The essays on this page were first published in The Vocabula Review in my column, "Ada's Ardor". "Ada's Ardor" is devoted to
the language of Love and Science. Why Love, why Science, and why on
earth both? Linguistically they have little to do with each other
(chemistry notwithstanding). The language of love is made of small
words: us, with, want. The language of science on the other hand is
often cumbersome: neurobiology, mitochondrial, prosopagnosia. But the
small words are far from simple, the big ones not so opaque. Both
Science and Love offer myriad linguistic riches that are sometimes
difficult to navigate. "Ada's Ardor" attempts to make the journey more
(Website: www.vocabula.com Email: email@example.com)
Please scroll down to see Word Economics, Photoelectric Baby, Perilous Pronouns and Solder.
August 2009, Vol. 11, No. 8 The Best of Vocabula
November 2007, Vol. 9, No. 11 (original publication date)
I have recently been thinking about the value of a word. While most of
the country is paid for time (hourly wage, annual salary, time is
money, and so on), as a freelance writer, I get paid by the word. In
some ways this is liberating. I can wile away the hours, if I want,
unconcerned with how much it's costing me. But I can't waste words.
Instead of worrying about how I spend each minute, I worry about how I
spend my words.
The cost of a word varies. Some magazines pay $1 per word; others are
more, or less, generous. But regardless of the rate, I'm in no danger
of making millions from this arrangement. Neither Cosmo nor the Times
nor The New Yorker (should I ever be so lucky) would let a writer
ramble on for an entire issue. They would tell me ahead of time when
they want me to shut up, but they'd tell me nicely. "Give me 800
words," they'd say.
As you might imagine, I have to pick my words carefully. If I'm short a
few words on any given piece I might change all of my plurals to
singulars to lengthen the story. I can buy "a book" instead of buying
"books," that way I get more bang for the buck. Or "take a cab wherever
I go" instead of "taking cabs everywhere." The former gets me 3 extra
bucks. Cutting [a word] words [is not as easy as it might seem] is
challenging and it helps [if you can] to think creatively about [how
words are put together] word morphology.
But the more I think about the value of words, the more I wonder,
regardless of the price per word, why should all words cost the same?
On the surface, it doesn't seem fair that "the" should be as pricey as
"discombobulated" or "trampoline." "The" is short and ugly while
"trampoline" bounces off the tongue. But on the other hand, "the" does
more work, as does "and" and "but" and "while." These are function
words, they're very busy. They string the rest of the text together and
give it sense. Other words like "doorknob" are not nearly as versatile
or well-rounded. They don't have to do as much. They are the Paris
Hiltons of language. Why should they be worth as much as the hard
On the other hand, while it's true that "the" works hard, I don't have
to work particularly hard to write it. Perhaps the value of a word
should depend on the effort required to produce it. Economist Adam
Smith talked about the paradox of value. Water is more critical to our
survival than diamonds, he said, but diamonds cost an awful lot more.
He squirmed out of this paradox with the labor theory of value. Value,
he argued, and therefore price, is a result of the labor that goes into
the production of the commodity. Diamonds cost more in labor. Well,
some words just take more effort to write. Words like "misspell"
require no extra effort from the reader, but are quite labor intensive
for the writer who has either to double-check every time whether there
is one s or two and one l or two, or to otherwise rely on the
all-forgiving Spell Check. Words that are more difficult to write
should perhaps cost more.
(I won't charge extra for the words that are difficult to say — that
just wouldn't be fair. "Nuclear," for example, still stumps some Yale
graduates. And even a word as seemingly innocuous as "ask" gets mixed
up in the mouths of a good portion of the population.)
Proponents of the more mainstream economic theory of marginal utility
get out of the paradox of value by pointing out that we have a large
supply of water and a small supply of diamonds, so one unit of water
should cost less than one diamond. We might apply a similar approach to
words. "The" has no synonyms while "discombobulated" (according to my
thesaurus) can be replaced with any of the following: bewildered,
confounded, fazed, fuddled, gonzo, nonplussed, and slaphappy. Following
marginal utility, a large supply of words meaning "discombobulated"
should render the word itself less valuable, cheaper, than "the," which
may not sparkle at first glance, but which is indeed irreplaceable.
The price of a word, like the price of technology, might also
correspond to the number and complexity of its parts. "Squirrels" has
nine letters, as does "retelling," but the latter is made of more
parts, each of which serves a purpose and each of which must be
assembled properly in order to work. "Re" indicates the repetitive
aspect of the action, "tell" says what's happening, and "ing" gives us
a sense that what's happening is ongoing. Surely it's fair to charge
more if assembly is required.
Finally, there's the aesthetic argument for pricing. No one would ever
pay as much for an ugly blouse as for a beautiful one, so why would an
ugly word cost as much as a word that rolls off the tongue, delights
the senses, and amuses the bouche? "Incandescent," "blithe,"
"mellifluous," even "malodorous," "corpuscular," and "barbaric" are
patently palate pleasing. (Palate: one l or two? One t or two? Extra
ten cents for that one.). Shouldn't they be worth more than "dearth" or
"orifice," each of which is abhorrent?
But the question of aesthetics is a tricky one. Words are subject to
the trends of the day, much like fashion. There are classics, like
Holsten, and fads, like neon pink leg warmers. The American Dialect
Society voted "plutoed" the 2006 word of the year and with the title
should come a higher price. For a time. Within a few years, it should
take its rightful place on the clearance rack at a fitting sale price.
I won't go into the emotional cost differences between words (some
words can really take their toll), or what the FCC charges for some
language. My rate is reasonable by comparison. But I hope I've made the
case that all words are not created equal.
October 2007, Vol. 9, No. 10
Photoelectric, Baby: A Linguist Tackles Physics
I'm determined to make photoelectric the next big catch phrase. I don't
see why it should be relegated to a life of obscurity in the pages of
seldom read and even seldomer enjoyed physics books. It has so much
more to offer than that! I'm going to spread the word, and the word I'm
going to spread is photoelectric. I'll start with the bars of New York.
A bartender will slide me a flaming fuschia cocktail, I'll smile and
say, photoelectric, thanks!
As I take my first sip, I see a pair of hazel eyes across the bar that
I can't ignore. I walk right up to him. Drink in hand, I do a little
half twist and lean my back against the bar, looking at Mr. Hazel Eyes
over my shoulder. With my free hand I slip a finger under his designer
tie just below the knot, and slide it down slowly until it reaches the
tip. Photoelectric, I'll whisper.
After a few weeks, it'll spread from bars to the modeling studios,
where New York bar-goers spend their days. Scantily clad Amazons will
thrust their hips and shoulders while photographers fawn photoelectric,
dahlin', yeah, that's it, that's photoelectric! Click, click, click. In
the next Austin Powers movie, Mike Meyers will seduce women with his
toothy photoelectric, baby, and his purple velvet jacket. Paris
Hilton's that's hot will be so yesterday, tomorrow. She'll be quoted in
every People and Us, coyly crooning, that's photoelectric. Not that the
two phrases are unrelated — solar panels use the photoelectric effect
and yeah, you guessed it, they're hot.
Whether Einstein would have a sense of humor about this, I don't know,
but my proposed use of the word is really not that far from the way he
explained it to the Nobel Prize committee. How is it possible? you ask.
You'd have to be a magician to weave the threads that could possibly
connect them! you exclaim. Do you do it with mirrors? you wonder. It'll
take a little leap, a smidgen of stretch, a filament of faith, but just
watch and you will be dazzled.
Words are electric. Whisper sexy! in my ear and I stand a little
taller, call out idiot! and I can't even muster a smile. A nice word,
to me, is a little zap of energy, and every word has its own electric
power. Some have little effect, some make me want to run marathons,
others make me lie listless on the sofa until someone whispers sexy in
my ear. Apart from the bundle of energy each word carries with it,
words can also be shouted or whispered or said in a neutral voice. This
is the physics of words.
The photoelectric effect is what happens when light shines on a metal
plate. It makes the electrons in the metal plate move around so much
that it knocks them off the surface. But light is not light is not
light — it's a spectrum of waves, each corresponding to a certain
color, each color with its own properties. Scientists used to think
light was made up of waves and the brighter the light, the bigger the
wave, the more energy the light would have. If this were the whole
story, then shining a very bright light of any color onto a metal plate
would move the electrons more than shining a dimmer light. A louder
word would mean something different from a softer word. It doesn't.
What Einstein did was this: he suggested that light cannot only be
visualized as waves, but also as particles called photons, each
carrying a set bundle of energy. With this Nobel-winning proposition,
he was able to explain why red light, for example, never knocks an
electron off the surface of the metal plate — the photons in red light
don't have enough energy — not enough oomph — to do that, no matter how
bright the light. Idiot will never mean sexy no matter how loud you say
it. Blue light, on the other hand, no matter how dim, does have ample
energy to dislodge the electrons. Whispered, or shouted, sexy! will
make you walk a little taller ... and maybe a little slinkier.
Back to photoelectric. This, I think, is a word that will give us all a
little charge when we hear it — a little surge that might make us walk
taller, or if uttered by just the right hazel-eyed hottie, might just
jolt us right off the ground. That would be photoelectric. Now, if only
I could figure out what to do with Quasar.
October 2005, Vol. 7, No. 10
First: I argued over we.
Me: So, we went out for pizza and beer.
Him: You're a we?
Me: A what?
Him: A we.
Me: You're nuts.
If you've been in a relationship, this exchange will not surprise you.
You know that words matter. Love makes linguists of us all. As close as
we feel to our loved ones, we're always trying to get one step closer,
hoping ultimately to end up inside their heads — and language is the
best way to get there. We might grab on to a verb, lean on a noun,
ponder a preposition (and later a proposition), wondering what was
meant by each one.
But pronouns should be straightforward. Pronouns hardly change. They
don't get verbed, their reference is restricted, and new pronouns
seldom appear in a language. You'd think we would've learned to use
them by now. So, why can't we manage them in our relationships?
What I apparently should've said to my boyfriend who was unhappy with
my we was this: "I went out for pizza with a co-worker, he and I
(separately) ordered a large pie, and each one of us (individually)
talked about work, while the other listened in." It may have helped if
I'd added that while my co-worker and I were in the same place at the
same time, there did not exist a single pronoun, which could join our
two beings, the way we joined me (in Boston) to my boyfriend (in D.C.).
Pronouns do cause problems, especially in romantic beginnings. New
identities emerge and, with them, new references: we appears and I is
redefined. That's when first-person arguments begin. A guy asks his
girl what "we are doing this weekend." His girl responds, "I'm seeing
my friends." A guy tells his friends, "I went to a party"; his girl
corrects, "We went." When we first started dating, my guy would ask
"did we like this movie?" I'd occasionally say, "I did." You're not on
solid ground until you've coordinated your pronouns. An I for an I, a
we for a we.
For some, pronouns are inborn, a genetic condition of sorts. A we kind
of guy meets you once or twice and from then on, you're in it together.
A natural born we is loyal like Aquarius. To him, I is betrayal. Others
are born with an I chromosome and don't tolerate we. It's a matter of
identity for them. They fear that we will steal their spirit, the way
some fear a photograph. Click and it's gone. I men and we women, or
vice versa, don't mix, just as Aquarius doesn't mix with Taurus. You
might think these I's wouldn't propagate, that the gene would gradually
disappear. But remember there's no we in wedding vows; you're only
asked to say "I do." And so they multipl-I.
Ask yourself what we refers to, and I think you'll be surprised; it's
far more complicated than two I's combined. A friend of mine argued
with her guy when she said at a party, "We don't eat meat." Her guy
said, "Now and then I like bacon," to which she said, "No, we don't."
Two weeks later they split, and now she's dating a vegan. They split
because "We don't eat meat" doesn't mean I don't eat meat and you don't
eat meat; it means that not eating meat is integral to our couplehood,
and if one of the I's in that we should change his mind, he will be
replaced with a different I who fits into the we that doesn't eat meat.
First person tells us who we are.
Second: The pronoun of conflict.
Begin a sentence with you and you're doomed from the start. Add always
or never, there's no turning back. Second person tells us we're other.
Once the fighting began, my boyfriend and I couldn't agree on anything
— not the sequence of events we were arguing about, not what was right
and what was wrong, not even what was said two minutes earlier. "You
said, you promised, you shouldn't, you didn't, you did, you always, you
never ...." To the other, we were you and nothing more. The illusion of
we was gone.
And you don't need context to get in trouble with you; in fact, you
don't need anything at all. Just utter the word and hairs stand on end.
Try this: say "you!" to a friend. Don't even bother saying it, point.
The mere suggestion is enough. We feel exposed, we begin to hide.
Someone has discovered us. Someone has placed us apart.
You isn't all bad, though. Whispered pillowside, we soar. We feel exposed, we begin to emerge. Someone has discovered us.
You tells us our presence is felt.
In Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, the Wife discovers her
Husband's affair; watches him drive away with his mistress. "She," says
the Wife, "This word that explodes."
She. He. We. I. You. Pronouns explode; third person in particular,
where gender lives. In a coupled world, the third is not welcome. Often
that's why we split, to form new couples, who split over pronouns, and
so on and so on and so on. Third person tells us who we're not.
Pronouns explode in their absence, too. Try telling this to your other:
"My co-worker loves this sweater on me."
"My friend's bedroom is fabulous!"
"My classmate's mattress is so soft!"
Better gender-specify quick. The longer you wait, the worse it gets.
Simple geometry, really. Measure in words the distance between noun and
pronoun. The higher the number, the more trouble you're in. Here's
"My new colleagues are a blast. I went out with one of them after
class. We did a few shots, laughed all night, and didn't get home until
Watch him search (jaws clenched) for a pronoun. Finish off with "She's great." Relief.
Of course you might do it on purpose. Deliberately dupe your darling. Push his pronoun patience. Invoke the singular they:
"They only live a block away so they can come by anytime. Last night,
the two of us (they and me) told stories 'till the sun came up."
Try that and watch your lover's eyes expand, nostrils flare, skin turn red. Kaboom.
The French have it right, they've built their nouns gendered. A French
boyfriend will tell you from the start what you're dealing with. Even
in translation, my former Frenchman (formerly mine, not formerly
French) would say:
"My friend, this girl, she invited me ..."
"My neighbor, this girl, she offered ..."
Someone was always offering or inviting. My Frenchman knew too many shes.
Such tiny words, he and she, but don't let the size fool you. They single-syllabically singe. Disintegrate everything. Poof.
Fourth: Amalgam. Such small words.
Why quibble at all over such small words? Uttered alone they might be
misunderstood as grunts or bodily sounds. A sneeze. A wheeze. A cough.
A burp. Lower your head, blush. Pretend it never happened. Cover your
mouth if need be. The truth about pronouns is this: they say what we
are to each other. Three degrees of our relations. And if we mismanage
them, if these pillars of language that are so slow to change are
fragile in their use, it's because we are fragile.
In the end, maybe what we need is a brand new pronoun — a fourth person
perhaps that we might build out of the existing three. The fourth would
tell us, in a word, our connection to everyone who touches our lives.
It would create an unbreakable we, house a distinct you and I, and
outshine all the they in the world.
June 2008, Vol. 10, No. 6
When I was little, my father had a workshop in the basement of our
house in New Jersey. That's where he designed and built power supplies
for trains, buses, and cars. The heart of the workshop lay behind two
doors that swung open to a desk, cluttered with wires, circuit boards,
and lots of cold inflexible material. The pastels that adorned my room,
the soft fuzz that covered the animals on my bed were nowhere to be
found in my father's workshop. This was a place where the sharp-edged
gadgets of an engineer were transformed into useful, important things.
The soldering iron was one of the few colorful pieces of equipment on
that cluttered desk. The circuit boards were bright green, but I had no
interest in green, I went for the iron in the light blue stand.
Swirling out of the blue base was a metal spiral inside of which the
iron rested. The iron looked like a large screwdriver, with a blue
handle and a metal rod jutting out. The rod, the part of the iron that
heated up, fit into the protective spiral, which never got hot. If my
twelve-year-old hand happened to brush against it when the iron was on,
I wouldn't feel a thing.
My father spent many hours in that basement. He was there in the
evenings after a day in the office. He was there at unpredictable times
during the weekend. Sometimes he got off the couch in the middle of a
TV show and disappeared into the workshop. Other times a heated
argument with my mother drove him downstairs. Some days I'd listen
expectantly for his ascending footsteps, other days I wished he stayed
His workshop was a world of its own, and one that I didn't understand.
Even now I can't say for sure what he did there minute to minute. I
could never tell which machinery he built and which came fully
assembled. Did the circuit boards come with all those transistors
attached, or did he put them in place, one by one? Most of the late
night basement activity was a mystery to me. But, occasionally, I
watched him work for brief periods of time, and on one of those
occasions he taught me how to use the soldering iron.
The iron melted solder, a soft metal that conducts electricity. My
father used solder to make connections between electronic parts that
could not transmit electric current to each other. I put the solder to
a different use. I went through spools of the wire, looping and
twisting and swirling it into bracelets or flowers. I made a sailboat
with solder sails and houses with solder siding. I wore solder pendants
on sensational necklaces. I crafted nonsensical solder-art that
resembled nothing in my external world. Sometimes I just wrapped it
around my finger, to see how many times it would go around and watch my
finger tip turn purple.
But the real magic was the soldering process — what the iron did to the
solder. It melted it, zapped it, liquefied it! It transformed its shape
and consistency. The effect was mesmerizing. I would hold a strip of
solder and touch the tip of the iron to the end. Within seconds, it
bubbled and metallic drops fell. If I didn't remove the iron, I could
liquefy the whole wire into droplets that looked like mercury from a
broken thermometer, but less shifty. Just moments after the liquid
metal fell, it cooled to room temperature and re-solidified, keeping
its bubble shape. Then the transformation was complete.
The solder in its wire form looked much like the metal paper clips are
made of — a little shiny, but nothing special. But in its liquid form,
the solder was a jewel, glimmering briefly before it cooled into a
slightly duller bulb. These dollops adorned all of my creations. A dab
in the center of a daisy. A blob atop a ring.
I could tell that my father didn't fully appreciate the beauty of my
creations. But for some reason he liked it that I was soldering. He
showed me once how to use the device — flip a switch to turn it on,
give it a few seconds, then carefully, very carefully, take it out of
the spiral encasing and go to it. From then on, every time I asked to
use the soldering iron he just raised his eyebrows and said sure! He
never repeated the instructions or watched over my shoulder. He didn't
check up on me now and then to make sure I still had all of my limbs
and appendages. Looking back now, I don't know why he wasn't paralyzed
with fear. But then, he was never a don't run with scissors kind of
dad. Knowing him as I do now, it's easy to imagine that he was in fact
terrified. But for my father, that would have been no reason to stand
in my way.
I've often wondered why he seemed happy when I soldered. Maybe the
bedroom of a preadolescent girl was as much a mystery to my father as
his workshop was to me. I imagine my father standing in the doorway to
that bedroom, while I stand in the doorway of his workshop. He might
have wondered, as I did, what I do with the hours I spent in my room.
He might have been uninterested in the textures and colors I surrounded
myself with. He, too, might have wished me out of my room on some days,
while sending me there on other days. The solder creations scattered on
my desk may have been among the few items in my room that were familiar
My stint as an engineer never went beyond jewelry making (something I
still do on occasion, but without the soldering iron). My father and I
have found many things to talk about over the years, but I still don't
understand most of his work, and he seldom understood mine.
Recently, twenty-five years after I learned how to use the soldering
iron, I sat next to my father over dinner — the entire family sitting
in the same configuration we've always sat in. I asked my father if he
still has a soldering iron. Yes, he said, I'll show you. We got up from
the table and went down the stairs together. Years ago the basement was
part workshop and part recreation room. Now it was packed from wall to
wall with gadgets and their protruding dials and levers and wires
worming out of all sides. I opened the swinging doors to the workshop,
which he still uses. Sure enough, on the corner of the desk sat the
same blue soldering iron that helped me transform metal into liquid,
wire into jewelry, workshop into art studio. My father picked up a
circuit board he'd been working with and held it up close to our faces.
This is for an electric car, he began. And pointing to pinhead-sized
drops of metal, he added, you can see where the solder makes a