Sunday, April 23, 2006

Word Play

Awhile back Monica, aka Grizzly Mama, said on her blog that she was "incorrigible." I replied in a comment that actually she's quite corrigible. Corrigible is a real word, although much less commonly used than the negated form.

I thought that was amusing, so I began looking for other word pairs like that. You may hear someone described as disgruntled, but was he ever gruntled in the first place? Could be, because gruntled is a word, although it was derived from disgruntled fairly recently.

If your friend is disconsolate and gets better, is she consolate? Nope. No such word. For awhile I was unnerved by this kind of thing, but now I'm nerved again.

Some might say Jimmy Carter is a person of ineffable stupidity. Others would argue that his stupidity is, in fact, effable.

Then there are the words where the negative prefix appears to have no effect whatsoever. Flammable and inflammable are the best known example of this, although etymologically they have different roots. Ravel and unravel are another.
On a largely unrelated note, a personal pet peeve of mine is the term "quantum jump" or "quantum leap," used to indicate a major advance or change, especially in technology. Nothing could be further from the truth, since a "quantum" change is the smallest possible change between two states.

Quantum theory holds that even things we perceive to be "continuous" functions, like the speed your car is traveling, are actually not "continuous." That is, not all values are possible for the car's speed. As a made up example, your car may be able to go at 60.5982345690442805953422 mph, but the next fastest allowed speed might be 60.5982345690442805953424 mph. As you accelerate, the car jumps right from the first speed to the second without ever passing through the speeds in between, because there are no speeds in between.

Here in the macroscopic world the number of allowed speeds is great, and the spacings between the allowed speeds, those "quantum leaps," are infinitesimally small. So it appears that all speeds are allowed. At the level of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles the consequences of quantization are important (and easy to discern).

The next time someone tells you he is going to take a quantum leap forward, just yawn and ask him to make a significant change instead.

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