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 enjoyable.
(Website: www.vocabula.com Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 workers?
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 another one:
"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 3 a.m."
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 down there.
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 to him.
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 connection.