Monday, May 27, 2013

How Lazy Scientific Documentation Makes for Bad Language

This post is about how lazy documentation befuddles language.  In my neck of the woods we have a good example brought to us by someone who didn’t take the time to check facts.  Farther north someone else (perhaps a geologist or geographer) gave us another doozy: A word so convoluted that when I tell Spanish speakers about it they shake their heads and utter something like, “How ridiculous can somebody be?”  Now I’m not calling anyone ridiculous…at least not overtly.  Still, bad scientific note taking can lead to things as foolish as making the adjective “the” into a proper noun and calling a puddle a beach.

A few years ago I was asked to contribute to a book about geographical terms.  The idea was to take local geographical (or geological) common names and explain them to a greater audience that might not be familiar with those words.  I thought that was a wonderful idea and still do.  After all, most of you have never heard the words mogote or charco or brecha.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dictionary written by experts in different parts of the country who can explain those local terms to everyone?  So a bunch of us stretching from the East Coast to the West Coast set out to write the book and the university funding the project put it all together.  It was fun and worthwhile.

It was during that assignment that I began thinking about how certain terms are valid and others are illogical.  Some were derived by adopting ancient words while others resulted through carelessness.  In the United States for example many geographical names are actually Indian words either changed into an English-sort-of rendition or they are the original Indian word.  Sometimes, however, things go terribly wrong and invariably that’s because someone was negligent.

Take the word la for example.  In Spanish the word la is the feminine form of “the”—and el is the masculine form.  I hope that’s not confusing.  Say, for example, you were to say la musica.  Translated that means, “the music.”  Here’s another example: La muchacha which means “the girl.”  But once upon a time someone was out in the field obtaining the “common names” (also called “folk names”) of various plants.  This uninspired person might have had a bad day, i.e. too much sun, not enough water, too many plants to name.  Who knows, but when our less-than-industrious so-and-so asked his/her local guide about a certain plant the guide probably said something like, “This is the coma.”  Except in Spanish it came out like, Esta es la coma.  I imagine that whoever was taking notes nodded and said something like, “Hmmm.”  And then he/she wrote down, la coma.  For years afterwards the little plant that goes by the scientific name of Bumelia celastrina or Sideroxylon celastrinum became “la coma” which translated into English is “the coma.”  Mind you the two Latinized names above are for the exact same plant; and perhaps you were taught that the “scientific name” is the definitive name.  Well, here’s a bit of bad news: Not even scientific names are sacrosanct these days.  Some texts have as many as three or even four “synonymous” scientific names which is another confusing story that perhaps I’ll try to tackle at some later date.  But let’s get back to the subject of lazy science and bad language.  Some of the more obsessive-compulsive science aficionados raised all kinds of hell when they started reading the words, “la coma” in botanical texts.  “That’s nuts!” we (I mean, they) yelled.  Little good it did because for years—as if immune to accuracy or legitimacy or even logic—the texts kept appearing with the words la coma written under the little woody plant that bears edible bluish-purple berries.  Over and again a dedicated group kept saying that the term was wrong and should be corrected.  But it was perhaps too late.  The botanical community had entrenched itself with the name la coma and no amount of reasoning or logic seemed to dissuade them.  Years went by and nothing changed.  Now, after a lot of preaching, people are starting to drop the word la and simply say, coma.  And that’s the real name.  It is called, coma.

But the real doozy is a word used by geologists and geographers that is so bizarre it boggles the mind.  That word is “playa” that for nearly 500 million Spanish speakers around the world means “beach.”  Somehow, the word “playa” became a big puddle.  Well, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that from a geological perspective but essentially it’s a puddle.  So here’s my take on how a “beach” became a “puddle.”  Once upon a time a non-Spanish speaking persona was walking around with his/her guide (who may not have been all that adept at Spanish) and this persona asked, “What do you call that?”  The guide was confused but not wanting to sound ignorant or even stupid said, “playa” referring to perhaps the sandy edge of the puddle that reminded him of a beach.  “Ah,” the persona said trying to sound wise and contemplative.  And he/she wrote down in his/her notes that a puddle was called a playa.  And that sounded kind of neat so from hence forth said puddles were called playas.  Years ago I even saw a book entitled The Playas of Madison County” or something along those lines.  Actually, I think it was called The Playas of Kansas or maybe it was The Playas of Frisco Bay.  Either way the title threw me because on the cover was a picture of all these giant puddles.

So when I set out to contribute to the book on geographical names one of the words that landed on my desk was…yes, you got it…“playa.”  I asked one of the editors what definition they were expecting and the editor referred me to a geologist who said, “Well, everyone knows a playa is a well-drained….puddle."  Except, of course, she didn’t say the word puddle even though I kept imagining a puddle, or at least a small pond, as she spoke.  She seemed not the least concerned about the word’s larger meaning.  What mattered was how the word had been defined (regardless of how poorly) by her fellow geologists or geographers.  In an attempt to be tactful I wrote that what we were seeing is language evolving; and in fact that’s probably what is occurring.  Still, all of this mess results from someone’s laziness or ineptness in collecting proper terminology.

Trivialities to some; important issues to others.  But words matter and oftentimes people are lax in what they say or how they interpret what has been said to them.  It’s something worth thinking about.


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