Choose Your English (iv)


connote / denote
Do not let the rhyme fool you — to connote is to imply a meaning or condition, and to denote is to define exactly. Connote is like giving a hint, but to denote is to refer to something outright.

conscious / conscience
Both words have to do with the mind, but it’s more important to be conscious, or awake, than conscience, or aware of right and wrong. Remain conscious while listening to your friend’s moral dilemma so you can use your conscience to give good advice.

contemptible / contemptuous
Something contemptible is worthy of scorn, like the contemptible person who denies there are no facts to be known about morality; but contemptuous is full of it, like the contemptuous look you give that guy as he speeds away in his gas guzzler.

continual / continuous
The words continual and continuous are like twins: they both come from continue, but they get mad if you get them confused. Continual means start and stop, while continuous means never-ending.

council / counsel
A council is meeting for discussion or advice, but to counsel is a verb meaning to give advice. They sound exactly the same, but the language council met and decided to counsel you on how to keep them straight.

See other: Choose Your English

Consciousness of a Bat


“There’s a brilliant paper by Thomas Nagel, which asks “what’s it like to be a bat?”, and this is the third person experience which he points very clearly to, you cannot have a scientific approach to, but what science does in very simple terms, is to work out what a bat needs to have in order to know it’s a bat. We are never going to know! But how do we know that that bat has the right circuitry to know anything? And I think that is a scientific question, and perhaps it’s an important one. [...]

A bat knows its a bat enough to survive as a bat, and that maybe very little, in comparison to the sort of things we have to know to survive with our complexity.”

- Igor Alexander, In Our Time (Programme 76) “Science of Consciousness”

What To Call The @


The @ is called by many different names across the 28 member states of the EU – mainly animals. The map also locates curious clusters in which these animals congregate, as if certain climates are more favourable to certain imaginary creatures than to others. Electronic elephants seem to thrive only in Scandinavia, for example.

The Romance languages by and large stuck to the inanimate arroba, the pre-digital name for the @ sign in Spanish and Portuguese. That name is derived from the Arabic ar-rub, meaning a quarter – in this case, a measure of weight: 25% of what a donkey (or mule) could carry. In Spain, the customary weight of an arroba was 25 pounds (11.5 kg), in Portugal, 32 pounds (14.7 kg). On the map, we see these weights proliferate throughout the Iberian peninsula, but also in France and French-speaking Belgium (as arobase).

Continental Europe is otherwise dominated by digital monkeys, due to the likeness of the @ to a monkey tail curling around a tree branch. In Germany and Austria, the symbol is referred to as Klammeraffe. The word translates as ‘spider monkey’ – an American genus of monkey noted for its long tail. Klammer on its own can mean ‘bracket’, ‘staple’ or ‘paperclip’. The Klammeraffe shares Germany and Austria with the ordinary at. But in Poland, the małpa (‘monkey’) has the country to itself.

Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium refer to the @ as apenstaart(je), ‘(little) monkey tail’. In Luxembourgish, that becomes Afeschwanz.

The simian simile also proliferates throughout the Balkans: in Romanian, the @ is called coadă de maimuţă (‘monkey tail’), in Bulgarian маймунка (maimunka – ‘little monkey’). Croatians either use at or manki, a direct loan from the English ‘monkey’ (rather than the Croatian word for monkey, majmun). Their Slovenian neighbours call it an afna (‘little monkey’).

In Scandinavia, the elephant was seen as an apt metaphor for the curly a. In both Danish and Swedish, the @ is called snabel-a, with snabel meaning ‘[elephant's] trunk’. Their Finnish neighbours offically call it at-merkki, but colloquially either kissanhäntä (‘cat’s tail’) or miukumauku (‘meow-meow’).

Czechs and Slovaks are united in their fishy metaphor for the @, finding in its curly appearance a similarity to zavináč, or ‘rollmops’ (rolled pickled herring fillets).

Italy is dominated by a chiocciola (‘snail’) riding up its boot. In Greece and Cyprus, the @ is rather enigmatically compared to a παπάκι (papaki – ‘duckling’).

The Baltics follow the English fashion, and say at. Not very imaginative perhaps, but less impalatable than the Hungarians, who say kukac, or ‘maggot’.

That concludes all the fauna on this delightfully weird map, but here are some other remarkable names for @ in other languages: Armenian: shnik (‘puppy’); Chinese: xiao laoshu (‘little mouse’); Japanese: naruto (after the tidal whirlpools in Naruto bay); Kazakh: aykulak (‘moon’s ear’); Norwegian: krøllalfa (‘curly alpha’); Russian: sobaka (‘dog’); Ukrainian: vukho (‘ear’).

Correlation Does Not Imply Causation


Why does correlation not imply causation? In other words, why would two things which very much appear to be related, have no connection whatsoever?

The correlation = cause logical fallacy is the claim that two events which occur together must have a cause-and-effect relationship. It is also known as the cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (In Latin, “with this, therefore before this”).

Let us turn to television for a clear illustration of this principle.

In The Simpson’s episode Much Apu About Nothing, Ned Flanders spots a bear on the street, which prompts the whole town to crusade against bears and to create a so-called Bear Patrol.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks for a while, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then gives up and takes the exchange]

Choose Your English (iii)


assure / ensure / insure
Although these three often show up at the same party, mostly while giving hugs, they are by no means the same: to assure is to tell someone everything is in order, to ensure is to make certain, and to insure is to protect financially.

bare / bear
Bare means naked, but to bear is to carry something. The noun bear is also a brown furry mammal of the Ursidae family.

capital / capitol
A capital is either a stash of money or the government headquarters of a state. A capitol on the other hand is simply a building.

climactic / climatic
Climactic describes the high point, the most intense part of a film, play, song, et cetera. Climatic refers to the climate, like the current climatic changes we can observe at the North Pole for instance.

complement / compliment
Both are very welcome on a first date — a complement means to complete something, but a compliment is flattering. If you feel you and your new friend complement each other, maybe it’s because he or she has been giving you so many compliments, like for instance when he or she says you look like Roger Waters or Anna Chlumsky.

See other: Choose Your English

On English


“Let’s face it – English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese? One index, two indices? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm goes off by going on. English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

And finally, why doesn’t “buick” rhyme with “quick”?”

- Richard Lederer

28/viii mmxiv


Clyde (of Bonnie and Clyde) Barrow’s middle name was ‘Chestnut’.

On her eighth birthday in 1936, Shirley Temple got 135,000 birthday presents.

The US states of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Maryland have legislation which forbids an atheist from holding public office.

In Danish, the word ‘forgive’ means ‘to poison’.

Because of his squeaky voice, Reinhard Heydrich was called ‘the goat’ at school. He became a heavy drinker and a sex-addict. While serving as an officer in the SS, he opened an exclusive brothel.

See other: Quite Interesting Facts

Reflection and Occam’s Razor


‘Ned thought for a while. [...] ‘Some – I don’t know – some conspiracy brought me here and I need to understand what it was.’
‘We are merely the starstennis balls, Ned, struck and banded which way please them.’
‘You don’t believe that. You believe in will. You told me so.’
‘Like anyone with a sliver of honesty in them I believe what I find I believe when I wake up each morning. Sometimes I can only think we are determined by the writing in our genes, sometimes it seems to me that we are made or unmade by our upbringings. On better days, it is true that I hope with some conviction that we and we alone make ourselves everything that we are.’
‘Nature, Nurture or Nietzsche in fact.’
‘Ha!’ Babe clapped Ned in the back. ‘It’s coming on, the creature is coming on,’ he boomed to the wide uncomprehending lawn. ‘Listen,’ he said, tucking has arm in Ned’s, ‘if you want to understand your own situation, can you not apply some of the logic it has cost me so much brain blood to teach you? Take out Occam’s Razor and cut away the irrelevant and the obfuscatory. Set down only what you know.’

- Fry. S. 2010. The Stars’ Tennis Balls London, Great Britain: Arrow Books (2014) p. 210-211

Problems with Occam’s Razor


‘Three axioms presupposed by the scientific method are realism (the existence of objective reality), the existence of observable natural laws, and the constancy of observable natural law. Rather than depend on provability of these axioms, science depends on the fact that they have not been objectively falsified.

Occam’s razor and related appeals to simplicity are epistemological preferences, not general principles of science. The general principle of science is that theories (or models) of natural law must be consistent with repeatable experimental observations. This principle rests upon the unproven axioms mentioned above. Occam’s razor supports, but does not prove, these axioms.’

- Courtney. A., Courtney. M. On the Nature of Science, Physics in Canada, Vol. 64, No. 3 (2008), p. 7-8

Wittgenstein on Occam’s Razor


As for Occam’s Razor, consider Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

3.328 If a sign is not necessary then it is meaningless. That is the meaning of Occam’s Razor. (If everything in the symbolism works as though a sign had meaning, then it has meaning.)

4.04 In the proposition there must be exactly as many things distinguishable as there are in the state of affairs which it represents. They must both possess the same logical (mathematical) multiplicity (cf. Hertz’s Mechanics, on Dynamic Models).

5.47321 Occam’s Razor is, of course, not an arbitrary rule nor one justified by its practical success. It simply says that unnecessary elements in a symbolism mean nothing. Signs which serve one purpose are logically equivalent, signs which serve no purpose are logically meaningless.

6.363 The procedure of induction consists in accepting as true the simplest law that can be reconciled with our experiences.

Occam’s Razor


Occam’s razor is a logical and philosophical principle stated by the medieval scholar William of Ockham (1285–1347/49). It gives precedence to simplicity; that is to say, of two or more competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred. The principle is also expressed as “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In other words, Ockham used the principle to dispense with relations, which he held to be nothing distinct from their foundation in things. According to Ockham:

pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate
“Plurality should not be posited without necessity.”

Explanations can become needlessly complex. It could become coherent to add the involvement of say, leprechauns to any explanation, but Occam’s Razor would prevent such additions, unless they were causally necessary.

“The simplest hypothesis proposed as an explanation of phenomena is more likely to be the true one than is any other available hypothesis, that its predictions are more likely to be true than those of any other available hypothesis, and that it is an ultimate a priori epistemic principle that simplicity is evidence for truth.” – Richard Swinburne

Consider the following example: Two trees have fallen down during a windy night. There could be two possible explanations to account for the fallen trees:

  1. The wind has blown them down.
  2. Two meteorites have each taken one tree down, and after that hit each other and removed any trace of themselves – that, or those pesky leprechauns again.

Choose Your English (ii)


ambiguous / ambivalent 
Something ambiguous is unclear or vague, like the end of a short story that leaves you scratching your head; but if you are ambivalent about something, you can take it or leave it.

amicable / amiable
Amicable refers to a friendliness or goodwill between people or groups. Amiable refers to one person’s friendly disposition. A group might have an amicable meeting, because the people there are amiable.

amuse / bemuse
People often use the word bemuse when they mean amuse, but to amuse is to entertain, and to bemuse is to confuse. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit amuses Alice as he frolics, but then the Cheshire Cat bemuses her when he tells her to go two directions at once.

appraise / apprise
To appraise is to estimate the value of something, but remove the second “a,” and you have apprise, which means “to tell.” If you hire someone to appraise your house, you might have to apprise your family of the fact that you now owe the bank more than your house is worth.

assume / presume 
Assume and presume both mean to believe something before it happens, but when you assume you are not really sure. If someone bangs on your door in the middle of the night, you might assume it’s your mad neighbour. If your neighbour knocks on your door every night at 6:30, at 6:29 you can presume he or she is coming over in a minute.

See other: Choose Your English