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December 08, 2017  |  Friday words, 2017-12-08  |  599 hit(s)

With Christmas approaching, I'm building up quite a pile of Amazon boxes under my desk. And a few of them aren't even for me! Everyone else might just be getting the gift of words.

Today's new-to-me term might involve a little cheating, though I'll let you decide.

I just finished the novel Version Control by Dexter Palmer, which is about relationships, time, physics, and the age we live in. One of the strands involves a physicist who's conducting an extended experiment, and who worries that it's leading nowhere. This happens, right? More than us civilians probably think. At one point the character has this to say:
Years later, at a conference in Irvine, I ended up in a hallway conversation between sessions with an astrophysicist who told me a saying that she in turn had heard among the community of science-fiction readers, who call it "Smullin's Principle."

It is: Science fiction is a fantasy in which science always works.
When I went to look this up later, the only reference I could find to this supposed Smullin's Principle was the very book I got it from. Hmm.

When I got to the end of the book, I was glancing through the acknowledgments (why? No idea) and ran across this: "Sylvia Smullin provided a number of helpful comments on an early draft of this manuscript." A quick search reveals that Sylvia Smullin is a physicist, formerly of PARC.

This leads one to speculate a bit. Did Palmer invent this principle about science fiction, or did he actually hear it from his reader Sylvia Smullin? If he invented it, is it a little noveslistic in-joke to name it after Smullin? If he heard it from Smullin, is it her observation, or did she, as the novel suggests, hear it from others? Is this principle known by another name in the sci-fi (or science) community?

Many questions, no answers as yet. Perhaps you-all have some insights for me.

Word origins. I was listening to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" last weekend, and the "Not My Job" guest, Greta Gerwig, got all three questions right. The announcer declared that she'd gotten a "trifecta."

I knew this term came from horse racing, but that was it. In case you don't know, a trifecta is a bet in which you pick the first-, second-, and third-place finishers in order. The tri- part is obvious enough, but the rest of it was a little opaque. Turns out it's a mashup: tri+(per)fecta. The perfecta part comes from the Spanish term quiniela perfecta. The word quiniela in turn has a suprisingly complicated meaning that I'll just cite from my Harper Collins Spanish dictionary:


To circle back, a perfecta bet is one in which you pick the first- and second-place finishers. Thus trifecta adds to the improbability by asking you to also pick the bronze, as they don't say in horse racing. (I think?) For more about the distinctions with all these bets, try Perfecta Bet.

This surprised me: the term trifecta goes back only in English to the 1970s. And I guess I'll note in passing that the game-show announcer was using trifecta in a slightly broader way than its racing meaning; he just meant that the contestant got three for three, which is actually a hat trick.

With all this talk, I must mention a creaky old joke that I heard more than once while collecting subscription fees during my brief tenure as a newspaper delivery young-person. "Tip? You want a tip, kid? Don't bet on horses."

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