April 21, 2007

3-D heart rendering

In the Columbia Guide to Standard English, originally published in 1993, Ken Wilson observed in connection with heartrending, heart-rendering (adjs) that

The real adjective is heartrending, meaning “heart-tearing” or “heartbreaking” and hence “grief-causing.” Heart-rendering is a nonce word, possibly a malapropism, but more likely a deliberate jocularity.

In Merriam-Webster's Concise Guide to English Usage, E. Ward Gilman expressed doubt that any guidance is really necessary on this matter:

A few commentators (Shaw 1987, Copperud 1980, and Garner 1998) recommend heartrending -- to be found in almost every dictionary -- over heart-rendering -- not to be found in any dictionary that we know of. Heartrendering does exist, but it is of such low frequency that we do not think you will ever be much tempted to use it.

But this morning, listening to the radio, I heard some evidence that we may have passed that tricky boundary between the time when advice is unnecessary and the time when it's too late.

The NPR program "Living on Earth" reprised a segment originally aired in 1996 on toxins in breast milk, and added "an update on what’s in mother’s milk today" by having Steve Curwood interview Dr. Linda Birnbaum, head of the Experimental Toxicology Division at the EPA ("Mother's Milk: A Modern Dilemma"). Steve's last question for Dr. Birnbaum, according to the show's on-line transcript:

CURWOOD: You know this is such a heart-rendering story. I mean here you have a mother looking at her child, wondering if she's doing the right thing doing what mother's [sic] have done, you know, for thousands upon thousands of years. Is there any good news in this story?

Since the transcript has at least one typo (mother's for mothers), here's the audio to verify the rendering part:

And Google finds that more than 70,000 other people have succumbed to the temptation to use {heart-rendering}.

It's not entirely clear that this is really an eggcorn, which is typically a lexical reshaping (like "eggcorn" for "acorn") that makes more sense to its user than the original did. I'm not sure that the people who use heart-rendering are thinking of one of the relevant senses of render, such as "To surrender or relinquish; yield", or "To reduce, convert, or melt down (fat) by heating", as opposed to rend, "To tear or split apart or into pieces violently". The meanings "surrender" or "melt" are arguably a better fit to what heartrending has come to mean than "tear or split apart" is -- but render and rend are both pretty rare these days, in the relevant senses.

The association of render with the process of melting animal fat to produce lard is what made Ken Wilson think that heart-rendering must usually be a "deliberate jocularity". But I suspect that most current users are not thinking of the component morphemes at all, though they may be influenced by a sort of phonological resonance with surrendering.

In particular, I doubt very much that modern heart-rendering users are thinking of rendering in its commonest modern sense, "the process of generating an image from a model" in computer graphics. But maybe they should. An image is directly accessible to our senses, in a way that a conceptual model is not; so perhaps a heart-rendering story is one that makes us viscerally aware of how we feel about an idea. After all, Sony's name for the chip that generates lists of rendering commands in the PS 2 was the Emotion Engine.

[Yes, I know that the Emotion Engine was designed by Toshiba, and that the "emotion" part really refers to the background of the behavioral synthesis that precedes the geometry calculations that precede the generation of graphics rendering commands. But still, it's the graphical rendering that eventually makes an emotional connection with the user. And anyhow, the joke requires us to identify the realization of emotion with the rendering process...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 21, 2007 08:51 AM