November 27, 2007


On the op-ed page of the NYT on 11/24/07, L. Jon Wertheim lamented the decline of old-style pool hustling, a decline (Wertheim argues) set off by a series of events, culminating in the establishment of a professional pool tour in 2005, which blew the hustlers' cover by exposing them to public view and then disintegrated financially.  Wertheim writes:

The first three events were smashing successes.  But in keeping with the circadian rhythms of pool, the boom times didn't last.

Whoa!  The circadian rhythms of pool?

I can see what Wertheim was trying to say -- that the rhythms of pool are cyclic (though it hadn't occurred to me that the world of pool HAD a rhythm) -- and I can guess that Wertheim, and no doubt many others, got to the meaning 'cyclical' for circadian from hearing or reading the word in context, not realizing that the word is used as a technical term for a very specific kind of cycle, namely one that is about a day (24 hours) long.

(Biologists built on Latin for this term: circa 'about, approximately' plus dies 'day', as in diary and diurnal -- note the two different senses of 'day'.  That was a nice choice, but you really can't expect ordinary people to appreciate the etymologies of lexical items, whether technical or not.  Etymology is not destiny; if it were, learned societies would be misspeaking if they got their journals out less often than every day.)

The fact is that ordinary language is pressed into service in a number of ways to provide technical vocabulary, which then has a very specialized meaning in certain contexts, and at the same time technical vocabulary "leaks out" into ordinary language.  People get the general drift of the technical vocabulary, but (usually not knowing either the etymology OR the context of its technical use) do their best to interpret what they hear.

And they get a lot of it wrong, from the point of view of people in the technical fields.  Epicenter obviously refers to a location (of an earthquake) -- to, in some sense, the central point where the earthquake took place.  Besides center, there's an extra element epi-, which clearly must contribute something.  So the epi- adds extra stuff, probably something emphatic: the epicenter is, people reason, the EXACT center.  (Technically, it's the location on the earth's surface OVER the place where the earthquake event happened, undergound.)  Now, getting all enraged about the common-language use of epicenter for the central point of an event -- it seems to be standard now -- is just as silly as getting all enraged about the common-language use of vegetables to refer to tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplants, etc., all of which are technically fruits in one scheme of biological terminology.

These two cases run opposite to one another.  For epicenter -- and circadian -- the specialists chose the terms, and then ordinary people naturalized them.  For fruit -- and mass, and normal, and many thousands of other technical terms -- the specialists recruited ordinary-language terms, and non-specialists had to try to interpret them in a new context.

But the result is in a way the same: a disparity between technical and ordinary-language understandings of the same expressions.  The larger point is that neither is RIGHT; expressions don't come with deep, essential, eternal meanings.  The different meanings are simply relevant in different contexts.

We're drawn up short when we confront someone saying something we don't understand, or something we can interpret but is not anything we would say, or even anything we recall having heard before.  Social life is full of little surprises and differences in the way people act.  Mostly, we accommodate, doing our best to divine the intentions of the people we're dealing with.

Wertheim's use of circadian rhythm was new to me (please don't write me with citations of earlier instances; I'm not writing about the history of English usage in this case, but about my own experience), but I figured it out, as I assume his readers generally did.  I'd guess that the usage is not yet standard, though on the rise.  I wouldn't use it, but that's just me.

[And now from Darrin Edwards, the entertaining suggestion that Wertheim might have had cicadas -- with their long and regular periods of emergence -- in mind (maybe way in the back of his mind) when he wrote "circadian rhythm".  Edwards searched on {"cicadian rhythm"} and got some hits referring to cicadas; maybe this is an emerging, so to speak, eggcorn.  (None of my dictionaries gives an adjective derived from cicada -- not cicadan, not cicadian, not anything else -- by the way.)]

[Further from Simon Overall, who says he thought for years that circadian rhythms totally had to do with cicadas, and notes that his non-rhotic variety of English probably encouraged this misperception.]

[Still further, 11/29/07: Mark Liberman points out that some people think the insects are circadias; you can google up a few dozen examples.  So the reshaping goes in both directions.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 27, 2007 10:21 AM