NEWSLETTER 584: SATURDAY 19 APRIL 2008
1. Topical Words: Black Hole
The death of the famous American physicist John Wheeler last Sunday raised an intriguing language question. Most of his obituaries claimed he invented the term black hole for the astronomical phenomenon; in most cases this was the headline or lead-in to the text.
For example, the New Scientist wrote about him, “With his flair for poetry, Wheeler coined the terms ‘black hole’ and ‘wormhole’, words that captured the imaginations of physicists and the public alike.” The Daily Princetonian, at his old university of Princeton, said he was “a legendary physicist who coined the phrase ‘black hole’ and who left an indelible mark on the physics department in his four decades as a University professor”. The Guardian’s piece noted, “in a talk at the Goddard Institute, New York, in 1967, [he] spontaneously came up with the name ‘black hole’ to describe it.” The Oxford English Dictionary would seem to concur, as its first citation is from a 1968 article by John Wheeler in American Scientist.
But did he really invent it? Other obituaries said not.
The Scientific American noted: “Wheeler recalls discussing such ‘completely collapsed gravitational objects’ at a conference in 1967, when someone in the audience casually dropped the phrase ‘black hole.’ Wheeler immediately adopted the phrase for its brevity and ‘advertising value,’ and it caught on.” The Daily Telegraph obituary differed only in one detail: “A student at the conference called out ‘black hole’ as a suggestion, and Dr Wheeler made the name stick.” This, not incidentally, is over a subhead that says that he coined the term.
John Wheeler himself never claimed that he invented black hole. Stephen Hall wrote in an article in the New York Times in October 1992 that “The term, Dr. Wheeler said in an interview, was actually suggested by someone else — he can’t remember who — during a 1967 meeting at the [Goddard] Institute for Space Studies in New York and was intended as a substitute for ‘gravitationally completely collapsed star.’ ‘After you get around to saying that about 10 times,’ Dr. Wheeler recalled, ‘you look desperately for something better.’”
So he didn’t coin it — he popularised it. But the chances are high that he will go down in history as its creator. It raises an intriguing question about the way in which a tale that’s denied by its central figure can still be widely believed.
There’s some doubt even that the unnamed person at the meeting had invented it on the spot. Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, this week found an earlier example, in a report by Ann Ewing in the issue of the Science News Letter of 18 January 1964 about a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as mass is added to a degenerate star a sudden collapse will take place and the intense gravitational field of the star will close in on itself. Such a star then forms a ‘black hole’ in the universe.”
Whoever it was Ann Ewing heard use the term at the 1964 meeting might have been the one who suggested it to John Wheeler at the 1967 one. Or it may have been someone else who heard it or who had read the report. Or it could be a case of separate and unconnected inventions. The latter is certainly possible because of black hole having been at one time the official name for the lock-up in a barracks. The infamous appearance of the term in British history, the only reason the term in that sense is still remembered, is the incident in 1756 known as the Black Hole of Calcutta in which 146 Europeans were confined in a cell overnight, of whom only 23 survived until the morning.
Does it matter who invented black hole as a snappy alternative to the phrase gravitationally completely collapsed star? If we’re happy to ascribe legends to our great men, probably not. If we prefer truth to fiction, then it’s worth putting the record straight.
A falling of water in drops.
The word is not one of that melancholy collection ending in -cide that refers to an act of killing or something that kills (suicide, pesticide), though it does come from the same Latin verb, cadere. However, here it means not to strike down or slay but simply to fall. The first part is from Latin stilla, a drop; the English word is a reformulation of Latin stillicidium, falling drops.
The Latin word could mean in particular the drip of rain from the eaves of a house, which is exactly equivalent to an ancient meaning of our eavesdrop. This meaning led to the main historical sense of the word, a legal term in Scots law. If a householder let rain fall from his eaves on to the land of a neighbour, he needed the neighbour’s permission. John Erskine explained this in 1754 in his Principles of the Law of Scotland: “No proprietor can build, so as to throw the rain water falling from his own house immediately upon his neighbour’s ground, without a special servitude, which is called of stillicide.”
It’s not a word much encountered these days. When it appears it has the sense of falling water, not the legal one. It is in a poem in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “Stilettos of a frozen stillicide”, one of a collection of unusual words in that section that also includes shagbark, torquated, vermiculated, preterist, iridule, and lemniscate. Its most famous use is perhaps that by Thomas Hardy, again in a poem: “They’ve a way of whispering to me — fellow-wight who yet abide — / In the muted, measured note / Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave’s stillicide.”
3. Recently noted
Freemale Yet another term invented either by those who survey or by their publicists, this appeared first in Australia in March. A demographic survey compiled by a database marketing company reported that unmarried women now outnumber married women in that country for the first time since World War I (just: 51.4%). As an indication of its fizzy, pop slant, the report claimed, “Bridget Jones meets Sex and the City”. The same report invented an unlovely acronym, SPUD (Single Person Urban Dwelling) for all these women living alone. Michelle Cazzulino, writing in the Daily Telegraph in Australia, fought back by creating AOBWRTASIALBJ (Angry Old Bag Who Refuses To Accept She Is Anything Like Bridget Jones). She might instead have called herself a quirkyalone, a term dating from 2000 that has gained more currency than I suspect freemale will ever achieve.
Exergame It’s hardly a household word, but it does already have a history — the first example I’ve found is from 2005, though the related exergaming is known from 2004, exertainment goes back to 1994 and the idea itself is even older. It’s in the news this month because a games company is about to release an exergame for the Wii. Exergames (formed from exercise plus game) are video games that require players to make physical movements that interact with the games and so undertake a controlled workout, which might simulate yoga, aerobics, boxing, or even ski jumping.
4. Questions & Answers: Panic button
[Q] From James Morris, Singapore: “Who first hit the panic button?”
[A] We don’t absolutely know for certain (I ought to have a digital rubber stamp available with that on) but the evidence points to US military pilots of the Korean War.
An early example is dated August 1950. A once famous but long-gone builder of military aircraft, the Republic Aviation Corporation of Long Island, issued a jokey guide to the slang of jet pilots in its magazine Pegasus as an “educational aid” to civilian pilots who were retraining to fly jets. The only item of interest was panic button, defined as a “state of emergency when the pilot mentally pushes buttons and switches in all directions”. There are several contemporary examples in other aviation magazines, one of which referred disparagingly to some MiG pilots during the Korean War as panic-button boys who bailed out at the first sign of action.
What’s uncertain is the exact origin. To judge by a short article by Lt Col James L Jackson of the US Air Force in American Speech in October 1956, even the flyboys weren’t sure at the time. He said that “to hit the panic button” was used to mean “the person spoke or acted in unnecessary haste or near panic.” He identified four possible button contenders, but concluded:
The actual source seems probably to have been the bell system in the Second World War bombers (B-17, B-24) for emergency procedures such as bailout and ditching, an emergency bell system that was central in the experience of most Air Force pilots. In case of fighter or flak damage so extensive that the bomber had to be abandoned, the pilot rang a “prepare-to-abandon” ring and then a ring meaning “jump.” The bell system was used since the intercom was apt to be out if there was extensive damage... The implications of the phrase seem to have come from those few times when pilots “hit the panic button” too soon and rang for emergency procedures over minor damage, causing their crews to bail out unnecessarily.
This is supported by a quote from The Lowell Sun of Massachusetts, dated December 1950, that refers to US troops in Korea (“But they have a phrase to describe this senseless gossip mongering. They call it ‘ringing the panic button.’”), by one from the Daily Review of Hayward, California, on 3 January 1951 (“The expression stemmed from the signal given by the pilot of a plane which is in serious trouble. He pushes a button sounding a buzzer which means everybody is to bail out.”), and by a note in the New York Times Magazine on 13 May 1951: “Someone remembered the ‘panic button’ in an airplane that is pressed when time comes to abandon ship.”
In 1955, a glossary of Air Force slang appeared in American Speech, compiled by Leo Engler from pilots at the Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. Under “hit the panic button”, he wrote:
There is a switch called the ‘panic button’ in the cockpit of a jet aircraft which jettisons objects, including extra fuel tanks, in order to lighten the plane. Conditions under which this switch is used are usually quite desperate. In case of a power failure, for example, when all the prescribed remedial procedures fail, the pilot might in desperation ‘push everything that’s out and pull everything that’s in,’ in the hope that he might accidentally do something helpful.
This fits the definition that appeared in another glossary, in the 20 November 1950 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes: “The Panic Button automatically drops the wing tanks, rockets, and bombs when a pilot has to jettison weight to keep flying.”
I’m not convinced about Jackson’s dating, despite his note that “[d]iscussion with Air Force officers and airmen reveals that the phrase to hit the panic button was in use during the Second World War”. There’s no example of the phrase on record before 1950, but on the other hand there are lots of them in the years that follow, early ones all linked to the Korean War. The Daily Review article also noted that “It’s a new phrase which blossomed in the Korean war. And now you hear it on all sides. It’s always uttered as broad humor. Whenever an outfit makes a routine move, the big joke is that ‘somebody pushed the panic button.’”
Whatever the precise origin, there’s no doubt that the phrase was popular among flyers in the Korean War and that it filtered back to the US civilian population and from there to the whole English-speaking world. It proved a useful term for any button or switch that operated some device in an emergency or which raised an alarm.
• Chris Robinson found a printed notice on the door to the toilets in the Burger King opposite St Pancras International Station: “TOILETS FOR PAYED CUSTOMERS ASK STAFF FOR ASSISTANCE”. “Assuming I decoded the misspelling and punctuation correctly,” he comments, “I think I used them wrongly as no one had paid me. I was also dubious about what assistance I might get if I asked for it.”
• “Black bears talk at city library”. Cat Pragoff was amazed to learn of this forthcoming demonstration of ursine communicative powers in a headline in the New Hampshire Union Leader of 11 April. It turned out that it was just a talk about black bears by some human. How disappointing.
• Sticks and stones? Dennis Ginley found this sentence in the sports section of The Oregonian for 15 April: “”The rift boiled over in January 2005, when Cheeks called out Miles during a film session, spurring Miles to unleash a profanity-laced tirade against the coach that Cheeks said included several racial epitaphs.”