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June 15, 2018  |  Friday words #125  |  10052 hit(s)

For those keeping track, we’re coming up on the longest [northern hemisphere] or shortest [southern hemisphere] weekend days this year. Adjust your plans accordingly?

As an experiment, I had my wife vote on which new-to-me term she liked best among my candidates, and she voted for (ready?) the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Which might not sound to you inherently like a winner, but let’s see what you think.

Suppose you are an expert in some field, and you read an article in the news that’s about something in your field. Chances are you’ll at least raise a skeptical eyebrow while you’re reading; you might even end up dismissing the article entirely as ill-informed and a poor representation of something you know very well. (This apparently happens a lot.)

You then turn the page and read an article on some other, different topic, one outside your area of expertise. Although you might have had serious questions about the credibility of the first article, you have no such doubts about the second article.

This is the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: you forgot to bring the same skepticism to the second article that you had about the first. The term was invented by the author Michael Crichton ( Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, etc.); he described the effect in a talk that he gave in 2002.

Crichton was talking about our credulity about the media in general, to the point where he dismisses it entirely. I think that many people would say that there are (other people’s) media outlets that they are willing to dismiss completely (Fox/CNN), but it would be a challenge to bring that level of skepticism to all media, all the time. So I’ll leave the larger implications of the Gell-Mann amnesia effect to you-all to think about.

You’re probably asking why Crichton called this the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. Murray Gell-Mann was an American physicist; physics of course is a field that’s notoriously difficult to explain in layperson’s terms. Crichton explains:

I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

On to fun word origins. Where did the word eavesdropping come from? Eavesdropping means that you’re furtively listening in on someone’s conversation. Eaves are the part of the roof that stick out past the building. The eavesdrop or eavesdrip is the actual dripping of water off the roof and also the area on the ground that gets wet. Fun fact: eavesdrip goes back virtually as far as we have written records in English; there’s a cite from the year 868. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the early things that people wrote down concerned legal stuff, like rules and regulations about property boundaries.

By the 1400s, someone who stood under the eaves to listen at the window was an eavesdropper. And by the 1600s, we had the verb to eavesdrop, which even early on had a metaphoric meaning, i.e., you didn’t actually go stand under the eavesdrop in order to be eavesdropping.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.