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AWADmail Issue 412

May 23, 2010

A Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Tidbits about Words and Language

From: Dean Barnard (dsbarnard comcast.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Ockham's razor
Def: The maxim that the simplest of explanations is more likely to be correct than any other.

Medical students are told, "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."

Is the same medical advice given to students in Africa as well?

From: Mary Postellon (mpostellon hotmail.com)
Subject: Ockham's razor and hoofbeats

I remember my husband coming home from medical school one day and reporting that he'd been told about the hoofbeats principle: When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras. But he said his professor added that one should never forget that zebras do exist, too... as do quaggas. I gave him a nice pen-and-ink drawing of a herd of zebras for his office wall, but I've never been able to find a picture of a quagga. He says he's treated a few, though, in more than thirty years of medical practice.

From: Gabe Helou (gabe mystery.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Ockham's razor

Gehm's Commentary on Occam's Razor: Sometimes, Ockham wears a beard.
(From Dr. Barry Gehm, when confronted with someone trying to apply Ockham's razor to a situation that was, in truth, complicated.)

From: Butch Kemper (butch kemperfamily.us)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Ockham's razor

After 25 years in the university environment and 11 years running a small business dealing with the public, for me the principle of Ockham's Razor was expressed in "Do not assume malice when an explanation of stupidity is sufficient."

Email of the Week (Courtesy Uppityshirts: Well-Read)

From: Nic Barton (take5tombland btconnect.com)
Subject: Ockham's razor

My brother was a vastly experienced helicopter pilot who became the Royal Navy's senior crash investigator. Before the regulations retired him at 55 "at the height of my powers", he investigated some hundred or so "incidents" worldwide, both for the UK armed forces and civil aviation. Crash scenes are by definition very messy and it was where "apply Ockham's razor" was one of his guiding maxims.

Another, similar, was Sherlock's, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever else remains, however improbable, must be the truth." But he also always bore in mind, again from the world's favourite sleuth, "... there's nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact"... usually meaning a "pilot error" verdict!

From: Richard A. D. Freeman (radf44 gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Morton's fork
Def: A situation involving choice between two equally undesirable outcomes.

Since most forks today have two or more prongs (tines) it would be good to point out to your readers that, in the 15th century, forks had only two prongs.

From: Alasdair Robertson (aa.robertson sympatico.ca)
Subject: Morton's fork

Several years ago I visited Canterbury Cathedral and found the tomb of Archbishop Morton while touring the Crypt. Having learned all about Morton's Fork during my university years, I was very excited and spent the next half-hour looking for someone else who would appreciate his fork. Odd that it would take A.Word.A.Day to keep his memory alive.

From: Karl Gregoire (gregoirekarl live.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Morton's fork

There is a similar fork in chess where two valuable pieces on the board are covered with the same piece so that no matter which piece the opponent decides to move he is going to lose the other valuable piece.

From: Joseph Leff (joeleff natspin.com)
Subject: Morton's fork

Among bridge players there is a well known ploy called the Morton's Fork Coup in which a defender is offered a choice of two equally bad plays.

From: Tom Sigafoos (tomsigafoos gmail.com)
Subject: Morton's fork

There's a current application of Morton's Fork in the logic of climate-change deniers: (1) It absolutely isn't happening; and (2) if it is, there's absolutely nothing we can do about it.

From: Krista Johnson (johnsonk alxn.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Morton's fork

In an A Series of Unfortunate Events book the little girl had a choice between "a bath or a pink dress" (both repugnant to her). It is a useful child-rearing tool.

From: Melinda Merkel Iyer (myniyer gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Morton's fork

The modern-day equivalent of this saying must be the phrase "Sophie's choice", from the book.

From: Alex M G Burton (misymaj gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Morton's fork

And according to the book 1066 And All That the system worked well until Morton shoved the fork in too far.

From: Stephen Phillips (stephen_l_phillips talk21.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--Hobson's choice
Def: An apparently free choice that offers no real alternative: take it or leave it.

Mr Hobson also arranged supply of fresh water to Cambridge through a system of open channels by the roadside, part of which exists to this day.

From: Prof. Dr. Otto Steinmayer (otto tm.net.my)
Subject: Hobson's choice

Hobson was loved enough at Cambridge to inspire a volume of commemorative poems upon his death. Among others, John Milton contributed. Hobson died aged 86, so he had a full life.

Dr. Johnson remarks that this is the only poem Milton wrote in the "metaphysical" style.

From: Dave Paterson (david_weinstock hotmail.com)
Subject: Hobson's choice

An even more modern citation is rumored to be the El Al Israel Airlines dining menu. When a customer asked if there was a second choice of lunch meal, the flight attendant said, "You could eat lunch or not eat lunch."

From: John Whittier (johnison mindspring.com)
Subject: Hobson's choice

In 1974 Volkswagen introduced a sporty hatchback called the Scirocco. According to the specifications, the base model was equipped with steel wheels, but every Scirocco sold in the US was shod with alloy wheels because they were a "required option".

From: Edmond Spaeth (edspaeth aol.com)
Subject: Hobson's choice

Much like a Hobson's choice, was the marketing strategy of a car dealership known as Orange Ford because it was situated in Newburgh, NY, a city in Orange County, NY. Emblazoned across the roofline of their showroom was the question, "What color ORANGE Ford would you like?" Of course, the word ORANGE was distinctly that color, but they did sell many cars that weren't that color. This dealership may still be in existence but if so, it has moved from the location where I first noticed that sign.

From: James McKelvey (mckelvey maskull.com)
Subject: Black Model T

Many people know the Ford quotation, and therefore believe that all Model Ts were black. But that was only true during part of the long production period. Here's from Wikipedia:

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts. It was, however, a monolithic bloc; as Ford wrote in his autobiography, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black". Model Ts in different colors were produced from 1908 to 1914, and then again from 1926 to 1927. It is often stated that Ford chose black because the paint dried faster than other colored paints available at the time, and a faster drying paint would allow him to build cars faster since he would not have to wait so long for the paint to dry. Ford engineering documents suggest black was chosen because it was cheap and durable. Over thirty different types of black paint were used on various parts of the Model T. These were formulated to satisfy the different means of applying the paint to the various parts, and had distinct drying times, depending on the part, paint, and method of drying.

From: Finn Poulsen (fipo optonline.net)
Subject: Hobson's choice

The "Thought for Today" following the "Hobson's choice" entry should have been this poem by Piet Hein:


People are meant
to hold various views;
which has been construed
to mean
that Rulers should give them
the freedom to choose,
and one thing
to choose between.

(Piet Hein, Grooks 5, page 43)

From: David Steiner (davidesteiner gmail.com)
Subject: St. Elmo's fire
Def: An electrical discharge visible at the surface of a conductor, as a ship's mast or an airplane's wing.

In the '70s I flew into the center of typhoons in the Pacific 99 times. We sometimes had St. Elmo's fire in the cockpit and were often struck by lightning. Exciting stuff and fortunately, harmless.

From: Jim Parrott (jparrott lohreinc.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--St. Elmo's fire

St. Elmo's fire is a very familiar phenomenon. It was very common to see little mini-lightning shows on the windscreen at night when we were in the weather. It's like continual miniature lightning bolts sticking to the windshield, flat, in two dimensions. However, I remember one night in the 727 over Rochester, NY, there was a ball of St. Elmo's fire that remained 8 feet out in front of the radome for ten minutes. It lit up the cockpit. Nature is an amazing thing!

From: Paul Unwin (pdunwin yahoo.com)
Subject: St. Elmo's fire

Static charge build-up on airplane wings can cause broadband electromagnetic "noise" that can interfere with airplane communications. To alleviate this problem, the tips of the wings and empennage (i.e. vertical fin, horizontal stabilizer, and tailcone) of modern airplanes have static wicks that allow the charge to bleed off rather than discharging suddenly, thus limiting the amount EM interference generated.

From: Herb Rosenthal (herbrose comcast.net)
Subject: St. Elmo's Fire

A hundred years ago or so, I worked at the transmitter site of an AM radio station in Syracuse, New York. The tower was about 335 feet high,and during lightning storms, I could see the "balls of fire" rolling down the guy wires and jumping the insulators to ground with a very loud "bang".

The first time I heard this was my first time at the site; I called the chief engineer and he assured me that this was normal, and not to worry or turn the station off the air.

Pretty scary for a 17-year-old! Those sailors must have been terrified!

From: Clare Cross (cdcross58 gmail.com)
Subject: Diseases named after physicians

There is some controversy regarding the use of apostrophes for diseases named after the researchers who discovered them. There are a number of issues involved, but it is at least partially a political question: Who "owns" a disease? The National Down Syndrome Society specifically states a preference for "Down" over "Down's" "because an 'apostrophe s' connotes ownership or possession." The online Merriam-Webster dictionary, which reflects common usage, is inconsistent, using "Down syndrome", but "Parkinson's disease". I'm a copy editor for a medical journal, and our policy is to avoid apostrophes in these constructions (this would not include Lou Gehrig's disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], since Gehrig actually had the disease). Our policy has occasionally led to complaints from authors, who are concerned that readers searching for, say "Parkinson's" rather than "Parkinson" in the US National Library of Medicine (PubMed) database will not be able to find their papers. It's a legitimate problem. I noted at one point four different versions in the PubMed database for what my journal would call "Graves disease", including "Grave's disease", "Graves' disease", and "Graves's disease". A researcher would have to use four separate searches to find all of the papers on this condition. Readers who wish to learn more about this issue should consult the American Medical Association style manual.

Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. -Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

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