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August 10, 2018  |  Friday words #133  |  170 hit(s)

Here we are in August, which reminds me that the name of the month is a capitonym—a word that changes meaning depending on whether it’s capitalized: “The august professor was born in August.”

I have two new-to-me words this week that are related to shapes. The first is scutoid (apparently pronounced SCOO-toid), which is a remarkable thing: a heretofore unknown geometric shape. I mean, you’d think by now we’d pretty much found them all, right? The actual shape is a bit involved to describe, so I’ll lift the definition and more from the article where I learned about this: “prism-like, with six sides one end, five on the other, and a strange triangular face on one of the long edges of the prism.”

Something I found interesting was that scientists modeled geometries to determine which shape would fit together best when arranged both flat and in a curve. Then they went looking for that shape, and they found it! Apparently it’s all over the place in nature. Not only did they predict the shape and then find it, they got to name it. The name is based on the scutellum of a beetle, which is sort of the carapace of the insect.

A second shape name came to me recently via Friend Ralph on Twitter. He pointed me to a blog post that mentioned a lemniscate, which turns out to be a formal name for a figure-8 shape. And by formal, I mean there’s a mathematical description of how to create the shape, as determined by mathematicians starting in the 18th century. The name comes from Latin (of course), meaning in effect “beribboned”; the lemni- part derives ultimately from a word for ribbon, which is a nice visual for the lemniscate shape.

New technical words are maybe not all that interesting, but what struck me was that the blog author had used lemniscate metaphorically. He’d devised an idea that the lobes of a lemniscate represent quasi-opposing camps (in his case, progammers versus IT/ops people), at one point writing how developers “hopped to the other side of the philosophical lemniscate.” Here’s his representation:

I have some darkish thoughts about the use of an obscure term like lemniscate in a blog post, but I guess I should just be happy to have been introduced to this term, as metaphor and otherwise.

It's nice to sit around with friends and discuss things, right? Etymologically, maybe not so much. The word discuss has a more violent origin than you might think: the very original Latin meant "to shake apart" or "break into pieces." However, already in late Latin the word was used in legal contexts, where it referred to examinations and trials, and we got that sense from our friends and conquerors the Normans. It then evolved into the milder sense of "talk over" that we now have. Tho of course at times some "discussions" might indeed hearken back to the original sense.

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