).

Another approach, which should have been obvious but never occurred to me before, is to simply use a computer to crank through place names that are already recorded in map databases. For instance, if you looked at a great big map of the US and noted down all of the waterways called “brooks” and all of the waterways called “creeks,” would you see a geographic trend? Answer: yes you would. And here is lake vs. pond.

This work is presented on a site called pfly.com. I can’t figure out who the author is, but it’s darn good work. Here’s another good one: of the city name suffixes -burg and -ville, does -burg reveal a German immigrant trend? So many other questions you might ask: are there more “Bear” place names in the east or the west? In California, are there more Sans than Santas or Santas than Sans? And ever since that sleepless night at Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid National Monument in Wyoming, I’ve wondered how many National Park names involve the word “Devil” in one way or another. Now the answer may finally be at hand.

NEWSFLASH! Ask and it shall be granted unto you. A very cool internet-age thing has happened: I posed three speculative questions in the preceding paragraph, and pfly himself came across this post and answered my questions in the comments section. That is indeed something worth giving thanks for. Thanks, pfly!

Go read the comment, but here are the graphical results. Bear place names. San vs. Santa. Devil in the placename. I have to say, I was amazed by the number of Devil’s This-and-That places out there. I joked about Devil’s Twitchy Eyelid, but pfly did the research to show that there actually are the following Devil body parts: tailbone, toenail, windpipe, jawbone, and bottom.

An absurdity of animal plurals

Here’s yet another list of animal congregations, as in the query What Do You Call a Group Of…..? What I want to know is, who makes this stuff up? I mean, really, was there ever a time when people found it useful and pertinent to refer to an ostentation of peacocks? I don’t believe it.

Some people love lists like this. They will inhale sharply if you purpose to say “a bunch” of kangaroos rather than the more appropriate “mob” of same. These people will correct your grammar and then pointedly observe that they completed their taxes before Valentine’s Day this year. Last year too, in fact. Haven’t you? Of course you have.

People like this constitute a smarm of smarty-pants. Or perhaps a tedium of busy-bodies.

My theory is that some clown in the 18th century penned the phrase “exaltation of larks” and once the door was propped open, every frustrated writer with an axe to grind rushed in and tacked up his own absurd plurality. The more ridiculous the better! No one will question you! Here are some more supposedly genuine pluralities. A parliament of owls. A clowder of cats. A singular of pigs. Make up one yourself and swear that you saw it in Spenser’s Faerie Queen: A coagulation of kittens. An effluvium of eels. A lot of used car salesmen.

By the way, the list refers to an unkindness of ravens. I believe proper term is a murder of ravens. Sniff sniff.

Mondo funky

Ever wonder where the word mondo comes from? As used in a phrase like “a mondo party” or the old magazine title Mondo 2000, it has connotations of bigness and hipness and weirdness. It gets used precisely because of its imprecise implication of coolness. Brandish it with a swagger and nobody will challenge you, being thereby intimidated by the Louis Armstrong principle: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Of course, the word mondo is Italian for world, but how far does that get you? Why does the Italian word for world mean big and weird in English? The answer comes from the wildly successful 1962 mondo movie, Mondo Cane, or A Dog’s World, sometimes called the very first shockumentary. Old hat now, but wildly outrageous at the time. Here’s a good NY Times article about it:
Dispatches From a World Gone Wonderfully Wrong.

Pop culture words implying coolness are famously difficult to pin down. My favorite is funky. Try to explain to a foreigner just exactly what funky means. You can’t do it. But you can happily use it in a sentence. How does that work? Here’s a lovely quote from dictionary.com about the word history of funky.

When asked which words in the English language are the most difficult to define precisely, a lexicographer would surely mention funky. Linguist Geneva Smitherman has tried to capture the meaning of this word in Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America, where she explains that funky means “[related to] the blue notes or blue mood created in jazz, blues, and soul music generally, down-to-earth soulfully expressed sounds; by extension [related to] the real nitty-gritty or fundamental essence of life, soul to the max.” The first recorded use of funky is in 1784 in a reference to musty, old, moldy cheese. Funky then developed the sense “smelling strong or bad” and could be used to describe body odor. The application of funky to jazz was explained in 1959 by one F. Newton in Jazz Scene: “Critics are on the search for something a little more like the old, original, passion-laden blues: the trade-name which has been suggested for it is ‘funky’ (literally: ‘smelly,’ i.e. symbolizing the return from the upper atmosphere to the physical, down-to-earth reality).”

Is this a pipe?

I’ve always been interested in semiotics, but I find most discussions of it ridiculously abstract and off-putting. Then one day I’m searching for something random (“images of cartoon hands”) and Google lands me on this Semiotics for Beginners page. It is what it says: an introduction, lucid and enjoyable, to the quicksand world of semiotics. I particularly liked this section on modality and representation. In my essay on protein synthesis and the meaning of life, I talk about the general concept of meaning (what does meaning mean?) and the human urge to attach magical meaning to language. This is the realm of semiotics, and this website is a great introduction to the topic, including a discussion of Magritte’s famous painting of a non-pipe. As the author of the site, Daniel Chandler, says:

Any representation is more than merely a reproduction of that which it represents: it also contributes to the construction of reality… Even if we do not adopt the radical stance that ‘the real world’ is a product of our sign systems, we must still acknowledge that there are many things in the experiential world for which we have no words and that most words do not correspond to objects in the known world at all. Thus, all words are ‘abstractions’, and there is no direct correspondence between words and ‘things’ in the world.

What is amazing and wonderful is that any such correspondence arose at all.

The meaning of life

Your mother didn’t make you. Who did?

Your mother gave you a warm room and plenty of food. Who made you?

It’s a tricky question. To speak of making implies two things: the thing being made and the one who makes it. Birds make nests. Bees make hives. Carpenters make houses. But mothers don’t make babies. Mothers shelter the construction of babies. You had to make yourself.


From a single cell, you self-assembled, growing exactly as a sprout grows in a greenhouse. One cell became two, two became four, each cell dividing in its turn. The cells grew in precise patterns, ultimately forming bones, sinew, blood, you. Of course, to say you made yourself is not by itself a satisfying answer; you have no idea how you managed it, being very young at the time. So how did the lonely cell you once were become the ten trillion cell colony you are now? The puzzle of biological self-assembly can be reduced to that equally puzzling first step: how does one cell become two? How does a tiny particle suspended in saltwater thrive and beget?

We can think of what happens in our bodies in terms of organs working together: hearts pump, kidneys filter, livers do this and that. It’s easy to picture these organs as sentient entities, businessmen on the phone, talking and coordinating their diverse efforts. But when you get down to the level of the molecules that make up one cell, it becomes harder to keep up this anthropomorphic pretense. Who’s talking and who’s listening? Does a molecule have plans? And if it doesn’t, if there is no planning sentient entity directing the show, then what is?

There are two great mysteries to life: how it began and how it keeps going. The first of these is likely to puzzle us for some time to come, since it happened in the remote past and left few traces. Like an alchemical recipe for gold that requires gold as an ingredient, life as we know it requires life as a starting point. Every living cell we can observe came from some pre-existing cell. But the other great mystery, how life keeps going, how one cell becomes two, is open to our inspection. The broad outlines are already known. To return to the original question: who made you? A bubbling stew of macromolecules built you from the inside out. It’s still unsatisfying as answers go, but we’re learning more with every passing day. A full accounting of the machinery of life is nearer than you might suspect.

The central riddle of cellular construction is the fact that there is no external carpenter to do the work. It must proceed spontaneously, one energetically favorable reaction at a time, according to the laws of chemistry, given whatever supplies happen to be at hand. This is something like saying there are blueprints that can spontaneously turn into houses. How can this be? Molecules bouncing into each other at random sounds like a recipe for chaos. Amid the chaos, there must be hidden order. Some entity is playing the role of carpenter, inspecting the plan and joining the beams. And yet this tiny carpenter must be, after all, simply a molecule (or collection of molecules), not an impish homunculus with a mind of its own. Thus we are picturing something that acts as the bridge between the plans for what is to be built and the building itself, a link between word and flesh. This something is called protein synthesis.

Biochemistry is famously complex, and every statement you can make about it is in some sense a simplification. But the incontestable central engine of life is the general purpose construction process called protein synthesis, wherein the plans packed away in the great libraries of our genes (DNA) are turned into the working molecules (proteins) of the cell. DNA is transformed through a variety of steps into an intermediate message, an order slip for a particular protein, and this order slip (called messenger RNA, or more briefly, mRNA) acts as a template or blueprint for a protein which is then transcribed. Proteins are the worker molecules. Most of a cell’s motion and structure is moderated and directed by proteins. More briefly: protein synthesis made you. But how does it work?

Protein synthesis can be thought of as a translation from the language of DNA to the language of proteins. The messenger RNA order slip that gets sent from the DNA is a message written with an alphabet of four chemical letters called nucleotides. This message is then translated into a protein sequence built entirely from an alphabet of twenty chemical letters called amino acids. So the sequence in mRNA


becomes the protein sequence


after the protein synthesis apparatus has done its work. This sequence might be, for example, one small part of the protein keratin in your fingernails. A shorthand way of writing this using standard abbreviations looks like this.


But there is a big difference between these two languages. The one on the left is arbitrary, whereas the one on the right is structural. One is word and the other is flesh. This is not a translation in the sense of going from English to Japanese. It’s a translation from a blueprint to a building. The language of proteins is structural in the sense that the words are themselves the bricks, beams, wheels, and motors of the cell. It’s as if the word for brick on the RNA side is matched up with the brick itself on the protein side.


The RNA side is arbitrary because there’s nothing special about the literal word “brick.” What’s special is that it designates the right thing. The word “dog” is no more magically appropriate than its French equivalent “chien,” and as long as they both refer to the same real-world canine, everything is fine. On the other hand if you change the spelling of the protein, the result might no longer function. Instead of a brick, you might be left with a sponge.

But the really interesting thing is the arrow that connects the word “brick” with the actual brick. What exactly is this arrow representing? Semantically, the arrow says that “brick” means brick. Semantics is typically a vague business at best, but this boils down to crystal clear chemistry. This arrow is representing some entity, our little carpenter friend, that can see the word for brick and then grab an actual brick and put it in the right place. The arrow has an eye on one side and a hand on the other.


What should we call the arrow? The arrow is the thing that maps the message in the word to the real world consequence. The arrow is the translator. The arrow is translation.

Normally when we think of an eye moderating the behavior of a hand, there is a brain in between. But we’ve already seen that at the cellular level there are only molecules. There must be a molecule that, through a straightforward energetically favorable process, accurately translates arbitrary messages into specific and useful consequences. That is, a carpenter molecule must exist. It is the physical bridge from thought to deed, which is to say, this carpenter molecule is the chemical incarnation of “meaning.” And not just any meaning. This molecule is the meaning of life. This molecule (actually a family of them) does exist: it’s called transfer ribonucleic acid (tRNA for short). It has a tiny eye on one side that can read the mRNA order slip and a tiny hand on the other that grabs and positions an amino acid. With its eye it reads the plan. With its hand it builds the world. This little carpenter (or rather an uncountable swarm of them) made you and every living thing on Earth. Here it is.


During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance there was much interest in what was called the original language, sometimes called the Adamic language, since presumably it was the language from the time of Adam and Eve until the great confusion of Babel. This original language was considered a historical fact and it was, so the reasoning went, capable of expressing only truth. Whoever learned it would have great power, because the word for something would be identical with that thing’s true nature. To manipulate the name would be to manipulate that which was named. At the same time, perfect harmony would exist between all who conversed in this language. The defining feature of this Adamic language is the perfect relationship between the named object and the object itself. Though no human language has been found with these magical properties, there is a strong mythological imperative to believe in such a thing: at some deep level we know there must somewhere be a special relationship between symbol and reality. Otherwise, how do symbol systems get started? Otherwise, how could we exist?

No one ever taught you the meaning of this particular sentence, yet your brain decodes it without trouble. Somewhere in your brain there must be a link between the symbols that make up this message and the physical consequences that result. “Meaning” is precisely this map from message to consequence. We are familiar with computers interpreting programs, and with people interpreting language, but both of these exist only because life does. Without the language that life is built on, without the synthesis of proteins and the spinning of words into flesh, we would not be here. Messages encoded in our genes constitute the first language. It is not unreasonable to say that “meaning” had no meaning until something existed to interpret it, until a system to process language existed. Before that the universe was just one damn thing after another, sound and fury signifying nothing. Life was the bringer of meaning, and so our creation mythologies are bound up with meaning and creation. As the Gospel of John says: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”


Egyptian mythology gives us a more explicit example. Thoth was the ibis-headed scribe god who invented writing and later gave it to man. Thoth was identified with the ibis because the bird’s curved bill is suggestive of the reed pens that the scribes used. According to a later Egyptian myth, Thoth was also the Creator god. It is instructive that the word-giver should also be the life-giver:

From chaos, Thoth self-created and, existing in chaos, spoke, and his words became covered. Thus began creation. Each word became the thing it signified.

This is the mystical styling of an “Adamic language,” but it is also a reasonable description of the origins of protein synthesis, which is to say it is a reasonable description of the origin of life. This first language self-created and, existing in chaos, spoke. Thus began creation. Each chemical word became the thing it signified, beginning then and continuing to this present moment. Transfer RNA is the pen of Thoth. It is the arrow of meaning, bringing forth the living from the nonliving, busily and daily making the living world around us and within us.