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April 20, 2018  |  Friday words #117, 2018-04-20  |  2951 hit(s)

In case you missed it: Thursday was the 90th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Ben Zimmer reports:

My term for this week is brand new, for a change. It isn’t a very practical one, but I was pretty amused by it: Silurian Hypothesis. Suppose that humans are not the first industrial civilization that arose on earth. If there had been another florescence of civilization, say, 60 million years ago, how would we know? After all, the big cities of the Maya all but disappeared after just a few centuries, and we have only the faintest traces of pre-Biblical habitations in the Middle East. 60 million years ago is geologic time; entire mountain chains have come and gone in that time.

This was the gist of an interesting thought-experiment by a couple of scientists that resulted in the paper “The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?” Since such a civilization could not have been human (we’ve only been around 300,000 years), it would have to be some other species. Thus the Silurian Hypothesis: maybe they were lizard-people. Silurian comes from the TV show “Dr. Who.” In that show, Silurians are (per Wikipedia) “depicted as prehistoric and scientifically advanced sentient humanoids who predate the dawn of man.”


To be clear, the scientists don’t think any of this actually happened. The thought experiment was about our own civilization, how we might be affecting the planet, and what sorts of traces we’re leaving. You can read about this all over the place this week; I first read about it in an article in The Atlantic. Although it seems like a long shot, I hope that Silurian Hypothesis becomes something that shows up in textbooks 20 years from now.

Speaking of traces, how about some word origins. Not long ago I again heard the expression “box his ears,” which made me wonder where box came from. In this sense, box means a blow with the hand; obviously, the word boxing (as in the sport) is essentially the same term.

Rather unsatisfactorily, it seems no one knows for sure. There are somewhat similar words in other Germanic languages: beuk (Dutch), bask (Danish), bochen (Middle High German). The experts at OED apparently don’t find these similarities compelling enough to posit a direct connection. They speculate. Maybe it was onomatopoeia; maybe it was “school slang” based on a Greek word; maybe it’s some play on box, as in container. Wherever it came from, it was established in English by the 1300s. Boxing as a verb goes back at least to the 1500s. That will have to do, alas.

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