X hole

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Yesterday, a reader sent a link to Kevin Krause, "Dallas County officials spar over 'black hole' comment", Dallas Morning News (Dallas City Hall blog), 7/7/2008:

A special meeting about Dallas County traffic tickets turned tense and bizarre this afternoon.

County commissioners were discussing problems with the central collections office that is used to process traffic ticket payments and handle other paperwork normally done by the JP Courts.

Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, who is white, said it seemed that central collections "has become a black hole" because paperwork reportedly has become lost in the office.

Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is black, interrupted him with a loud "Excuse me!" He then corrected his colleague, saying the office has become a "white hole."

That prompted Judge Thomas Jones, who is black, to demand an apology from Mayfield for his racially insensitive analogy.

This post has accumulated 785 comments, suggesting a significant level of public interest. There are some follow-up quotations from various participants in Steve Blow's column "The hue and cry for holes", 7/11/2008, and of course a chorus of outside comments.

By coincidence, yesterday's (recycled) Boondocks from the Washington Post also featured a contemplation of black/white associations:

Boondocks on Snow

The term "black hole" started life as one of a set of extended uses of color terms in physics. The initial idea is that white light contains all frequencies of light in equal amounts, while a perfectly black object absorbs light at all frequencies. This much is just the physicists' interpretation of the ordinary-language terms; but at some point the phrase "black body" came to have a particular terminological role, different from (e.g.) "black object" :

1860 TYNDALL Glac. II. i. 227 White light..is made up of an infinite number of coloured rays.
J. CLARK Rohault's Physique (1729) I. 223 The Black Body..absorbs and choaks all the Rays.
GLAZEBROOK Dict. Appl. Physics IV. 568/1 Suppose that we have a substance with the property that all radiation falling on its surface is completely absorbed. This is called a black body.

Once noise came to be used to mean "random or irregular fluctuations or disturbances which are not part of a signal" , it was natural for (acoustic or other) noise with a flat spectrum was called white noise. The OED's earliest citations are:

1923 Telegraph & Telephone Jrnl. 9 119/2 The variations in noise were plotted, and their effect at times was to reduce the intelligibility to 20 or 30 per cent.
Jrnl. Aeronaut. Sci. X. 129/1 Inside the plane it is different; there all frequencies added together at once are heard, producing a noise which is to sound what white light is to light…

There then ensued a list of other shades and colors of noise: brown or red noise (1/f2 spectral density), pink noise (1/f spectral density); etc. Black noise is the most recent coinage, and has a range of interpretations, from the sounds generated by active noise suppression systems, to random fluctuations with a spectrum that falls off as 1/f3 or faster.

The phrase "black hole" has had a more complex trajectory. At some point in the history of the British army, it came to be used to refer to "[t]he punishment cell or lock-up in a barracks; the guard-room". According to the OED, this was "[t]he official designation till 1868". Most famously (although controversially)

The name has become historic, in connexion with the horrible catastrophe in 1756 at the black hole of the barracks in Fort William, Calcutta, into which 146 Europeans were thrust for a whole night, of whom only 23 survived till the morning. [OED, entry for black-hole]

The use of the term black hole to describe a type of  gravitational singularity predicted by general relativity — "[a] region within which the gravitational field is so strong that no form of matter or radiation can escape from it except by quantum-mechanical tunnelling" — is much more recent. Although it was only a few months after Einstein's publication in 1915 that Karl Schwarzschild noted that such things were implied by the theory, the OED's earliest citation for the term "black hole" is from 1968:

1968 J. A. WHEELER in Amer. Scientist LVI. 9 Light and particles incident from outside emerge and go down the black hole only to add to its mass and increase its gravitational attraction.

The natural figurative generalization of "black hole" — as a place where things (money, paperwork, messages, etc.) are absorbed with no possibility of escape — must have happened pretty soon after 1968, at least among people interested in physics. However, the online OED's earliest citation is

1980 Time 16 June 64 To the 1.7 million people added to the jobless rolls in April and May, the U.S. economy may well seem to have..been sucked into a black hole.

General use from 1980 onwards surely resulted from the movie The Black Hole, released in December of 1979. But I'm confident that the figurative use arose not long after Wheeler's coinage — for example, a quick search of online historical newspapers produces a letter to the Wall Street Journal from George D. Riley, published July 24, 1972, which reads in part:

The expansive and easily understood page-one account of the unoccupied waste black holes in the vast heavens was greatly appreciated. One reason is I had a feeling I was witnessing the whole show at close range. I could easily believe that into the dark holes I where our national wealth, resources, environment and way of life are fast disappearing and with no return.

A white hole is "the theoretical time reversal of a black hole". The OED's earliest citation is

1971 Nature Physical Sci. 3 May 20/1 Black holes..are related in a genitive manner to ‘*white holes’, defined to be singularities from which matter and energy emerge.

Presumably the figurative extension of this concept would be a public relations office, of the type whose outputs seem to be decoupled from the facts nominally described.

All of this suggests a universal Law of Collocational Analogy: if a common expression has the form αβγ , where β is an element of a semantic field with other members δ, ε, ζ, etc., there will soon arise other expressions αδγ, αεγ, αζγ, etc., with interpretations constructed by analogy with the interpretation of the original.

A simple example: the extensions of "green thumb", meaning the knack of nurturing plants. I was familiar with "black thumb" and "brown thumb", used to describe people whose house plants invariably die. But we can check and find uses for many other colors of thumbs — blue thumb ("planting for clean water"), red thumb (designing a greenhouse for Mars), orange thumb (community gardens sponsored by Fiskars — unclear why this is orange, though), white thumb (a knack for baking), etc.

I'm afraid, though, that the search for collocational analogies for X hole, beyond X=black and X=white, is hampered by interference from unrelated patterns.

[ I guess it's true, by the way, that there are not very many negatively-evaluated figurative extensions of white in common use today. There's "white bread" — are there others? The OED offers an older regional one:

1721 KELLY Sc. Prov. 158 The Scots call Flatteries Whitings, and Flatterers white People.
1825 JAMIESON, White-Wind, flattery, wheedling; a cant term.

(Presumably this is connected with the whited sepulchres of Matthew 23:27.)

But a couple of weeks ago, I was briefly puzzled by reading in the French newspapers about the tragic effect of "real balls" substituted for "balls in white" — until I realized that in this case "à blanc" translates as English "blank" rather than English "white". ]


  1. JJM said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:51 am

    We already have the word "niggardly" which can more or less no longer be used with many people for fear of offence…

  2. mae said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 8:05 am

    "community gardens sponsored by Fiskars — unclear why this is orange, though"

    — Fiskars tools have orange handles.

  3. John said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    One negative connotation of "white" that occurred to me fairly quickly is "whitewash", referring to a cover-up.

    As to the "racially insensitive" use of black hole – it seems to me (although this could be just my own environment) that the term is used these days almost exclusively in the physics sense, and analogies that refer thereto. It also seems clear that the original use was intended by analogy to the astronomical object that swallows all matter, energy and information that comes within its influence.

    pax et bonum

  4. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    White collar crime.

  5. drjon said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    I'm afraid, though, that the search for collocational analogies for X hole… is hampered by interference from unrelated patterns.

    That's got to be the funniest thing I've read all day.

  6. kip said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    It won't be long until physicists discover brown holes.

  7. Lotophagos said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 9:37 am

    JJM: Apparently a false etymology, as explained by two-dimensional talking dinosaurs.


  8. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    White feather.

  9. Theo Vosse said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:15 am

    I doubt the Law of Collocational Analogy (as stated) really holds universally. To begin with, are there no length restrictions at all (on alpha, beta and gamma)? Furthermore, the semantic field is a rather loose term. If "The president of the USA" is a common expression, is then "The king of the USA" also one, or "The senator of the USA"? I guess not. Does "block buster" lead to terms like "group buster" or "hunk buster"? Not even does "black market" lead to "white market", although there are quite a few places named "White Market".

    I think your Law needs some more work. One or two phds and a post-doc would do…

  10. John Cowan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:24 am

    Note that a black body need not be black in color: if it is hot enough, it may emit radiation of a suitable frequency to be red, orange, yellow, or even white. Perfectly black bodies are theoretical constructs, unlike black holes.

  11. chris y said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    "The enquiry resulted in a whitewash."

    "Save, oh save me, from a candid friend!"

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:30 am

    John Cowan: Note that a black body need not be black in color: if it is hot enough, it may emit radiation of a suitable frequency to be red, orange, yellow, or even white.

    Yes: thus a "black body" in physics is by no means just a passive absorber — in fact, the black-body radiation spectrum is the main context in which it appears.

    Perfectly black bodies are theoretical constructs, unlike black holes.

    Certainly several versions of the concept "black hole" have been theoretical constructs, in the sense that the theories behind them were later modified or abandoned. Whether this also holds of the current versions is less clear to me.

  13. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:31 am


  14. --bill said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    White flag,
    especially in the context of baseball trades.

  15. Andy J said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    I think this is examining and worrying about the wrong part of the problem. People of Afro-Caribbean descent rarely if ever have black skin, so they are mis-[self]described by this word. The individuals who appear to be so affronted in this case (and those of other ethnic groups who dwell on these matters) are needlessly fretting over the negative or other connotations of the word black in general language. It would be better to find a neologism which can be used to replace 'black' in the racial/ethnic sense, and allow this venerable word to continue its general adjectival senses, along with the metaphorical senses. Change has happened previously with the 'N' words, so it can happen again, although it is to be hoped, avoiding such terms as 'people of color' which will only store up problems for the future!

  16. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    White trash.

  17. Jonathan Vos Post said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    As a student of a student of John Archibald Wheeler, whose death I mournede easrlier this year, I could not help but notice this Australian novel of Science Fiction:

    Striped Holes, by Damien Broderick (1988)

  18. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    Strunk & White.

  19. Robert Coren said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    Andy J writes:

    It would be better to find a neologism which can be used to replace 'black' in the racial/ethnic sense, and allow this venerable word to continue its general adjectival senses, along with the metaphorical senses.

    Isn't this essentially what "African-American" was supposed to do?

  20. Thony C. said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Just a small note for all those who don't speak German, the man who first hypothesised the existence of black holes as a consequence of one interpretation of the field equations of general relativity was as you say Schwarzschild which translates into English as Black Shield!

  21. John said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    @Andy J:

    Yes, but part of the problem is the use of certain terms in order to be offensive. Thus words like "black" that are arguably inappropriate nonetheless become emotionally charged. This leads to those terms being proscribed from use in certain circles – and hence to collateral damage like "black hole" being apparently disallowed.

    People should ideally come up with neutral descriptions (my children, 4 and 6, self-describe as "pink" because of the evident falsehood of the proposition that we're white) but, in the real world, this is never going to happen.

    @Robert Coren:

    Except that it's only useful in the USA…

  22. Randy said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:42 am

    "Whitewashed" is also used to refer to a person from a nonwhite culture who acts "white". My Chinese roommate used it this way, and judging by the tone of her voice when she used it, it's not a compliment.

    Theo said: 'Not even does "black market" lead to "white market", although there are quite a few places named "White Market".'

    Wikipedia has an entry on Grey Markets, a phrase I first heard of a number of years ago when American satellite TV services were being bought by Canadians. Has no one ever used "white market" in reference to the ordinary market? This would surprise me.

  23. Sili said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    The iconic Fiskars scissors.

    The Bad Astronomer's view of the brou-hah-hah.

  24. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    White-outs occur when masses of snow blow across a road, obscuring vision. They can be very dangerous, and often lead to big rigs in snowy ditches.

    Certainly more dangerous, but not as far-reaching, as blackouts and brownouts.

  25. mgh said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    I'd mention blackmail/whitemail/greymail, the latter in the news (for the first time?) about a year ago, in the Libby trial.

    Also black hat/white hat, familiar to me from 1980s computer "hacker" culture, collocations which took some time to break out of monochrome (redhat)

  26. Randy said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:12 pm

    Oh, and speaking of wikipedia, a word I came across recently is "wiki-hole", defined as "going to Wikipedia to look up a simple piece of information, and ending up spending several hours reading about things you didn't know existed" [Urban Dictionary] (Oddly, it is not defined in wikipedia, or even it's dictionary offspring, wiktionary.) Obviously "wiki" is not a colour, but I would guess, quite confidently, that the word was constructed from "wikipedia" and "black hole".

  27. Tim Silverman said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    I think the negative connotations of "white-collar crime" and "white trash" are more likely to be attached to the words "crime" and "trash" than to the word "white".

  28. thiotimoline said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    "A blue hole is a submarine cave or sinkhole. They are also called vertical caves." — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_hole

  29. Tim Silverman said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    Off on a bit of a tangent—the gap between the discovery of the Schwartzschild solution and the coining of the term "black hole" may not be entirely a matter of linguistics. For a long time, people were quite confused about the meaning of the solutions to Einstein's Equation, and weren't sure if black holes could exist, or what they would be like if they could. 1968 would correspond to the great revival of general relativity of the late 60s, pioneered particularly by Hawking and Penrose. It would perhaps be at that time that the concept (and hence the name) of black hole got more widely disseminated.

    I think at one point (in the forties?) Wheeler preferred the term 'frozen star'.

  30. El Christador said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    Robert Coren writes:

    Isn't this essentially what "African-American" was supposed to do?

    African-American holes?

  31. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

    I was all set to post about Fred Hoyle's 1957 novel "The Black Hole," but a spot of googling revealed that it was actually named "The Black Cloud" and did not feature a true black hole. Hoyle credited Wheeler with coining the term "black hole," and Wheeler credited Hoyle with some pioneering work on the concept antedating Wheeler's. Hoyle moved on to other topics before doing much on black holes.

    Connoisseurs of Freudian fingerslips should know that once, when typing "Hoyle" in the preceding paragraph, I initially slipped and omitted the "y". Caught in proofreading, it was.

  32. dr pepper said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    "lily liver"
    "pasty faced"
    "whey faced"
    "white feather"

    Personal i dislike the use of "black" and "white" as ethnic designators, and i don't use them.

  33. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    Related to "balle à blanc", you have the French expression "syndrome de la page blanche" ("white/blank page syndrome") AKA "writer's block".

  34. Dr. Thunder said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    @doc pepper: What do you use then?

  35. Andrew said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    There's also the undesirable "white elephant."

  36. JBL said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    To what extent do you consider the controversy to be linguistic?

    There are certainly linguistic elements, but there are also sociological and other elements, and although they may not be completely severable it seems to me an important distinction.

  37. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    When I saw the title of this post was "X hole", I was prepared for a new snowclone based on "asshole" Turned out to be about something of a snowclone anyway!

  38. dr pepper said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    @ Dr. Thunder

    > @doc pepper: What do you use then?

    `negro" and "european". Yeah, i know `negro' means `black' but it's one language removed, and `african' isn't accurate since caucasians make a large chunk of the native population of that continent. For the same reason is don't say `asian' when i mean `oriental'.

  39. dr pepper said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    oops, last 'is' should be `i'.

  40. Joe said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:37 am

    Dr. Pepper: Something about "negro holes" and "European holes" doesn't sound right to me.

    Personally, I think that the only way to deal with this is to sort out the root cause (if possible). After all, so long as people think badly of, for example, mentally challenged folks, any words used to describe them will take on a pejorative meaning when they are eventually used in insults…

  41. Nick Lamb said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:51 am

    I've never tried it, but I intuitively don't think "negro" would go down very well here. The choice of "black" is no worse than "white", nobody is white and with the popularity of beach holidays and artificial tanning lotions, hardly anyone is even a pale pink colour. In my circle you would definitely use "black" to refer to someone with very dark skin, e.g. "Who was that guy you were with?" "Which one?" "The black guy with the silly hat" "Oh, that's Tom, he does Politics".

    Government census and other statistical surveys (e.g. for diversity measurement after accepting employment) agree, offering basic choices like "White" or "Black" if you don't think of yourself as "from" somewhere, together with detailed options like "White- Irish" and "Black- Carribean" if you have some specific ethnic association.

    Like sexuality, these are just labels for some of a spectrum of possibilities. We don't need some scientifically approved "non-offensive" term for someone whose grandparents were a Cherokee, a Zulu, a Jew and a Catalan, and nothing would stop the person from deciding to be offended anyway if we invented one. Some people go out of their way to be offended, and sadly in my experience you're most likely to find those people in a minor elected office, causing havoc by refusing to be reasonable about almost anything.

  42. Ian Preston said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 4:56 am

    Theo Vosse said: Not even does "black market" lead to "white market", although there are quite a few places named "White Market".

    Randy said: Has no one ever used "white market" in reference to the ordinary market? This would surprise me.

    I have often heard and read the phrase used in discussion between academic economists. The coinage is so obvious you'd think it must have been used by others and googling "white market" with "black market" turns up several uses with the appropriate meaning.

  43. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:47 am

    Tim Silverman said, 'I think the negative connotations of "white-collar crime" and "white trash" are more likely to be attached to the words "crime" and "trash" than to the word "white".'

    Good point.

  44. Peter Erwin said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 7:25 am

    Tim Silverman wrote:
    I think at one point (in the forties?) Wheeler preferred the term 'frozen star'.

    "Frozen star" is a translation of an early Russian term for black holes, based on one interpretation of how a massive star might collapse and form a black hole. The term fell out of favor partly because it only described the system from one reference frame, and was thus potentially misleading, and partly because it focused too much on (one particular) formation mechanism, not on the resulting object.

  45. outeast said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 8:44 am

    I guess it's true, by the way, that there are not very many negatively-evaluated figurative extensions of white in common use today.

    That's hardly surprising, but to imagine this as being racially derived would be absurd – the sOED claims that 'white' meaning 'morally or spiritually pure; innocent' goes back to OE, while as a racial referent it only goes back to E17. Not that I'm suggesting anyone here is assuming that!

    There are the odd negative 'white' expressions (like whitewash, white elephant, white liver, and others mentioned already) but these seem to have specific historical referents rather than being based on general cultural norms.

  46. ajay said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    "White", or "white and expert" was a common condemnation in China during the Cultural Revolution – someone who was "white and expert" was good at their job but of dubious loyalty. (Too often, being expert was enough to be condemned as "white and expert".) The contrast is, of course, with being "red".
    Pale skin is often used as an insult implying lack of physical robustness, but it's generally "pale", "pasty" etc, rather than specifically "white".

  47. Stephen Jones said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

    'White expert' is now a job description in China to all intents and purposes.

  48. Stephen Jones said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    And 'suda' is a pretty nasty insult in Sri Lanka, even though fawning over Europeans is still, unfortunately, a meme based on reality.

  49. Sili said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

    ajay reminds me of the White Army vs. the Red Army in revolutionary Russia.

    Did "white" take on bad connotations because of this in Soviet Russia?

  50. Alexandra said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

    @ Randy: I would guess that "wiki-hole" is constructed from "wikipedia" and "rabbit-hole" rather than "wikipedia" and "black hole." The black hole metaphor does seem more apt, but I've heard people talk about "going down the wikipedia rabbit-hole and getting sucked in" for some time now.

  51. Diarmuid Ó Séaghdha said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

    Though not colour-related, one of my favourite instances of "collocational analogies" has the form X Western, where X is a kind of food associated with a particular country. The origin is of course "spaghetti Western", but there are also Curry Westerns, Pad Thai Westerns and Potato Westerns (not Irish, but Danish). Wikipedia has even more…

  52. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

    white as a ghost,

    deathly white.


  53. Aaron Davies said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:43 am

    I heard somewhere that the term was coined (possibly by Wheeler) specifically to annoy the French, since it takes on the (rather obvious) obscene meaning when translated directly. Anyone know if there's any truth to that?

  54. Peter Erwin said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 5:38 am

    I heard somewhere that the term was coined (possibly by Wheeler) specifically to annoy the French …

    This page:

    cites a number of obituaries and other sources to argue fairly convincingly that Wheeler did not actually coin the term himself — and never claimed to have done so — but instead popularized it; the earliest citation in an astronomical context is apparently 1964.

    A follow-up on the same site:
    quotes a former graduate student of Wheeler's — Emery Fletcher — as saying, "Wheeler was indeed its popularizer. Furthermore, he learned that the literal French translation was obscene, and as one who strongly objected to what he regarded as French arrogance in expunging any hint of Anglicizing, he used 'black hole' at every opportunity."

  55. 400guy said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

    Alexandra said 'I've heard people talk about "going down the wikipedia rabbit-hole and getting sucked in" for some time now.'

    I once had a project manager who would talk about how far it was wise to let a programmer go down a particular rabbit hole. And as costs grew beyond any possible benefit, "I think it's time to pull him out of that rabbit hole".

  56. Randy said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 1:35 am

    Thanks for the clarification Alexandra. I only recently heard about wiki-holes, and don't hear about many figurative rabbit holes.

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