Sunday, April 27, 2008

Subitize


Alex the parrot


Every once in a while, I come across a word that is new to me, usually something totally out of my field. This one comes from psychology, but it has worked its way into math discussions.

The verb is subitize, and the noun subitization has also been formed. It means to correctly perceive the exact number in a small set without actually counting. The Italian word subito means “at once,” and it is a descendant of the Latin subitus, sudden and unexpected.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us precisely where the word came from in a 1949 citation of E. L. KAUFMAN et al. in American Journal of Psychology, LXII. 520: “A new term is needed for the discrimination of stimulus-numbers of 6 and below... The term proposed is subitize... We are indebted to Dr. Cornelia C. Coulter, the Department of Classical Languages and Literatures, Mount Holyoke College, for suggesting this term.”

Here is the word in context:

“The infantile sense of numbers is restricted to collections of only four or five objects, and the data suggests that infants and adults manipulate such collections using a mental process quite distinct from counting. For small collections, both adults and infants perceive the "numerosity" of the collection directly, somewhat like we perceive shape or color. This direct, intuitive perception of numerosity is called subitization, and it is the first number skill that we develop. When we see three objects, we don't count "one, two, three," instead we are simply aware of the group's "threeness." Most people can subitize up to seven or eight objects, switching to a variety of counting strategies for larger collections.” [Number Blindness: A Hidden Challenge for Mathematics by Ashish Ranpura]

Someone named Al has even created a game that utilizes “subitize.”

Sidebar: Subitizing: What Is It? Why Teach It? By Douglas H. Clements



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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nix on 86


We were discussing the term “86” on the show not too long ago. It was part of a code developed in various areas of the country by cooks, waiters, and other restaurant personnel. It meant “we’re out of that item” or, alternatively, “get this obstreperous person out of here.” Different areas of the country filled out the rest of the code in various ways.

There are many stories purporting to explain the origins of the term, but there’s no closure as far as I can see. David Wilton’s examination is as good as any.

But the discussion led to a caller who wanted to know if the contraceptive RU486 (marketed in the U.S. as Mifepristone) actually amounted to this meaning: “Are you for eighty-sixing the fetus?” That’s an extremely imaginative approach, but it doesn’t hold up after research.

The drug was developed by a French pharmaceutical company, and it worked its own name into the drug trials, as is the custom: Roussel Uclaf Company. That accounts for the RU. The 486 was simply the next serial number combination in line for a trial drug at that lab.

In some vague way, this reminds me of the flap over Procter & Gamble’’s logo a few years back. [See http://www.snopes.com/business/alliance/procter.asp]


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Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Rude Awakening

Except for one or two archaic turns, the word rude has remained consistently negative through the centuries. It derives from the Latin rudis, which meant unwrought, unpolished, unformed, or inexperienced.

It has bounced around as uncultured, ignorant, unrefined, uncivil, lacking in refinement, and downright primitive.

So it’s interesting to see that it shares a root with its polar opposite, erudite-- scholarly, well-instructed, intelligent. It is formed from the Latin e-, out or away from, and rudis, untrained, etc.

Also in the family is the word rudiments, the first basic things taught when a subject is first approached. The adjective form is rudimentary, which Sherlock Holmes could have used instead of “Elementary, my dear Watson.” [Yes, I know that the line came from a stage or movie version rather than from Conan Doyle himself, but it’s germane.]

Over the centuries, we have lost rudeful (full of rudeness), rudery (act of rudeness), rudesby (a rude fellow), rudeship (roughness), rudish (somewhat rude), and rudesse and rudity (rudeness).


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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Preventive, Preventative


Q. Should it be preventative or preventive? I’ve heard both of them used, but that seems redundant.

A. This one is a bit thorny. Conservative commentators such as Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage) huff and puff about preventative: “The strictly correct form is preventive (as both noun and adjective) though the corrupt form with the extra internal syllable is unfortunately common.”

Then there are those with a longer memory of history, such as Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage: “The critics have panned preventative for over a century, preferring its shorter synonym preventive in spite of the fact that both words have been around for over 300 years and both have had regular use by reputable writers.”

The first instance of preventive given by the Oxford English Dictionary is by Francis Bacon in 1626. The first citation for preventative is from Roger Boyle Orrery in 1655.

The conclusion? Neither one is a corruption, but many contemporary grammarians favor the shorter version.


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Monday, April 14, 2008

Ipseity Himself


I’ll give classical philosophy the benefit of the doubt: it probably does set out to clarify reality. But in the process, at times it also mangles the language. I’m mulling on this because while I was driving today, the word ipseity came slamming into my consciousness. As far as I remember, I haven’t used that word since my ontology class back in the 60s.

Ipseity comes from the decisive Latin pronoun ipse, translated as “he himself.” It refers to selfhood, personal identity, individuality.

Then there’s haecceity, a word brought to us by the maligned Duns Scotus. Formed from the Latin haec, this one, it means “thisness,” the quality that makes an individual an individual.

Ecceity [L. ecce, rendered as “here I am!”] is the quality of being present. It is countered by nihiliety, which we might define as absencehood.

Seity is selfhood, perseity is self-subsistence (the quality of existing independently), and inseity is defined as “in-itselfness.”

Finally, there’s omneity--allness--something that only God can lay claim to. Along the way, there were a lot of nonce words, but no one took them seriously: aqueity (waterness), aureity (goldness), carneity (fleshness), colteity (ponyness), momentaneity (momentariness), terreity (earthness), and so on.

SIDEBAR: NARRATIVE IDENTITY AND IPSEITY BY PAUL RICOEUR

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spell




Note: Traverse City Senior Spelling Bee will be held May 2, 2008, at Twin Lakes Gilbert Lodge.


It’s strange how relatively unconnected words often end up with the same spelling. Take the word spell, itself: there are 5 nouns and 6 verbs with that letter sequence, all with separate superscripts, which indicates that they have varying etymologies.

Spell-1 started as discourse, narration, speech. It drifted organically into a sermon, which sheds light on the word gospel as coming from good spell-- good message. By the 16th century, it was an incantation, then an enthralling charm.

Coming from a different source, spell-2 was variously defined as a splinter, a chip, a fragment, a bar, a rail, or a rung.

Spell-3 named a relief-gang or work shift, and later an interval of relaxation. Then it was a period of time of indefinite length. It became a weather term (dry spell), and in the 19th century signified a fit, an attack of nervous excitement (fainting spell).

Spell-4 gets around to the common meaning of the term: a way or mode of spelling a word.

The last noun meaning, spell-5, signifies a playhouse or theater.

Turning to the verb forms, spell-1 meant to speak or to preach. Spell-2 meant to read something slowly and deliberately, letter by letter. It drifted into to decipher or to contemplate. Then it meant to write something letter by letter in a prescribed order. To suggest a desire for something was yet another variation.

Spell-3 means to relieve someone at work. It also means to take an interval of rest. Spell-4 means to bewitch or to invest with magical qualities. Spell-5 meant to allow a sail to lie loose in the wind. Spell-6 meant to fit with bars and cross-pieces, or to splinter.

Now I have to go rest a spell.

SIDEBAR: Spell: the band

SIDEBAR: spelling rules

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Dress


Dress comes from an Old French word that meant to arrange. In turn, that came from the Latin verb dirigere, to arrange or put in order. It shows up in a number of words.

• When you dress, you array yourself with suitable clothing.
• When you address a problem, you attempt to straighten things out, to right what is wrong.
• Dressage is the execution by a horse of precise movements in response to the directions of its rider.
• A dresser is a piece of furniture that holds arranged clothing.
• A hairdresser arranges the hair.
• When you redress a grievance, you are attempting to bring things back into proper order.

SIDEBAR: Dressage Daily

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

By Leaps and Bounds

Q. What is a kangaroo court?

A. There are a couple of definitions. First, it may be defined as an improperly constituted court with no legal standing whatsoever. This could occur during a prison riot when the inmates convict some of their own to death.

Second, it may be a properly constituted court that acts in an unfair, biased, and hasty way. In this sense, it goes back to the California Gold Rush. Many Australian immigrants were attracted by the promise of wealth, and they may have brought the image of a bounding kangaroo with them.

What’s at question is who was doing the leaping, jumping, or hopping. One theory says that these courts were often convened to deal with claim jumpers; hence, the name. Another theory points to the system of itinerant judges in those days. They hopped from place to place, bringing organized justice with them. In some cases, they drew their salaries from the fines imposed on the guilty, so the unscrupulous and greedy amongst them may have jumped to convenient conclusions.

The term has entered official Supreme Court records. In Williams v. United States, Associate Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "Where police take matters in their own hands, seize victims, beat and pound them until they confess, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the police have deprived the victim of a right under the Constitution. It is the right of the accused to be tried by a legally constituted court, not by a kangaroo court."

SIDEBAR: Kangaroos and more


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