Word Of The Month: DNA

From the decoding of the human genome to the fiftieth anniversary of Watson and Crick’s discovery of its structure to the recent claim by Chinese scientists that they have created rabbit-human hybrid cells using cloning technology, DNA has been much in the news lately. Given that Watson and Crick’s discovery is ushering in a brave new world of biological revolution, it is only fitting that our word of the month should be:

Deoxyribonucleic acid, n., also DNA, a self-replicating chemical that carries the genetic information in the cell. DNA consists of two long chains of nucleotides twisted into a double helix and linked by hydrogen bonds between the complementary base pairs, adenine and thymine or cytosine and guanine. Thus the sequence of one strand can be replicated from its partner. The sequence of base pairs determines individual hereditary characteristics. The existence of nucleic acids has been known since the 19th century and DNA was differentiated from RNA in 1931. But DNA’s function in genetics was not fully understood until Watson, Crick, and Wilkins deciphered its structure and its process of self-replication in 1953.

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Humor: Military Linguistics

In the US military, confusion sometimes reigns because members of the four armed services do not always understand one another. Not only do the four services have their own uniforms, equipment, and traditions, they also have their own jargon. This is illustrated by fairly old joke about military jargon.

Take a simple command such as secure the building. One would think that this command would be rather unambiguous, but this is not necessarily so. Each of the four services interprets this command in its own, unique way.

If one tells an Army soldier to secure a building, he will occupy and prepare to defend it.

A Marine, on the other hand, when told to secure a building will attack and destroy it.

Tell a Navy man to secure the building and the sailor will turn out the lights and lock the door.

Finally, if you tell an Air Force airman to secure the building, he will take out a five-year lease with an option to buy.

Book Review: Dubious Doublets

Dubious Doublets, by Stewart Edelstein, is another in the long line of popular press etymology books. Two things, however, make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the quality of the research and the second is Edelstein’s approach to the subject, examining pairs of seemingly unrelated words that share a common origin.

Edelstein is an amateur etymologist. A lawyer by trade, he brings over thirty years of private study to the subject and it shows. Although the book lacks source notes or a bibliography (Edelstein does provide a rather long list of books that are “recommended reading"), the etymologies he gives stand up to detailed scrutiny. Edelstein does not plump for questionable etymologies, nor does he attempt to pass off false etymologies with words like “some people believe.”

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Myths of Language Change, Part 3: It’s Never Been That Way Before & But It Makes Sense

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

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American Dialect: The West

The American West, as a rule, does not have distinctive pronunciation or grammatical forms. Large numbers of those living in the West came from somewhere else and arrived relatively recently. As a result of this late immigration and mixing of dialects, those in the West speak a very standard brand of American English. The English of the West is very much like that of the Midwest and Northeast.

English-speakers did not settle the West until quite late. Large scale settlement of California did not begin until 1849, following the discovery of gold there the previous year, only about 150 years ago. Similarly, the Mormons did not settle in Utah until 1848. The other Western states were settled even later. Arizona did not attain statehood until 1912. The population of the West boomed after World War II, when the combination of massive water projects and air-conditioning made the Southwest and Southern California habitable for large populations.

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Word Of The Month: Triple Crown

In June, Funny Cide, a three-year-old gelding, almost won the Belmont Stakes and the American Triple Crown. Instead he placed, or finished third. Had Funny Cide won the Belmont, he would have been the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. Like Funny Cide, twelve other horses have won the first two jewels in the Triple Crown only to falter at Belmont. Only eleven horses in history have won all three races.

In honor of Funny Cide our word of the month is Triple Crown. The original Triple Crown is the English one, the winning of the three races known as the Two Thousand Guineas, the Derby, and the St. Leger. Only fifteen horses have captured the English Triple Crown.

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Book Review: A History of Reading

Few people think to distinguish reading from writing. Most generally assume that these two skills are one and the same. Stephen Roger Fischer’s A History of Reading disabuses us of that notion. Fischer’s book is the third in a trilogy, the first two volumes addressing language and writing. This third volume focuses on reading, the various types of reading, how we do it, and the social significance of it.

First, the mental process of reading is quite different from speech or writing. We do not normally read individual phonemes or letters and accomplished readers may not even read individual words. Instead we take in entire phrases with a glance and use pattern recognition to render it comprehensible. Children learning to read do sound out individual phonemes, as do adults when they encounter unfamiliar and complex words, but once reading has been ingrained as a skill, most of us do not.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Genitive Pronominal Antecedents

After three months of repeated letter writing by Kevin Keegan, a Montgomery County, Maryland school teacher, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has thrown out a question on the 2002 PSAT exam, raising the scores of some 500,000 students. The issue at hand is whether or not the question as originally written was actually wrong.

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Myths of Language Change, Part 2: That’s Not What It Really Means

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

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Word of the Month: Usenet

Usenet, n., is a distributed bulletin board system. The term is an abbreviation for users’ network. Usenet was originally implemented in 1979-1980 to link computers at Duke University with those of the University of North Carolina. The system consisted of numerous discussion forums called newsgroups. Computers that functioned as newsservers would pass messages to one another. Usenet was originally conceived to carry local news and information, hence the names. By 1996, Usenet had over 10,000 newsgroups and an average of over 500 megabytes of information posted to it daily.

Usenet was not originally part of the Internet. Instead it was originally carried by the UUCPNET network of Unix computers. By the early 1990s, however, most of Usenet was being transferred over the Internet.

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