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The Commencement of Chromos

To you, gentle reader, I have winked out of existence for the last two months. Of course, your highly-developed cortex has developed a theory of persistence, so you know that I have most likely endured in some state even while you were deprived of evidence of that fact. Indeed, I have been so overwhelmed with moving across the country, entrenching myself in new digs, and embarking on my new, exciting course of graduate study, I have had time for little else -- but I have managed to eke out just a moment in which to obtain the brand-spanking-new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. I'd had no idea that a new edition had been released, but I was feeling the pangs of being separated from the lovely little (or not-so-little) Third Edition that stayed behind in California. Imagine my surprise at finding the shiny new Fourth Edition instead.

So what's new about the new edition? Well, for one thing, it's in color. My God! Some crotchety old curmudgeonly part of me was deeply, deeply shocked. Color is for USA Today, not the sober pages of the American Heritage! I soon settled down and recognized that color can be quite useful in a dictionary illustration. It is nice to see the reddish haunches of the agouti, which you would never have extrapolated from the burrowing rodent's description: "usually having brown fur streaked with gray". You get a lovely sense of the depth of deception involved in Muellerian mimicry ("a form of protective mimicry in which two or more distasteful or harmful species, especially of insects, closely resemble each other and are therefore avoided equally by all their natural predators"). Nonetheless, I fear that the designers let all this new chromatic possibility go to their heads. For some reason, they have chosen to place the entry words in a mysterious dark teal, while all the other text is in black. While I felt the previous layout, where the entry words were picked out in size and boldness, was entirely sufficient, I would admit the marginal utility of coloring the entry words in some more contrasting color. As it is, the subtle distinction is distracting rather than useful.

Dispite this minor aberration, the American Heritage continues to be my favorite reference, and the new edition does in fact have more of what I love about the dictionary: many, many words (though a distinct lack of terminology from cognitive linguistics, but I'll leave that rant for another time) and their vastly entertaining series of Notes. Not only have the editors included even more Usage Notes. Word History Notes and Regional Notes, they've added a whole new series of Notes that focus on social factors like age and socioeconomic class. Perhaps for sheer etymological cataloguing, the OED has the edge, but for reading pleasure the AHD can't be beat. If you aren't reading your dictionary for fun, you must have the wrong dictionary. See for yourself:

It seems fitting that Martin Luther, a man noted for the forthright expression of his ideas, may have had a hand in giving us the contemptuous term we apply to those unwilling to state facts or opinions directly. Mealy-mouthed may come from a saying such as German Mehl im Maule behalten, "to carry meal in the mouth, that is not to be direct in speech," which occurs in Luther's writings. In English we find the terms mealmouth (1546) and mealmouthed (1576) recorded around the same time that we find mealymouthed (around 1572). Mealy-mouthed is the only form that survived to describe this trait described by Luther, which not only survives but flourishes in our time.

A word of warning to those who are inspired to go forth and purchase a copy: do not be misled into thinking that the CD-ROM nestled under the shrinkwrap is free. There are copies available both with and without the CD, and without costs about $13 less. As far as I can tell, the CD is for Windows machines open, so Mac users should be especially careful to avoid that extra cost.

Nic fit

With everyone in the U.S. worked up over the noxious nature of our local cancer sticks, I like to take a moment or two to contemplate how much more hideous my own chosen poison is for my health. It's not just the preponderance of stories about coughing up blood, although I did always find those good for striking up conversations with strangers -- there certainly have been periods when it seemed that without fail, whenever I lit up in public, someone would sniff the air and sidle up to me. "Is that a clove you're smoking?" the stranger would ask. "I used to smoke those."

"Let me guess," I said. "Until one day you coughed up blood?"

"Yes!" he or she would say. "How did you know? Er... can I have one?"

If you think the American tobacco industry is disturbing, try the Indonesian alternative. In a country as rife with governmental corruption, human rights violations, and civil strife as Indonesia, big industry operates in a universe of its own. Not only did ex-president Suharto's son Tommy head a monopoly on cloves (dismantled about a year ago), while his son Bambang ran the excise tax department, but regulations on tar and nicotine are an entirely new development. In October 1999, Indonesia enacted Government Regulation 81, which contains for the first time general regulations on public smoking, advertising, and health warnings, as well as the first limits on nicotine and tar. The industry protests that it is completely unable to comply in the time alloted. Tobacco Reporter (yes, isn't that a remarkable-sounding publication?) reports:

The nicotine and tar level in every cigarette stick that circulates in Indonesia must not exceed 1.5 mg of nicotine and 20 mg of tar,” the decree reads. With a typical kretek containing 35 mg of tar or more, the ensuing controversy is raging louder than a jilted lover on the Jerry Springer Show....Manufacturers further maintain that PP.81 will seriously disrupt the economy. Tobacco is Indonesia’s No.1 private employer. The majority of tobacco workers are low-skilled laborers rolling high-nicotine, high-tar kreteks by hand. PP.81 would hurt Indonesia’s 700 small tobacco manufacturers the most. Thousands of low-skilled workers will be forced out of work by the decree, adding strain on Indonesia’s hurting economy. In addition, some estimate that the government’s excise income will be slashed in half by the decree. The Indonesian government earns US$1.5 billion, or 90 percent of its total excise earnings, annually from tobacco excise taxes.
And everyone's lungs can bleed together.

with: A fit of remorse

While yesterday I was very taken with the idea of discarding birthdays in favor of namedays, I should confess that I do, in fact, like birthdays very much. In fact, it's their collectively determined value that makes me find them so charming: Somehow they come just infrequently enough to allow us to renew our enthusiasm for the next one that crosses our paths. Though every single person has a birthday relatively frequently, and someone you know is likely to be having a birthday during any given week, everyone reacts with genuine surprise and solicitousness as soon as they hear that it's yours. It's downright endearing, I must admit.

You say it's your birthday. Well, it's my birthday too.

At 6:00 pm or so Eastern Standard Time, it will be exactly twenty-five years since I started mewling and puking in my mother's arms. Is it our cultural neophilia that makes us so enamored of the beginnings of things? Though the U.S. roster of public holidays does include a few other excuses for a party, our personal holidays are all anniversaries. (I'm thinking here of annual celebrations, but we have a way of making most any private festivity about beginnings. Weddings of course mark the beginning of a contract, to put it a bit unromantically; we even call graduation "commencement".)

Diddle, diddle. I tire of this genre of celebration, though I expect to run into a bit of difficulty if I hope to overthrow this harmless, if dull, custom. Social theorists have had little difficulty cataloging the habitual nature of our species. The early-twentieth-century Progressive theorist Edward Alsworth Ross, who focused particularly on the transmission of social behavior between people in groups, had this to say about the tendency as it applies to our question at hand:

In the recesses of the home, live on practices that could not endure the open air. The way a man tills his field is more subject to invidious comparison than the way a woman washes her dishes or cares for her babies. Cookery, kitchen utensils, table manners, personal ablutions, courtship, christening, nameday and birthday observances, family ceremonies and festivals, are ruled by tradition because they are private. (Social Psychology, p. 256)

And if that isn't enough, he continues, "Collective habits are more stable than individual habits," as they "must await concerted abandonment or modification", a notion I suspect has occured to even the most casual observers of human behavior. It's true that it seems doubly futile to hope to modify a private celebration that falls into a collectively recognized type, but this year I say pfah! to all that. Try me again on September 17th, when I'll be celebrating my nameday. Be there with bells on.

Boll weevil: provocateur of the modern agricultural age

At the end of the nineteenth century, it was a rare Southern farmer who could resist the cult of King Cotton. The cotton gin had made cotton the overwhelming favorite cash crop a hundred years before, and not even the Civil War (when Britain cultivated alternate sources for the desirable fiber) persuaded anyone to make the South anything but a one-crop region. Cotton was far too profitable to abandon.

Around 1890, however, much to the chagrin of cotton farmers, intrepid boll weevil homesteaders began a settlement drive from Mexico to the United States. The ugly wee beasties - about half of their 1/4" length is taken up by a long, curved proboscis - set about boring their snouts into the crops at an amazing rate, drilling away nigh every cotton boll to make tasty little homes for their bouncing baby larvae. Cold winters seemed to kill the adults, only to be followed by population explosions come spring. In less than fifteen years, the weevil hordes had invaded all of Texas and were marching up into Oklahoma. Farmers could do little more than moan quietly as the energetic pests ate entire crops from the inside out.

You might wonder why such a state of affairs would be memorialized with uplifting monuments, especially as weevils are still mightily successful and unpredictable destructive pests. But from adversity comes innovation, if nothing else. All this entomological havoc made Southern farmers, historically given to a certain, ahem, independent frame of mind, newly amenable to the suggestions of agricultural science. The response was a watershed for the integration of agricultural theory and practice, and led to the inception of the USDA program of the Farmers Cooperative Demonstration Work, in which USDA county agents brief local farmers on advances in agricultural science and progress triumphs once again. Meanwhile, of course, it was starting down this very road that put us just a short leap or two from the territory of herbicide-immune lawn grass and insecticide-producing corn, which some of us may find slightly less worthy of inspirational statuary.

So you want to be a pipefitter

If you plan to be a pipefitter someday, you'll have to rely on your wits as well as your brawn. (If, by some dreadful happenstance, you've forgotten what a pipefitter is, go and find out.) Naturally, you'll need a strong arm, nimble fingers, and a good hand with a welding torch, but you'll also need to brush up on your trigonometry. Are you a disoriented sort who can't read a map or pack a suitcase? Consider another line of work. Fortunately, you'll have plenty of time to discover if you're cut out for it during your five years of training. In the classroom, you'll study mathematics, drafting, blueprint-reading, codes and regulations, applied chemistry, and physics, while you learn more quotidian skills in your apprenticeship.

Is the dream of pipefitting worth all this trouble? Don't underestimate the charm of earning your bread playing with the most rough-and-ready jigsaw puzzle on Earth; it's circuit design for bullfighters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts it shouldn't be too difficult to find work:

Job opportunities for skilled plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are expected to be excellent, as growth in demand outpaces the supply of workers trained in this craft...the pool of young workers available to enter training programs will also be increasing slowly, and many in that group are reluctant to seek training for jobs that may be strenuous and have uncomfortable working conditions.
Perhaps you'll want to invest a small portion of your (quite good) wages in a stylish belt buckle trumpeting your profession to the world.

Do keep those uncomfortable working conditions in mind, however. You will be working with heavy materials, generally in small spaces, and you may run into additional hazards: as you work so near anything running through those pipes, you may wish to take their contents into account. Your employer may have a most ungenerous notion of the value of a pipefitter's safety, and it's much less dangerous to work in the heating and cooling system of an office complex, where you face only falling injuries, mishaps with slipping parts, and burns (all unpleasant enough as it is) than in waste-chemical removal or in a nuclear power plant.

Snip snip

I can only imagine the contents of this 18th-century Scottish chapbook: Fun upon Fun, or Leper the Tailor. It's clearly a jolly tale for the kiddies - and, as you can see by the explanatory text, though the pamphlet is thin in pages, it's fat with narrative: the story is not only in two parts, it also contains a selection of entertaining anecdotes. I wonder if most of these merry tales focus on Leper's foolish mishaps: remember the time Lady Hawthorne was being fitted for her wedding gown and the tailor's finger fell off, right down her bodice? Oh, that was a funny trick! Fun upon fun, indeed.

Or perhaps the title is a bit of whimsy based on the discussion of leprosy in Leviticus: not only were lepers required to wear torn clothes (not generally considered encouraging behavior in a tailor), apparently leprosy could infect the very threads of a garment in a most spectacular and gaudy way:

When there is a leprous disease in a garment, whether a woolen or a linen garment, in warp or woof of linen or wool, or in a skin or in anything made of skin, if the disease shows greenish or reddish in the garment, whether in warp or woof or in skin or in anything made of skin, it is a leprous disease and shall be shown to the priest. And the priest shall examine the disease, and shut up that which has the disease for seven days; then he shall examine the disease on the seventh day. If the disease has spread in the garment, in warp or woof, or in the skin, whatever be the use of the skin, the disease is a malignant leprosy; it is unclean. (Leviticus 13:47-51)
It's not everyone who can provide that kind of natty suit. All those poisonous reds and greens must have made for quite the unusual tartan, mustn't they?

While we're considering the wacky hijinks of our leprous needleman of yore, it's worthwhile to note that well after Biblical times anti-contagion acts restricting the activities of lepers generally, among their hosts of other prohibitions, explicitly forbade making clothing for other people. Those leper laws, by the way, are no long-dead medieval artifact; many countries still have them on the books, or withdrew them shockingly recently - Japan, for example, didn't repeal theirs until 1996.

or, A Review of a Book I've Never Read

The healthy human with normal reflexes will provide a reasonably entertaining display when startled: tensing the elbows, knees, neck, and torso; raising the shoulders; and making an alarmed face, grimacing and blinking away. The same stimulus, repeated enough times without causing any actual harm to the human, will of course lose its potency as a startler. Any aspiring behaviorist can test this at home by slamming doors and shooting cap pistols until his or her loved ones react by throttling rather than cringing.

I'm sure that this line of inquiry would soon become quite dull, despite the fun of shocking experimental subjects out of their wits. Fortunately for the attention spans of psychologists, there are plenty of people with abnormal systems to observe. Not surprisingly, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome leads to hypersensitivity to sudden, loud noises; some prescription (and other kinds) of drugs produce hypersensitivity as well.

More intriguingly, there's a whole genre of culturally constrained conditions associated with startlement. Susto and Espanto, for example, are somatic illnesses popularly ascribed to a loss - I don't know if this is supposed to be a complete spiritual pithing, or more a kind of leakage - of soul from the body following a dreadful fright. In traditional Malaysian culture, great ritual and social importance are ascribed to latah, a hypersensitive response that includes extremely heightened suggestibility and automatic obedience or mimicking of others' actions.

Beginning this fall, it will be quite some time before I have full leisure to read voraciously outside my chosen field. That's why I wish I could find a copy of Ronald Simons' Boo! Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex (Oxford University Press). It slowly works up to a discussion of the elaborate cultural apparatus surrounding latah, and provides a nuanced discussion of the interdependance of neuropsychology and culture. It sounds simultaniously responisible and massively entertaining, somehow avoiding both the dippy, gooey exaltation of mysticism and the irritating "rationalist" approach wherein every culturally charged ritual experience is pounced upon as a dreary puzzle to be solved by playing match-it-up with our modern list of pathologies. Best of all, Simons doesn't settle for a sober discussion of one neurocultural situation, or even of the neurology/society question. The assortment of odd facts, anecdotes, and other curious tidbits promises to be absolutely delectable, as well as highly original and well-researched: one review mentions "the apparently cross-culturally valid rule that persons of high social status are not expected to startle easily, especially not royalty."

How many futons can dance on the head of a pin?

How do you fit all your worldly goods into a five-foot-long section of an eighteen-wheeler? Though I have yet to put the question to a clinical test, I feel I can presume to predict that the answer will prove itself to be the pedestrian classic "with great difficulty".

"Why don't we find a nice agency that will guarantee to find us a nice apartment with hardwood floors and a landlord who will promise to give us a lease?" I think. "Why don't we find a nice company that will come and pack up all of our belongings in bubble wrap and transport them to our nice new home? Why don't we pay them a bit more and have them unpack it all, too?" Fortunately for my socioeconomic honor, I can't afford any of these nice, nice things. Instead, I remain free to complain and procrastinate to my plebian heart's content, and when I finally get around to starting to do the work, I can sweat, too.

Fit the First

There was one who was famed for the number of things he forgot when he entered the ship: his umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings, and the clothes he had bought for the trip.
He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed, with his name painted clearly on each: but, since he omitted to mention the fact, they were all left behind on the beach.
The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because he had seven coats on when he came, with three pairs of boots--but the worst of it was, we had wholly forgotten his name.
He would answer to "Hi!" or to any loud cry, such as "Fry me!" or "Fritter my wig!" to "What-you-may-call-um!" or "What-was-his-name!" but especially "Thing-um-a-jig!"
While, for those who preferred a more forcible word, he had different names from these: his intimate friends called him "Candle-ends," and his enemies "Toasted-cheese."

For a fine epileptic read, you can't beat Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of The Snark, published in six complete fits. Snarking has a long and venerable history, continuing into the current day: read up on your Daniel Pinkwater with The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Snarkout is also the nom de guerre of my favorite boy wombat, who has certainly been known to be snarky, but has never yet revealed himself to be a boojum.

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