Thursday, April 07, 2011

Practical periphrasis


1. (of speech or writing) Indirect and circumlocutory.
2. (of a case or tense) Formed by a combination of words rather than by inflection (such as did go and of the people rather than went and the people's)

I'm in the midst of writing a piece for Nature Chemistry about scientific neologisms — the ways in new technical terms are coined (and why some last and some don't). The example that got me started was the coining of a linguistically economical term to replace a periphrastic one: "detor" for "Slater determinant wave function constructed from orthogonal normalized single-electron functions." The latter is most certainly a lengthy combination of words, if not truly circumlocutory.

I get periphrasticity, as the Boy is quite adept in its practice. The description he gave (at age 6) to his pediatrician of "a bouncing headache" was vivid and precise, and eminently practical, enabling the pediatrician to give him both a more economical term and a diagnosis: migraine.

There is a touch of the poetic in a pleasing periphrasis, which is perhaps what I enjoy about Chris' ability to deploy what words he has to hand to describe something for which he as yet has no concise descriptor. It is the sort of "close, naked, natural" language that the Royal Society long ago (1667) advocated for scientists.

An argument I would say, for teaching scientists to write poetry. To let them hone the ability to use close, naked language to describe something so well, we can ultimately put a word to it.


  1. I like this. It will spend some time floating about my brain.

  2. I heard a Fellow from the Max Planck Institute on NPR talking about how in Germany there is not this split between Science and Humanities; in fact there is no word in German for Humanities.

    Instead, they teach Philosophy of Science from the get-go (in grade school) and thus German scientists grow up with this love-of-knowledge base to their scientific research.

    Without trying to go into German history, or arguing against what he is saying, I simply allowed the words to enter my brain and touch my (lack of) understanding of science and scientists.

    I felt a strange shift. Like maybe we were not from different species. I was so grateful.

    For him. For words. For ears. For technology. For NPR.

    And I felt that in that brief and quotidian moment a bit of God's grace.