God speed the plow

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A recent xkcd:


In the case of power, the original ordinary-language meaning is still dominant for most people, especially in a frame like "With great __ comes great __". But it's easy to forget how recently words (and concepts) like speed, distance, and duration took on their current "literal" meanings as aspects of ordinary-language physics rather than as terms referring to prosperity, dissension, endurance, and so on.

The physicists' sense of power as "work per unit time" seems to date from the early 19th century, and the specifically electrical sense, featured in this strip's caption, is somewhat later. But it was only a century or two earlier that today's meanings for words like distance came into general use, replacing earlier meanings that (like power) had more to do with personal struggle than with physical interaction.



26 Comments

  1. empty said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    What about force? I seem to remember that a few years some physicists tried to gauge the public's understanding of force by means of a survey. They may have missed the point that when science assigns a precise technical meaning to a pre-existing word it doesn't get to say "now that we have clarified the concept, some older uses of the word are demonstrably wrong".

    [(myl) The original meaning of force in English, glossed by the OED as "Physical strength, might, or vigour, as an attribute of living beings (occas. of liquor)", is obsolete; but several other non-technical meanings (e.g. "As an attribute of physical action or movement: Strength, impetus, violence, or intensity of effect"; "Power or might (of a ruler, realm, or the like); esp. military strength or power"; etc.) remain in use.

    The physicist's sense — "An influence (measurable with regard to its intensity and determinable with regard to its direction) operating on a body so as to produce an alteration or tendency to alteration of its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line; the intensity of such an influence as a measurable quantity" — dates from the late 17th century, along with many other basic terms of classical physics. The subsequent history is different than it was for e.g. speed, where the earlier uses have died out, and what remains is apparently a sort of ordinary-language echo of the physical concept.]

  2. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    Based on the etymologies given in the post Mark links to, some of these words (especially speed and distance) seem to be counterexamples to Lakoff's theory that abstract concepts are understood (or should that be constructed?) by means of metaphors grounded in physical experience.

    [(myl) Indeed: it's not clear that emotional and interpersonal abstractions (like "discord, disagreement, dissension", which was apparently the original meaning of distance in English) are any less abstract than purely physical ones (in this case, "The extent of space lying between any two objects"). In fact, I guess, you might argue that "disagreement" is more abstract than "spatial extent", at least in the sense that you can't measure it, trace it with your finger, etc.]

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    The 'fuzziness' between everyday and scientific usages is very exploitable, as on the pseudoscience circuit, where we're constantly seeing various forms of 'energy'. The syndrome is well expressed in Peter Medewar's classic review of Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, where Medewar comments

    … he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force, impetus and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their special scientific usages.

  4. marie-lucie said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    some of these words (especially speed and distance) seem to be counterexamples to Lakoff's theory that abstract concepts are understood (or should that be constructed?) by means of metaphors grounded in physical experience.

    If you go back far enough in the etymology, they go back to physical concepts too.

  5. peter said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Medawar and his ilk can hardly complain about non-scientists using scientific terms in a metaphorical fashion, when the activity of science itself, from gravitational fields to memes, is one great communal making of metaphors.

  6. Faldone said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    Time is money? No. Time is the product of resistance and capacitance. One second equals one ohm-farad.

    [(myl) Heh.

    For those of you who are following along at home, that's because a coulomb is the electric charge transported in one second by one ampere of current:

    Coulombs = Amperes * Seconds

    Capacitance, the ability to hold a charge, is denominated in farads, and measured in coulombs per volt, i.e. ampere-seconds per volt:

    Farads = Amperes * Seconds / Volts

    Resistance, given Ohm's law (Current = Voltage / Resistance) turns out to be

    Ohms = Volts / Amperes

    So

    Ohms * Farads = (Volts / Amperes) * Amperes * Seconds / Volts = Seconds

    ]

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    I wrote an email to Arnold Zwicky about this sort of issue a year or more ago (I forget what he had said that triggered it). It comes up all too frequently in taxonomy, where one wishes that the practitioners had stuck to Latin (where nobody today cares if they want to humpty-dumpty pre-existing names for things); the "it's not a cantaloupe it's a muskmelon damnit!" crowd can be particularly annoying. My prime example is a book entitled This Is Not a Weasel published a few years back by someone I can't be bothered to look up right now, which irritated me enough to sit down and write an essay (unpublished) on the subject. Yes, I know that peanuts are legumes and walnuts are drupes and hazelnuts are "true" nuts — but culinarily speaking, they're all "true" nuts (as opposed to "soy nuts", "corn nuts", and other man-made nut-like devices). It does seem to be a particular fault among scientists and engineers (and I can probably include myself in that category) to assume that a taxonomy implicit in their specialty's jargon is the One True Taxonomy and uses from other specialties and from everyday life are "simply wrong".

  8. Adrian Mander said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    It's not clear to me that the pre-linguistic cognitive structures that have been pressed into linguistic service could only have been pre-adapted to the cognition of physical spaces and physical objects. Surely the mental life of our pre-linguistic ancestors was a bit richer than that. For a social animal, concepts like disagreement are at least as plausible as "semantic primitives" as the stuff normally brought up by Lakovians and their ilk.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    peter: Medawar and his ilk can hardly complain about non-scientists using scientific terms in a metaphorical fashion

    He's not complaining about the use of metaphors, but about the use of terms in a way that puts a science-y gloss on woo.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    Since the topic of the post seems to be the various English meanings of power, the relevance of a cartoon about Georg Simon Ohm would seem dubious.

    The immediate etymon of power is the Old French ancestor of the French pouvoir, but this word (as well as the Italian potere and the Spanish poder) means 'power' as a personal attribute, as in 'having magical powers' or 'being in/under someone's power'; 'power' in a more abstract sense (as in 'the Allied Powers') as well as in the scientific sense is given by puissance (potenza, potencia).
    In Ohm's language, though, personal 'power' can be Kraft (which also means 'force' in physics!) or Macht, which is also used for abstract 'power'; but physical 'power' is rendered by Leistung, whose nontechnical meaning is something like 'achievement.' Go figure!

    The non-equivalence of technical and nontechnical meanings of words across languages is quite widespread, and its ignorance can lead to sloppy translations.

    An interesting case in point relevant to linguistics: the English proper adjective Romance was invented to translate the French roman, probably on the basis of the centuries-old equivalence of the corresponding nouns. But when the same French adjective was applied (deliberately!) in art history, it was translated into English, evidently by someone ignorant of linguistics, as Romanesque. European tour guides still struggle with this terminological accident.

  11. Aviatrix said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    I was once assigned an English essay topic of Inertia: the modern disease. I wrote about societal processes and practices that are deleterious, but hard to stop, by virtue of their mass popularity and use. The essay was returned with a barely passing grade, the instructor explaining that it was well-written but that I had not followed the assigned topic, as inertia means sitting around and not doing anything. I protested that inertia is the property of a body, proportional to its mass, that makes it difficult to change its speed or direction. She said that that might be the science meaning of the word, but that this was English class. I showed her the definition in an Oxford English Dictionary, but the grade stood.

    So while some people are comfortable with a continuum between science and metaphor, and others insist that once adopted by science a word must abandon its abstract meanings, others deny that the word has any right to move on and encompass new meanings.

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    "Physical strength, might, or vigour, as an attribute of living beings (occas. of liquor)", is obsolete

    May the force be with you.
    You're not telling me Star Trek is obsolete, are you?

  13. Carl said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    The sense of power as mass * velocity squared might be from the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century, Hume refers to the goal of natural philosophers being searching out the "secret powers" that let things move and interact, so the term was already trending scientific.

    I would need to check, but I'm pretty sure in Locke's discussion of abstract ideas he mentions that the scientists of his day were busy reappropriating words with existing meanings like inertia.

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

    @ Stephen Jones
    "May the force be with you.
    You're not telling me Star Trek is obsolete, are you?"
    [geekmode] Whether it is or not, the expression comes from Star Wars, which is a similar but different franchise. [/geekmode]

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    Aviatrix: but the grade stood

    You wuz robbed. A look at the OED citations shows that "inertia" in the physics sense (resistance to change, whether stopping-once-started or starting-once-stopped) actually pre-dates the "Inactivity; disinclination to act or exert oneself; inertness, sloth, apathy" meaning by over a century.

  16. D.O. said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Time is the product of resistance and capacitance

    is a real treat. Thank you, Faldone. It is little sad that most probably it is time of the decay of charge. What would be the scientific term, whose linguistic niche is the smallest compared to "ordinary" meaning. I propose action.

  17. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 4, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    Adrian Mander:

    It's not clear to me that the pre-linguistic cognitive structures that have been pressed into linguistic service could only have been pre-adapted to the cognition of physical spaces and physical objects. Surely the mental life of our pre-linguistic ancestors was a bit richer than that. For a social animal, concepts like disagreement are at least as plausible as "semantic primitives" as the stuff normally brought up by Lakovians and their ilk.

    My nomination for a pre-linguistic (and nonphysical) semantic primitive: the concept now expressed by use, which I hypothesize was based on the experience of exploiting environmental affordances to manipulate other aspects of the environment — i.e. using tools — which we now know is not a uniquely human ability.

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    Random notes: "gravity" and "levity", were, IIRC, originally parts of the classical element system–"gravity" was the tendency of earth and water to move downward, while "levity" was the tendency of fire and air to move upward. Newton gave "gravity" its modern physical meaning, but since "levity" turned out not to exist, its metaphorical sense is the only one extant.

    "Inertia" seems to have been coined by Kepler (from Latin "iners"), though with a more classical meaning that assumed rest was natural.

    hertz/dioptre works as a measurement of velocity.

    your wordpress installation enforces american punctuation rules–a double straight quote will not be converted to a curly close quote if it precedes a comma.

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    Faldone: May I add that the ohm-farad expresses not just time, but in fact defines the characteristic half-life of an exponential decay, predating the use of the concept in describing radioactivity?

  20. greg said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    My favorite unit of measurement in physics is the barn

    and playing on the term resistance, i made this into a shirt.

    The single most difficult physics term to explain outside of ordinary language is "mass", especially when dealing with quantum mechanics and relativity. I've been in forum discussions with people with no physics background where I'm trying to explain why photons have no mass, and maybe it's a problem with how I explained it, but trying to get them to distinguish between rest-mass (ie. mass as physicists mean it when being technical) and other types of mass is rather difficult. And it doesn't help that in casual conversation even physicists are wont to use mass to mean non-rest-mass. The distinction isn't necessary for other than relativistic and quantum situation, so people get used to mass being a pretty clearcut term.

  21. David Harmon said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    Well, scientific terms also feed meanings (not always exact) back into colloquial speech. ("Quantum jump", ahem) Aviatrix seems to have one example, where Newton introduced a word whose physical meaning included an object's "tendency to remain at rest" — perhaps that happened to be a word that was "needed" at the time, whereas the converse "… or to continue in motion" was adequately covered by (then-)current words?

    Also, some "official" physical concepts are more intuitive than others — "force" is apparent through the senses, "power" isn't so much, and the many transformations of "energy" can get downright confusing. And the reason Newton had to "invent" inertia (and coin his laws) was because it's not intuitive that its two aspects are in fact identical. (What with ever-present friction, local gravity, and so forth.)

    Similarly, "distance" to a scientist is a straightforward extension of "length" — but sense-wise, there's a big difference between the (perceived) length of a "small" object, and the (inferred) distance between two travel points (out of sight from each other).

  22. Bill Walderman said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    I wonder whether the English word "distance" has a longer history of meaning "spatial separation" than is apparent from the OED, as reported in your previous post. And even before the dawn of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, wouldn't the concept of distance (unlike other scientific concepts such as speed and force that appropriated existing words with less precise meanings) have been useful and in fact necessary as long as villages and cities existed and people traveled between them and measured their separation in miles, i.e., continuously at least since Roman times? Speed and force couldn't be measured until the emergence of science and scientific instruments, but distance could (probably not very accurately) and evidently was. Or was some other word used to mean distance?

    The Latin word "disto" from which "distance" is derived had the meaning "to be distant from." But I guess that doesn't prove anything, because distantia meaning "distance" might have been borrowed from Latin as recently as the late Renaissance.

  23. Brett said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    I have encountered a significant number of people who think that "entropy" is a term with a long pedigree of meaning "decay" (or something like that). One person even peevishly advised me when I tried to explain specifically what entropy meant in thermodynamics, that if scientists wanted to use a term to refer to some particular mathematical quantity, they were better off coining a new word to describe it, rather than picking an existing one. After a slight guffaw, I explained that that was exactly how the word "entropy" came into existence.

  24. Dhananjay said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    @Greg: Clever, but shouldn't that be either 'vive la résistance' or 'viva la resistencia'? Or am I ignorant of either Romance imperatives or some memetic reference? Granting @Coby Lubliner's spot-on comment, there's no difficulty here, since the ambiguity is present in all three languages.

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    I've long thought that strictly technical language (such as used in modern science, or within narrowly defined religious contexts, or law, et cetera) should be properly understood to be truly prescriptive because within that strictly technical context, there are authorities who actually do determine usage. Or, put another way, technical language is truly qualitatively distinct from ordinary language. A bit of Googling one day revealed that there is some linguistic literature that seems to validate this idea; but, as a non-linguist, I'm in no position to evaluate how mainstream this is.

    More specifically, I think it's possibly unfortunate that technical language borrows from general language for technical neologisms because it encourages everyone to make contextual mistakes like those described above. In ordinary language, force means whatever native speakers think it means. But in physics, force is just a symbolic marker indicating a precisely defined mathematical/physical concept. People confuse themselves when they attempt to use a technical term outside a technical context (e.g. chaos); and, conversely, technical neologisms based upon ordinary language usually bring into the technical context a host of ill-understood and often inappropriate connotations (e.g. natural selection).

    And obviously there's the problem with how it's often the case that practitioners who have appropriated an ordinary word as a technical term then assert some kind of ownership over that term in ordinary language.

    By the way, it also occurs to me that proper nouns are similar to technical language in some ways. I get to decide how my name is pronounced, don't I?

  26. Megan said,

    October 16, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    The derivation for Ohm * Farad == Second assumes that Ohm's Law is a hard and fast law, but it is not, it's merely a property that many materials follow closely to, but don't necessarily obey 100% in all instances.

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