Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

There's a word for that

I've always had a fascination for words, ever since I was little.  My becoming a writer was hardly in question from the start.  And when I found out that because of the rather byzantine rules governing teacher certification at the time, I could earn my permanent certification in biology with a master's degree in linguistics, I jumped into it with wild abandon.  (Okay, I know that's kind of strange; and for those of you who are therefore worried about my qualifications to teach science classes, allow me to point out that I also have enough graduate credit hours to equal a master's degree in biology, although I never went through the degree program itself.  My progress through higher education, if viewed from above, would have looked like a pinball game.)

In any case, I've been a logophile for as long as I can remember, and as a result, my kids grew up in a household where incessant wordplay was the order of the day.  Witness the version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" I used to sing to my boys when they were little:
The minuscule arachnid, a spigot he traversed
Precipitation fell, the arachnid was immersed
Solar radiation
Caused evaporation
So the minuscule arachnid recommenced perambulation.
Okay, not only do I love words, I might be a little odd.  My kids developed a good vocabulary probably as much as a defense mechanism as for any other reason.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

All of this is just by way of saying that I am always interested in research regarding how words are used.  Recently, a friend sent me a link about a set of data collected by some Dutch linguists regarding word recognition in several languages (including English) -- and when they looked at gender differences, an interesting pattern emerged.

What they did was to give a test to see if the correct definitions were known for various unfamiliar words, and then sorted them by gender.  It's a huge sample size -- there were over 500,000 respondents to the online quiz.  And they found that which words the respondents got wrong was more interesting than the ones they got right.

From the data, they looked at the words that showed the greatest recognition disparity between the genders.  The top twelve words that men got wrong more frequently than women were:
  • taffeta
  • tresses
  • bottlebrush (the plant, not the kitchen implement, which is kind of self-explanatory)
  • flouncy
  • mascarpone
  • decoupage
  • progesterone
  • wisteria
  • taupe
  • flouncing
  • peony
  • bodice
Then, there were the ones women got wrong more frequently than men:
  • codec
  • solenoid
  • golem
  • mach
  • humvee
  • claymore
  • scimitar
  • kevlar
  • paladin
  • bolshevism
  • biped
  • dreadnought
There are a lot of things that are fascinating about these lists.  The female-skewed words are largely about clothes, flowers, and cooking; the male-skewed words about machines and weapons.  (Although I have to say that I have a hard time imagining that anyone, male or female, wouldn't recognize the definition of "tresses" and "scimitar.")

It's easy to read too much into this, of course.  Even the two words with the biggest gender-based differences (taffeta and codec) were still correctly identified by 43 and 48% of the male and female respondents, respectively.  (Although I will admit that one of the "male" words -- codec -- is the only one on either list that I wouldn't have been able to make a decent guess at.  It means "a device that compresses data to allow faster transmission," and I honestly don't think I've ever heard it used.  However, that probably has more to do with my complete technological ineptitude than it does my gender.)

It does point out, however, that however much progress we have made as a society in creating equal opportunities for the sexes, we still have a significant skew in how we teach and use language, and in the emphasis we place on different sorts of knowledge.

I was also interested in another bit of this study, which is the words that almost no one knew.  Their surveys found that the least-known nouns in the study were the following twenty words.  See how many of these you know:
  • genipap
  • futhorc
  • witenagemot
  • gossypol
  • chaulmoogra
  • brummagem
  • alsike
  • chersonese
  • cacomistle
  • yogh
  • smaragd
  • duvetyn
  • pyknic
  • fylfot
  • yataghan
  • dasyure
  • simoom
  • stibnite
  • kalian
  • didapper
As you might expect, I didn't do so well with these.   There are three I knew because they are biology-related (chaulmoogra, cacomistle, and dasyure); one I got because of my obsession with the weather (simoom); one I got because my dad was a rockhound (stibnite); and one I got because of my degree in linguistics (futhorc -- see, the MA did come in handy!).   The rest I didn't even have a guess about.   (I did look up "genipap" because it sounds like some kind of STD, and it turns out to be "a tropical American tree with edible orange fruit and useful timber.")

I'm not entirely sure what all this tells us, other than what we started with, which is that words are interesting.  At least I think so, and I'm pleased to say that my kids still do, too. My younger, who is now 29, was chatting with me on the phone recently, and I asked him how he was settling into the new apartment he moved into a few weeks ago.

"Fine," he said.  "Although a lot of my stuff is still in boxen."

Only someone in my family would think "ox-oxen, box-boxen."


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a phenomenal achievement; the breathtaking mission New Horizons that gave us our first close-up views of the distant, frozen world of Pluto.

In Alan Stern and David Grinspoon's Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, you follow the lives of the men and women who made this achievement possible, flying nearly five billion kilometers to something that can only be called pinpoint accuracy, then zinging by its target at fifty thousand kilometers per hour while sending back 6.25 gigabytes of data and images to NASA.

The spacecraft still isn't done -- it's currently soaring outward into the Oort Cloud, the vast, diffuse cloud of comets and asteroids that surrounds our Solar System.  What it will see out there and send back to us here on Earth can only be imagined.

The story of how this was accomplished makes for fascinating reading.   If you are interested in astronomy, it's a must-read.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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