Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I'm not dead

And I will prove it by handing out some useless/precious facts (I'm going from memory here and not checking the facts, so beware):

I grew up saying "kitty-corner" to describe two items diagonally opposed from each other. When I was in high school, I heard a teacher refer to two such items as "catty-corner." This sounded absolutely ridiculous (see also, "Duck, Duck, Goose"). Everyone knows what a kitty is, but what on earth is a catty?

Further research showed, however, that "catty-corner" is the older form of this expression. The "catty" has nothing to do with cats, but is descended ultimately from the French quatre, pronounced by Americans as "cater," whence "catty" and finally "kitty." Quatre means four, particularly in America as in the square of dots on the four side of a die; the expression cater-corner thus implies the relationship between opposite corners of the square. No folk-etymologies about how cats tend to ignore straight lines and walk in diagonals are needed!

This example illustrates a principle of historical linguistics which has application in many fields, like Textual Criticism, for example: the more difficult variant is more likely to be original. My teacher's "catty-corner" was more opaque than my "kitty-corner"; it seemed to be composed of a meaningless element and a meaningful one. My intuition was to hold my pronunciation as original, because both elements of the compound were meaningful, but my intuitions were wrong.

15 comments:

Special K said...

hmmm. Both words had meaning, but one wasn't correct. We've recently watched a video about misconceptions where Harvard grads (all majors) are interviewed about some basic science concept and almost all (profs included!) get it wrong! Clearly science teachers failed to challenge these misconceptions, and any new material that didn't match students' prior knowledge was discarded as non-sensical ("what's a catty?).

Special K said...

Ah, what were those questions, you ask? Don't scoff too loudly, or you just might be humbled later! Feel free to post your ideas BEFORE looking up the answers, even if you think you're 100% correct. It'll be fun!

1. What causes Earth's seasons?

2. What causes the moon's phases?

3. If you're standing in front of a mirror, what can you do to see more of yourself?

4. From where does a tree get all its mass?

Linus said...

Nancy Burton: I've always wondered where that phrase came from - speak of the devil.
Ed Stevens: Well, according to ancient legend, if you said the devil's name three times... he would appear.
Mike Burton: According to ancient legend? Dude, you got that from "Beetlejuice".

Pirate Jimmy said...

1) The Earth's N-S axis going through it's center is tilted in relation to the axis that it's revolution around the Sun travels upon. So for part of the year, any one location is, on average, a little closer to the Sun, and for the opposite part of the year, the same location is, on average, a little further from the Sun. Or so I was told.

Pirate Jimmy said...

2) The moon's phases are caused by the angle we see the moon from. When the moon is between the sun and the earth, we see the shadowy side of the moon (i.e. we see nothing). When the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon, we see the reflecting side of the moon (i.e. we see a full moon). If you draw a line from the Earth to the Moon and a line from the Sun to the Earth, when the angle between the lines is _not_ around 180 degrees and _not_ around 0 degrees, we see some sort of crescent. At 90 degrees we see about half a moon.

Pirate Jimmy said...

3) Depending on the size of the mirror, your relative position, and what part of you that you want to see more of, you can either back up to make your reflection smaller and able to fit into the mirror. Or, if you want to see your feet I believe you can lean in and look down (increase the angle between your line of sight and the axis perpindicular to the face of the mirror) to see more also.

Pirate Jimmy said...

4) I don't know, but my best guess would be from the water in it's roots/trunk.

Pirate Jimmy said...

An ammendment to my answer to 2 is to change the word "crescent" to "partial moon," since not all partial moons are crescents.

Special K said...

Congratulations, Pirate Jimmy! Your courage in going first has been well-noted. Anyone else daring enough to risk making a mistake? That's really the only way we learn, you know.

Pirate Jimmy said...

Aha, I was wrong on a few occasions.

Chaka said...

Ok, I'm going to post my answers to Special K's questions before reading the rest of the comments:

1. The tilt to the Earth's axis
2. The relative angle of the sun to the moon to the earth
3. I'm confused by the question, so I guess either "nothing" or use another mirror.
4. Also confused, but I'll guess it takes in molecules from the soil and water. Energy it gets from the sun, but I'm guessing it can't convert energy into mass.

Linus said...

i can convert energy into mass !

Pirate Jimmy said...

Do you convert energy into mass like this?

Special K said...

I'll take this lull in postings as an opportunity to answer these mysterious questions:

1. Both contestants were correct in that the season's are caused by the angle of the earth's axis, but p.j. explained incorrectly why it matters (and chaka didn't explain at all!). The angle does not cause a significant change in distance, but it does alter the amount of energy the Earth receives (solar flux). The sun's angles hit the earth at an angle during our winter, so there is less energy being absorbed per unit area per unit time.

2. Congratulations, fellow astronomers! Yes, the moon's phases all have to do with the angles, but most people (not p.j.!)reverse the full and new.

3. Again, p.j. is partially right, partially wrong. It turns out (and yes, I tested it on a few different mirrors myself) that backing up does absolutely nothing to increase how much you see in a mirror. Unless, of course, you're backing up uphill or downhill, in which case you're changing your angle relative to the mirror.

4. Yay! I got you both! Plants get all their mass, right down to every carbon atom, from the air! CO2, to be exact. Although they need the sunlight and water to undergo photosynthesis, they are really only breaking and reforming carbon bonds from the CO2 molecules. Fun stuff, no? Thanks for playing!

Pirate Jimmy said...

Good contest! It was fun! When's the next installment?!?!