figures of speech


Arrrr! Shiver me timbers! We weren’t going to post anything today, but it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day! How can we resist? Jen-Luc Piquant has donned her best pirate garb in honor of the occasion, and has been boning up on her piratical syntax via this handy online training video. Everyone who’s anyone is linking to it like crazy, because, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a bona fide pirate movement sweeping the land. We have waxed poetical about the science of pirates in a prior post, enthusing over Gideon DeFoe‘s whimsical Pirates! series, and recently stumbled across this handy reference tool listing famous pirates throughout the ages..

Every holiday needs a commercial tie-in, and manufacturers of fine pirate gear and other related products are no doubt making a capitalist killing, all in the name legal plunder. However, there’s no excuse for crass marketing ploys like this one, found courtesy of the twisted piratical mind of P.Z. Myers. So, so wrong, in so many different ways…. And yet, Jen-Luc Piquant points out that said "feminine products" would most likely have been welcomed by the notorious Anne Bonney, the most famous female pirate in history. It’s tough to live day in and day out onboard a ship with a bunch of swarthy swabbies, and no doubt there were days when Anne felt "less than fresh."Anne_bonney

Needless to say, Jen-Luc Piquant greatly admires Anne Bonney, and considers her something of a kindred spirit for her rebellious independence. (Although bear in mind that Jen-Luc suffers from an acute narcissistic personality disorder; it’s unlikely Bonney was anything like her.) It’s a rip-roaring yarn: Born sometime between 1697 and 1705, Anne was the daughter of an Irish attorney who revealed her wild side early on, purportedly stabbing a servant girl in the belly with a table knife at the tender age of 13. Small wonder she eloped three years later with a sailor and small-time pirate named James Bonney, thereby embarking on a life filled with adventure and unsavory companions.

Eventually she left her husband to go a-pirating with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham, disguised (at least at first) as a man. She even had a best friend in fellow female plunderer Mary Read. According to Wikipedia, Anne "was by all accounts competent, good in combat, and respected within pirate ranks." In fact, when their ship was attacked by Jamaican troops in October 1720, Anne and Mary fought better, and more fiercely, than their male compatriots — in part because the men were too sloshed to put up much resistance.

Everyone ended up in a stank Jamaican prison, and sentenced to hanging. (Far from being supportive, Anne apparently told Calico Jack, when he asked to see her one last time, that while she was sorry for his ultimate fate, "If you had fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog." Ouch!) Anne and Mary tried to plead pregnancy (apparently they really were pregnant), but this only bought them temporary reprieve until they gave birth. Mary died of fever shortly after giving birth (so did her baby), but Anne disappeared from historical record, and most historians believe she must have set up a new life somewhere under an assumed name. There is no record of her death. She hardly seems the sort who would have faded into quiet obscurity, but for all we know, she ended her days by a cozy hearth fire, knitting baby booties for her score of grandkids. We’d like to think that if nothing else, she continued to indulge occasionally in salty pirate speech.

While we don’t have a built-in pirate mode here at Cocktail Party Physics, you can translate this, and any other blog post, into Pirate Speak from here. The day’s festivities got us to thinking about what it would take to institute an annual Talk Like a Physicist Day. I think we need one. C’mon, let’s pillage the concept and make it our own. How cool would it be to have physics-mania sweep the nation, with everyone going crazy for scientific gear, competing for the wildest demos, and vying over who can best mimic that inimitable Physicist-Speak? Here’s a few rudimentary, off-the-cuff pointers for daring neophytes willing to take the plunge.

1. Never say anything in clear, direct English if you can obfuscate it with technical jargon. (This also works beautifully in literary criticism; just check out the writings of Jacques Lacan.) For instance, if someone asks you how, exactly, radio signals are encoded, toss off this jaunty phrase: "Oh, you just modulate the amplitude of the sine wave!" All the scientists out there understand this immediately, but trust me, to the average American, the sentence conveys no actual meaning, even though they listen to their radios every day.

2. Use terms like "orders of magnitude" to describe significant differences of scale.

3. A particularly challenging task is not "difficult"; rather, the problems to be overcome are "nontrivial," probably because of large (and therefore difficult to predict/calculate) "perturbations."

4. It’s not that the course of true love never runs smooth; it is filled with turbulence and bifurcations.

That’s just a random sampling of some of the most common physicist turns of phrase; you get the idea. Feel free to suggest your own favorite examples of impenetrable Physics Speak. We can collect them into a handy Talk Like a Physicist lexicon, maintained on its very own Website (somebody reserve that domain name, stat!). And can a training film on YouTube be far behind?

22 thoughts on “figures of speech”

  1. Don’t forget to stock up on pirate gear at the pirate supply store at 826 Valencia in San Francisco!
    As for physicists…I’ve been out of the field for nine years and I still use the term “orders of magnitude” and only afterward catch myself!
    Maybe it’s not a general physicist term, but I think of people in terms of whether they’re properly calibrated or not, i.e., how well do their perceptions and thoughts relate to commonly accepted factual reality. Applies well to narcissists (don’t tell Jen-Luc, though, she might not like to hear that).

  2. The same sorts of codified language exist for many professions. In my case, it’s all about the software/computer engineering. We are never confused, we get a pointer misplaced. I carry around a PDA for external storage. Everyone occaisionally needs a hard reboot. And right about now, I need to re-balance the binary tree if I’m going to be able to remember where I left my keys…

  3. Jen, not sure where to go with this one
    After all I’m all for having fun, though pantomime is not my thing. A lot of trekkies out there.
    How about trekkies in the ‘holo-deck’ acting out there Jean Luc Picard style pirate fantasies. I’m up for that one. You know like the guy from chips in the Next Generation playing a ‘rebel’ with a federation commission in federation uniform, and his female counterpart. Almost mediaeval.
    And is George Washington a (terrorist) rebel – you know fighting his majesty’s redcoats and burning the royal ships.
    You know even Drake was a bit of a pirate, jumping Spanish Galleons for their gold, with the implicit blessing of Elizabeth. But hey one woman’s pirate or enemy, has always been another woman’s hero.
    So, do you fancy being whisked away by pirates in the night, to some caribbean island, where you are the most precious jewel – the Captain’s booty. lol!

  4. I have another one–“canonical”. I hear it all the time with math/physics/cs people, but my family (to my amazement) hadn’t the faintest clue what it meant.

  5. Some other favorites:
    Along with canonical, include ensemble. Guaranteed to befuddle any clothing designer.
    When I’m tired or lazy, I’m in the ground state.
    Try describing interpersonal relationships in terms of Fourier pairs of variables. For example, the length of my “leash” and the number of “gentlemens cabarets” within that distance. Watch the blood shoot out of Dr. Phil’s eyes.

  6. My favourite physics answer, when asked in class, is “it depends”. Or sometimes, “yes… and no”. Nothing like those indeterminate cases.
    Is light a particle or a wave?
    It depends. What are you testing for? And so on…
    And “negligible”. That’s always good. Non-zero, but negligible.

  7. Some excellent additions to the lexicon here; perhaps we can expand it to other technical fields besides physics, if only because I’m adding the need for a hard reboot to my own personal lexicon, thanks to Matt (a.k.a. CPP’s official Father of the Year). I’m also adding the notion of being in the ground state. The separate concept of entropy has described my apartment for years. “Canonical” seems to universal to academics — we used it in my English grad school classes to talk about those texts considered acceptable for “serious” study. I personally have started using terms like “constraint” and “boundary conditions” in my everyday parlance.
    RE: Magista’s “It depends” — one of my favorite physics answers came when I asked a physicist friend to review my very first attempt to discuss special relativity for a general reader. He pondered a bit, tugged on his beard, then said, “Well, you’re not WRONG — but you’re not right either…” (And no, it wasn’t Peter Woit…) It was primarily a vocabulary problem, plus a couple of missed nuances, and I managed to hammer out something quite respectable thanks to him. And two months later, when a couple of physicists were cracking jokes based on the notion of Lorentz contraction — I not only understood it, I thought it was hysterically funny.
    Thus, a physics geek is born. 🙂

  8. “Robust” — meaning something that holds its state or its course against those perturbations — seems to be making its way out of mathematical physics, via IT-speak and mil-speak (I heard a general in Iraq use it the other day) into general biz-speak.

  9. Wow Pyracantha,
    Couldn’t comment on your at your place, so thought I’d mention how much I like your Geometric Art, here.
    “Earth-X”, acrylic on paper 7″x10″, 2003
    Copyright © 2003 Hannah M.G. Shapero.
    and link to the Ascham school. Thanks!
    (hope it’s ok with you Jen, just pirating some of your blog space).

  10. Hi. I was referred here by Quasar9. My son, who is an expert on pirates, has written a play entitled “The Pirate Election,” which we have just finished blogging. From him I learned that pirates were some of the earliest practitioners of democracy, and that they almost never made anyone walk the plank (they preferred marooning). He says Bonney’s husband and the male crew “cowered in the captain’s cabin” during the fighting.
    About physicists, what about obscure metaphors? For instance, “He’s a regular topless quark,” or “That is SO Heisenberg.”

  11. Q, no need to apologize, were happy to promote Pyracantha’s artwork on our humble little blog. 🙂
    Hildaur: Love the whole concept of going around the Beltway “spin up” (or, one assumes, “spin down”).
    And Allyson’s correct, Whedonesque linked this morning to an Orlando Sentinel blog post about “The Physics of the Buffyverse.” I’m quite chuffed about it, because the women who posted is exactly the sort of reader I’m trying to reach: she admitted to being repulsed by anything remotely associated math, and couldn’t believe she was enjoying reading a book about physics.
    Makes the blood, sweat and tears of the past year worthwhile, it does… (And Allyson, by all means let me know when your own book comes out…)

  12. I hadn’t realized that “it depends” was such a physicist answer…that’s what I put down on a jury questionnaire yesterday, though. Sheesh, I just can’t get away from my past….
    And Weirsdo’s post reminded me of the Pantisocratic pirates in Lawrence Norfolk’s wonderful tale of intrigue with the Dutch East India Company (and so much more–this is like a fairy tale for grownups) _Lempriere’s Dictionary_. As I recall–it’s been a dozen years since I read the book, but I think I’m due for a re-read–the Pantisocratic pirates had to debate everything philosophically and come to a consensus before they acted on anything. I remember finding a lot of humor in these rather intellectual pirates. And the book is really one heck of a good myster and adventure story, too.
    I’m going to go put it on my request list at the San Francisco Public Library right now, even though I’ve got way too many books checked out already…

  13. ***Talk Like a Physicist Day. I think we need one. C’mon, let’s pillage the concept and make it our own.***
    You are a genius! Yes, we need this!
    Of course, I do this every day, which is part of what made me the second nerdiest science blogger.
    But, just for a day, if everybody else was doing it, maybe, sniff, maybe I would fit in….
    Vote for Pedro.
    On the other hand, I’ve been known to invent Physics terminology. I’ve had more than one class where students have come to understand that “dinky” is a synonym for “infinitesimal and neglectable.”

  14. I also use ‘nontrivial’ in my daily life (usually to gently tell the boss that some quick fix he wants is three months’ programming effort). I also use ‘canonical’, ‘order of magnitude’ and ‘in the noise’ a lot.

  15. Oh, and magista, my favourite answer to “how long is a piece of string?” is “it depends how fast it’s going.” Yay for Lorentz contraction!
    ‘Vanishingly small’ is another good one to toss out there sometimes. Likewise, ‘to a first approximation’, ‘three sigmas’* and ‘non-linear’.
    * Marketroids who use the term ‘six sigma’ should probably be karate chopped in the throat and dumped somewhere they won’t be found until they’ve gone runny.

  16. Just to speak up late about another woman piriate, but I think Grace o’Malley (Granuaile) the pirate queen is more well known (in some circles at least!) than Anne Bonney. There is a statue of her on Clare Island Ireland, and she negotiated with Queen Elizabeth, and in a favorite story of mine, blew her nose on a handkerchief someone gave her and threw it on the fire. When the court was apalled she said no Irish would put a soiled cloth in their pocket and evidently the Irish were cleanlier than the British. My favorite pirate! and I’m not Irish, but have been to her grave site.

  17. I second the recommendation on ‘vanishingly small’
    One of my college physics textbooks used one of two phrases to describe small values:
    ‘vanishingly small’ – i.e., it’s there but you don’t need to worry about it.
    ‘small but nontrivial’ – i.e., it may seem small but you need to take it into account.
    I’ve used both phrases ever since.

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