Clear as glass

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The comments on my posting "Commercial categories" struck me as useful, and also fascinating. They illustrated my observation that though technical, semi-technical, and everyday uses of expressions can be distinguished, these uses aren't fixed in stone, but can vary from person to person and time to time; and that both what's included in a category and also the label that's used for that category can vary in the same way.

Now comes a technical usage that was new to me, in a NYT Science Times article on Tuesday, "Anything But Clear", by Kenneth Chang, on glass. Two small points (none of them new): a technical usage that's an extension of everyday usage; and a mass-to-count conversion, taking a noun denoting a substance X to a noun denoting a type of X.

Here's the relevant bit (p. D4), with crucial expressions bold-faced:

For scientists, glass is not just the glass of windows and jars, made of silica, sodium carbonate and calcium oxide. Rather, a glass is any solid in which the molecules are jumbled randomly. Many plastics like polycarbonate are glasses, as are many ceramics.

Understanding glass would not just solve a longstanding fundamental (and arguably Nobel-worthy) problem and perhaps lead to better glasses

Start with the first and fourth bold-faced occurrences ("glass is not" and "understanding glass"). Here glass is a mass noun denoting a substance — but not just the substance that the ordinary-language word glass refers to, but a wider class of substances that are structurally similar to ordinary glass. This is an extension of everyday glass for service as a technical term. Compare the use of metal as a technical term in chemistry, where it takes in the metals of ordinary usage, plus some other substances, like potassium, calcium, and thallium.

(Sometimes ordinary-language terms are adapted for technical usage by contraction rather than expansion: the ordinary-language term bug is used in entomology for a specific family of insects, for instance. Often the relationship involves complex overlap rather than simple expansion or contraction, as with the ordinary-language and botanical uses of nut and berry.)

Then we have the mass-to-count (M-to-C) conversion to denote 'type of [substance] X' rather than X. The converted M noun is now able to occur with the indefinite article a ("a glass is", above) and the numeral one and in the plural ("are glasses" and "better glasses", above), and so on. (For more than you probably want to know about C/M and related grammatical concepts, see my posting "Plural, mass, collective" here.) For substance-denoting M nouns, this conversion is so generally available to speakers of English that dictionaries rarely list the type-denoting C uses as subentries, even for M nouns that are very frequently used this way ("We have more than fifty beers in stock and more than two hundred wines"), not to mention those that are in C use in more restricted contexts (as with C sand 'kind of sand'). In fact, the examples dictionaries give often include both M and C uses, as in NOAD2's examples for metal:

vessels made of ceramics or metal [M]

being a metal [C], aluminum readily conducts heat

(Yes, there are other M-to-C conversions, with different semantics, as in the "serving" conversion of "Bring us three beers" 'Bring us three servings of beer'.)



  1. John Cowan said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    ObUselessComment: To an astronomer, metal means any element other than hydrogen and helium.

  2. Mark P said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    The last use (glasses) is potentially confusing, since the most common use of that term is for eyeglasses, and, depending on the context of the entire article, it could well refer to eyeglasses.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    I dunno, I think I got the correct meaning from each instance of "glass". Though seeing the word that many times did fatigue my "glass" stimulus, and now the word has no meaning for me at all.

  4. parvomagnus said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

    Well, this means it's only a matter of time before brave souls interested in the preservation of the English language start complaining about how most people misuse the word "glass". I chuckled the first time I ran across the term "true bug", but some people have taken this neologistic distinction to heart, and probably assume the more technical term's the earlier usage.

  5. Sili said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

    Like Mark P, the pars pro toto is so strong with me that I immediately thought of "spectacles" – a word I'm unlikely to use unless I've recently visited the optician.

    (And I am a chemist …)

  6. Dorian Lidell said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

    Slightly unrelatedly, as per Ryan's mentioning of "fatiguing his 'glass' stimulus": is there an accepted appellation for such a phenomenon? I've never quite managed to ascertain the existence of one, nor why a word becomes "meaningless".

  7. Robert Coren said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    Just to pick a nit, as it were: I believe the bugs are an order, not a family.

  8. Rachael said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 6:24 am

    Dorian: Semantic saturation?

  9. Arnold Zwicky said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    To Robert Coren: yes, the bugs constitute the *order* Hemiptera. My memory fails once again.

  10. Ken Brown said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    Sometimes two orders – Hemiptera and Homoptera. And if someone says "true bugs" they may well be trying to distinguis the hemis from the homos – or possibly both of them together from all the other minbeasts.

    Which is why Real Biologists speak codified Latin and projects like the one to produce international standard English names for all bird species are on to a loser.

    Yes this means you International Ornithological Congress!

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

    Calling entomologists "beetlemen" is a violation similar to calling all small-enough arthropods bugs, but word is just too much fun to say to leave off.

  12. John Spevacek said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    As a professional rheologist, this discussion raises issues that I've struggled with in my writing and not been able to clearly understand why. I would use "glassy" in the third case cited above.

    Off topic: I really enjoyed the NYT article, not for the technical ideas discussed but instead because the author was able to grasp and express the violent intensity that arises in discussions of glass and the glass transistion. In my 20 year career, I seen fisticuffs nearly breakout twice and in both cases, it was over thes topics. Somehow reptation theory never leads to violence, nor does thermodynamics…

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