Astronomy: Tiny Pluto Victim of Drive-By Shooting?

Reading my latest Astronomy magazine (Feb 2011), I see the “Pluto debate” rages on. As everyone knows, unless vacationing on Mars at the time, in 2006 the International Astronomers’ Union (IAU) redefined Pluto as a dwarf planet.

I’ve already written several articles on this in our Astronomy department. So why on Earth would this controversy sprawl over to our Writing department? This is one of those little tempests in the scientific teapot that might better have just been turned over to the guardians of language: lexicographers, semanticists and similar, more literary colleagues.

Scientists are rightly concerned, I’ll agree, that folks don’t get to simply just take back common English words (say, like “Creation”) for redefinition, so they can accommodate some new theory or agenda. The Kansas Board of Education doesn’t get to redefine Evolution out of legal existence. But isn’t that what the IAU did?

Adam Savage of the popular TV show MythBusters is celebrated for his trademark resuscitation of the discredited ’60’s school of subjective reality, i.e., his tongue-in-cheek quip “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” Many feel that’s what the IAU did with language.

You’ll recall the whole debate blew as high as the heavens with the discovery of new planetary bodies with exotic names like Quaoar and Xena. Some of these bodies are larger than Pluto. Do we jump from nine to thirteen planets, or tighten the rules?

Well, it turns out that much of the jargon of astronomy goes back to the Renaissance, and that terminology grew up with the history of scientific discovery, which is fair enough, but a lot of that jargon no longer makes a lot of sense.

One of the glories of the Church of England is its worship. The word ‘liturgy’ describes the patterns, forms and words through which public worship is conducted. — Worship in the Church of England

Like a church liturgy, it helps to have grown up steeped in the lore of scientific terminology. For example, a carbon-rich star is called a “carbon star” and is classified as a Type C star, but an oxygen-rich star, like a Red Giant, is called a type M star “for historical reasons.” Well, it gets worse, for carbon stars don’t exactly fit into the same historical scheme, but, moving on:

A Brown Dwarf fits into the dwindling tail-end taxonomy of the life cycle of dying stars, but we still call them “stars”. Of exploding stars, we have “nova” and “supernova”, and types Ia and II (that’s where most of the carbon and oxygen comes from). The IAU ignored the more adaptive modern scientific approach to nomenclature for the rigidity of the medievalist.

Of “planets”, some of astronomy’s learned lexicographers are still stuck on the notion that every non-luminous orbiting body has to fit into  the 17th century taxonomy; “it’s either a ‘planet’, or it’s not”.

If the IAU had just classified planets as subtypes A, B or C, they might have solved the new-discovery thing without trying to redefine the world’s languages at every chance new discovery. IAU 2006 was the semantic equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

As new objects are found orbiting our own sun,  and exoplanets are spotted dimming the light curves of distant stars, I’m predicting: a chastened future IAU will have to go back and redefine their ‘reality’ in a way that fits the facts, as well as making historical and common sense.

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“Get”: What’s In a Word?

When I had to take Latin in middle and high school, I was both impressed and intimidated by the fact the Romans could have so many different meanings for a word. I still remember the verb facere, literally, to make. But it could mean to “do”, “go”, “make” or “perform”, or many other meanings and shades I’d long since forgotten. What’s a student to do?

All the more so if you never took Latin, you might be amazed how many of the Latin forms with the ubiquitous “fac” root migrated to English: facetious, facile, facilitate, facility,factitious. factotum, facade, faction.

You can see the list yourself if you’re interested. Even four years of Latin didn’t prepare me to expect such a variety of meanings. See Notre Dame’s list:

But we also know English is one of the hardest and most illogical languages for people from non-English speaking countries to learn. Sure, it borrows a lot from Latin, but also from: Old English, Middle English, French, German, old Norman, and old Anglo Saxon and more — not to mention slang, which can come from anywhere in the world.

France gets a lot of their forbidden pop jargon from American English (le jazz). English borrows thousands of technical and scientific  terms from German and Russian, to name a few. Chefs must master culinary terms and food names from all over the world.

English word usage: “get” is such a mongrel word, yet we’re totally accustomed to it and recognize the meaning by context and nuance. Pressed for a definition, we immediately think “obtain, procure, acquire”, but there are over a hundred more very common usages: possess, receive, fetch, to hear clearly or grasp, capture or seize, receive a punishment or sentence … oh, all right: I’m already sneaking looks at the dictionary! (link above) also does a great job on slang usages of “get”.

They listed:

  • 63 accepted verb usages with object (get away with it)
  • 64 as standalone verb (I didn’t get your name)
  • dozens of slang and idiomatic usages (get on the stick, get off the dime)
  • plus synonyms

They even had “getaway”: (adjective, as in getaway car or cabin).

I hope you’ll take a second to scroll down their list. With a word like this, I believe they still missed a few slang usages we usually see in old movies, advertising and CIS thrillers. With a list as long as theirs, it’s hard to be sure I’ve come up with additional usages, but this is what I get:

1. Da money or yer life … get it? (A threat)
2. You gotta get with it (dual-usage slang)
3. GET procedure wp-script-users-login (programming jargon)
4. Get a Midas muffler (purchasing decision)
5. Git along little dogie

That’s all I can think of. I’m glad I grew up with our language. My hat’s off to those who pick up our lingo in only a decade or so.

Now I gots ta git goin’, an’ there’s another good ‘un: “go”..

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