10 Sep 2011
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Ahead of the curve Dick Bentley mentioned that the aviation power curve, the origin of the idiom, is more commonly known as the drag curve, though the expression ahead of the drag curve has never reached the language. He also suggested a possible link with learning curve. I debated whether to mention this in the piece last week, but it seemed already too complicated to introduce a side theme. Learning curve is much older than ahead of the curve. It was invented by R S Woodworth, an American psychologist, in his influential book Psychology: a Study of Mental Life, dated 1922. This was likewise a reference to a graph, in this case one derived from research into animal learning (for example, how quickly rats learned to traverse a maze), which showed that acquisition of knowledge was swift at first but later slowed.
This turned up recently in a newspaper report of a study into the probable number of living species. It was said to be a person who studied beetles. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The usual term for a beetleologist is coleopterist (from a Greek word that means sheath-winged), so carabidologist must mean something else.
Finding what it really meant required some minor delving, as it doesn’t appear in any of my dictionaries, not even the huge Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s clearly a specialist term even among beetle researchers. A carabidologist studies carabids, a large and diverse family of mainly nocturnal predatory ground beetles that includes bombardier beetles, sand beetles and tiger beetles. All carabids are beetles, but by no means all beetles are carabids.
If you relied on its etymology for help, you would be left utterly confused. Carabid is said by various dictionaries to derive from Latin cārabus. We can ignore its sense in late Latin of a small ship (which has bequeathed us caravel, a small, fast Portuguese or Spanish ship of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries). The Latin meaning from classical times given in the dictionaries — a sort of crab, crayfish or crustacean — leaves us scratching our heads. Works of a more specialist nature help by pointing out that cārabus came into Latin from a Greek word that could mean either a spiny lobster or a horned beetle (it seems that neither Greeks nor Romans were hot on detailed species identification).
Carabid has no link with scarab, though that’s indubitably also a beetle; several centuries ago the latter was a vague hand-waving term in English for any insect that was presumed to breed in dung.
Centennial words The old words brabble, growlery, impaludism and kheda have been in the news. They were all included in the first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, published in 1911, which has just been republished in facsimile to mark its centenary. It was a different world then. As the Oxford University Press put it in its publicity blurb, “A jet was a stream of water, computer was not recognized, a slogan was a Highland war-cry, a squadron referred to cavalry or ships, and holocaust primarily meant ‘a wholesale sacrifice’.” Some definitions would now strike us as strange. Take the one for electricity: “Peculiar condition of the molecules of a body or of the ether surrounding them, developed by friction, chemical action, heat or magnetism.” And some of the entries were for words that have since vanished, such as the four I quoted: brabble (a paltry noisy quarrel); growlery (place to growl in, private room, den. cf Boudoir); impaludism (morbid state, with tendency to intermittent fevers & enlargement of spleen, found in dwellers in marshes); kheda (enclosure used in Bengal &c. to catch elephants). The new edition of the Concise, published at the same time as the facsimile, has deleted some other faded words, including Eurocommunism, threequel, cassette player and video jockey, replacing them with, among others, upcycle (reuse discarded objects or material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original) and domestic goddess (a woman with exceptional domestic skills, especially cookery).
Transport of delight My wife and I were in the Scilly Isles over the weekend. To get there we had to travel to Penzance on a train that was too long for several of the little Cornish stations where we stopped on the way. The guard had to announce which carriages were alongside the platform at each railway station so passengers knew where to alight. There was plenty of time to muse on the way that the vocabulary of British railways has so much changed after privatisation in the 1990s that the previous sentence is archaic. The guard has become the train manager, carriages are coaches, and almost everyone now speaks of train stations. For a while, those who rode trains were referred to as customers rather than as passengers, but this bit of awful marketing-speak seems to have been reversed by some diktat from on high. Most significantly, the announcements introduced me to a new verb: “Only coaches A, B and C will be platformed”, that is, only those three would lie alongside the platform at the next stop.
4. Turns of Phrase: Seasteading
There’s a famous quip attributed to Mark Twain; he advised readers to buy land because they weren’t making it any more. Since two-thirds of our planet is ocean, there’s still a lot of real estate out there, though admittedly rather damp and often inclement.
The idea behind seasteading is to establish miniature independent countries out at sea, perhaps initially on refitted oil rigs or cruise liners. The word is clearly a play on homesteading. It’s far from new: it first appeared in the Stratton Report, a US study of 1969 that developed a plan for innovative use of the sea, as reported here:
One proposal of Stratton’s group attempts to revive the spirit of homesteading. To encourage aquaculture, recreation projects and other uses of the sea, the commission recommended the leasing of submerged lands on easy terms to small investors. It proposes to call the arrangement “seasteading.”
Time, 24 Jan. 1969.
The idea was taken up by individuals who were more interested in the potential for creating communities independent of existing national governments and what were seen as their onerous interference with personal liberty than in productive uses of the seas. Several tries at extra-national seaborne institutions followed, including various pirate radio stations and Seeland, based on a World War Two sea fort in the Thames estuary.
This century, a key focus for the movement has been the Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008 in California by Patri Friedman, which has gained from the support and investment of Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal. It was in the news in August as the result of a widely-quoted feature in Details magazine. The vocabulary has extended: a seasteading community is called a seastead and its promoters and inhabitants are seasteaders.
The ultimate goal, [explains] Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, a former Google engineer and the man behind a concept he calls “seasteading,” is to “open a frontier for experimenting with new ideas for government,” to build a country where there is no welfare, little gun control, no minimum wage and looser building codes.
The Globe and Mail, 19 Aug. 2011.
Friedman called on his fellow libertarians to give up on the whole idea of the democratic nation-state and join his movement in favor of “seasteading,” or the creation of new, microscopic sovereign states on repurposed oil derricks, where people who think that “Atlas Shrugged” is really cool can be in the majority for a change.
Salon, 30 Aug. 2011. Atlas Shrugged is a dystopian novel by Ayn Rand, published in 1957.
• Ray Hattingh heard a news item on a local Cape Town Radio station that implied a previously unrecorded hotline: “The minister has personally sent his condolences to the deceased.”
• Two items that might be headed “We know what you mean but ...” The Nascar News site featured a headline on 31 August (sent in by Megan Zurawicz): “Naked man harboring a raccoon arrested for streaking during Bristol race week”. And an item from the Canadian Press that appeared on Yahoo! News (noticed by John George) read “Verdict in December for Quebec motorist accused of killing toddler on his 18th birthday.”
• Department of Revisionist Astronomy. Rob Crompton saw this in the Independent on 3 September: “Do calories eaten closer to bedtime count more than those consumed earlier in the day? The debate rages on for dieters. But before you swear off food when the sun heads south, an expert weighs in with some practical advice.” Setting in the west is so passé.
• John McNeil wrote, “In a news item on Radio New Zealand reporting on a military plane crash off the coast of Chile, ‘The pilot previously tried twice to land unsuccessfully.’ Unfortunately, it appears he succeeded the third time.”