July 2012 Archives

Resource for English questions

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Jim recently pointed me to the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site. For those unfamiliar with Stack Exchange, it's a collection of websites on various topics that are designed for asking and answering questions.

Stack Exchange can take some getting used to. It's not a general discussion forum; the specific goal is for people to ask “practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face” and receive answers to those questions. In the case of the ELU site, though, there's a bit of a fine line between the sorts of questions that are okay to ask (about, for example, word choice, usage, grammar, etymology, and dialect differences) and the sorts that aren't (such as simple basic questions about definitions, pronunciations, and synonyms that can be easily answered by a dictionary, a thesaurus, or a web search). For more info, see the FAQ.

In practice, in my brief time on the site so far, there appear to be a great many questions by non-native English speakers of the form “Is this phrase grammatical?” My vague understanding is that such questions are fine and within the intended scope of the site, though I'm still a little unclear on what the boundaries are. Anyway, there are also a bunch of other kinds of questions.

I'm still getting used to the site, and I'm not sure whether I'll spend much time there. But so far I'm intrigued.

Recombinant metaphors: smoking duck

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A Reuters article about the Higgs boson provides a lovely mixed metaphor from Oliver Buchmueller, one of the CERN researchers:

If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can't say that definitely yet. It is very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs. But we now have to open it up and look inside before we can say that it is indeed the Higgs.


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I've known the word boson for years, but I don't think I knew until recently that it's named after Indian physicist Satyendranath Bose (also written “Satyendra Nath Bose”), as in “Bose-Einstein condensate.”


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Desenrascanço is a Portuguese word more or less meaning “disentanglement,” used to refer to improvising solutions, or, as one web page puts it, “an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations [...] resulting in a [...] good-enough solution.”

I gather that “hack” or “kludge” might be quasi-synonyms, except that I most commonly hear those used with negative connotations, whereas desenrascanço apparently has positive connotations.

A friend of mine once lived in an apartment where a lot of things didn't quite work; the people who lived there tended to put together a lot of “makeshift systems” (their phrase, iIrc) to get things working right. If I'm understanding right, that was very much in the spirit of desenrascanço.

Another web page described desenrascanço in terms of MacGyver, but the TV example that sprang more readily to my mind was Alias. Without ever making a big deal of it, one of Sydney Bristow's great strengths was making use of whatever was available to get herself out of bad situations.

Yet another web page suggests that “This is the word you use when you realized you dropped your keys down a storm drain and pull out an umbrella, a flashlight and a roll of tape and by the magic of desenrascanço, retrieve your keys.”

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