or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Par For The Cores

Bad Astronomy is a really terrific website, but the newest blog posting has this sentence, and I just don't know what to make of it.

Finally, when people ask me if I think aliens are coming to Earth to experiment on people and our livestock, I give them the same answer: why should aliens travel trillions of miles to repeatedly excoriate cow anuses when they only have to do it once and then clone all the cow anuses they need at home?

(Phil Plait is referring to the fact that some people believe that aliens are responsible for the removal, with "surgical precision", of the eyes, genitals and anuses of cows, ignoring, among other things, the fact that carrion-eaters generally go for the soft, easily removed bits of dead animals first.)

It troubles me when a writer uses a word that sounds as if it might mean another word and therefore leaves me in doubt as to what exactly was meant, because the first rule of good writing, surely, is to be understandable. It troubles me even more when a smart writer seems to use a word incorrectly.

"Excoriate" literally means "to flay", "to remove the skin from": it's from the Latin "corium", "hide", which led to the modern French word "cuir", "leather". "Excoriate" also has a secondary metaphorical meaning which has more or less completely replaced the original: "to denounce", which has a fascinating echo in the matching idiomatic expression "to tear a strip off".

However, Phil Plait seems to have used the word "excoriate" as if it means "core", which is to say "to remove the core or centre from": you could remove a cow's anus as if it were the core of an apple using a cylindrical cutter, like a biopsy instrument. I honestly don't know what else he could mean, because the usual--in fact, only--senses of "excoriate" don't work in the context: I suppose it's possible that he literally does mean "flay", but that isn't what's been happening to said cows--their anuses have actually been removed. So I have to assume that he's simply mistaken about the meaning of the word: "excoriate" sounds as if it should be synonymous with the verb "core", but it isn't.


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