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May 17, 2010
This week's theme
Whose what?

This week's words
Ockham's razor
Morton's fork
Hobson's choice
Achilles' heel
St. Elmo's fire

William of Ockham
William of Ockham
Section of a stained glass window at a church in Surrey, UK

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Our language is sprinkled with terms coined with the formula X's Y. There's baker's dozen and bull's eye and deadman's hand (a poker hand).

There are diseases and syndromes and body parts named after physicians (Parkinson's disease); there are theorems, laws, and numbers named after scientists (Avogadro's number); there are plants named after botanists (Ahnfelt's seaweed); and there are places named after explorers, though some are named after no one ("no man's land" :-).

This week we'll look at five terms that follow this X's Y or "someone's something" formula, terms named after specific people that answer: Whose what?

Ockham's razor or Occam's razor

(OK-ehmz RAY-zuhr)

noun: The maxim that the simplest of explanations is more likely to be correct than any other.

After William of Ockham (c. 1288-1348), a logician and theologian, who is credited with the idea.

Ockham's razor states that "entities should not be multiplied needlessly". It's also called the principle of parsimony. It's the idea that other things being equal, between two theories the simpler one is preferable. Why razor? Because Ockham's razor shaves away unnecessary assumptions. Ockham's razor has applications in fields as diverse as medicine, religion, crime, and literature. Medical students are told, for example, "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."

"But not everyone in Washington is a believer in Occam's razor, so all manner of other theories flourished."
A DC Whodunit: Who Leaked And Why?; Reuters (UK); Sep 22, 2009.

See more usage examples of Ockham's razor in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

Sometimes I wish I were a little kid again; skinned knees are easier to fix than broken hearts. -Anonymous

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