or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Free Association

I was reading a fascinating New Yorker article when I ran across the intensely irritating phrase "software program".

It's not quite redundant, but it's very, very close. For all intents and purposes, software is a program. It isn't always: sometimes software is a set of instructions or subroutines. But in day-to-day life, for just about everybody just about all of the time, any software they encounter is going to be a program, and so the two words are interchangeable. "Software program" (sometimes "software application," which is just as redundant--an application is a program) is one word too many. It's even worse than the annoying but relatively benign "tuna fish". (As opposed to, say, "tuna cattle", one must assume.) A quick Googling indicates that more than a few people felt it necessary to cover all the bases by using the multiply redundant phrase "software application program", which is like saying "book tome volume".


Elsewhere in the article, which is about medicine, was the word "coronary", and suddenly it occurred to me that I couldn't see what the heart had to do with a tiara, all those mildly alarming chromolithographs of Jesus exposing his heart engirdled by a crown of thorns notwithstanding. Because, as I knew, "corona" is the root of the word "crown" (it comes to us from the French "couronne"), but what does that have to do with the human heart? It turns out that anatomically, a corona is a collection of like things radiating outwards, as (I must assume) the arteries and blood vessels radiate outwards from the heart, and so the adjectival ending "-ry" was attached to "corona" to describe these arteries. A "coronary infarction" was a blockage of these blood vessels leading to a heart attack, which in time simply came to be called, with notable brevity, a coronary. ("Infarction", in case you were interested, is from the word "infarct", any area of tissue that has died due to lack of a blood supply; it comes from the Latin word "infarcire", which means "to cram". Why? Because an infarct is caused when a blood clot gets crammed into the blood supply.)


Back when I was studying to become a fitness instructor--I've held quite a few jobs over the years, for some reason--I had to learn the Latin names of large number of the muscles in the human body. I discovered that anyone with even a smattering of Latin would have an easy time of this task, because far from being randomly difficult, the muscles are given extremely pragmatic names--names which describe the shape or location or other salient physical feature of the muscle. Latissimus dorsi: the broadest muscle in the back ("lati-" as in "latitude", which is to say "breadth", "-issim-" which I knew from Italian to mean "most", and "dors-" as in "dorsal fin", the one on the back of a fish or a shark). Biceps brachii: the two-headed muscle in the arm ("bi-" meaning "two", "-ceps" meaning "head", as in "cephalopod" or even "cephalogenic", and "brach-" meaning "arm").

Naturally, being a massive geek, I wasn't content to merely learn the muscles involved in fitness, and so I studied quite a few more. My favourite was the grandly named corrugator supercilii: it's the muscle that creates vertical wrinkles (that's the corrugator part) in the forehead by bringing the eyebrows (that's the supercilii part) downwards and inwards.


"Supercilii", of course, brings to mind the word "supercilious", and why wouldn't it? They're the same word. "Supercilium", as I noted, refers to the eyebrow: "super-", "above", and "cilium", "eyelid". (And anyone who took high-school biology will recall that cilia--the plural of "cilium"--are little hairs, which if I'm not mistaken is a perfect example of synecdoche in action, the part standing in for the whole.) And a supercilious look is one that involves the raising of the eyebrows: not the wide-eyed full-brow lift that indicates surprise or shock, but the kind that raises only the inner part of the eyebrows. It helps to pair this with a little smirk.


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