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Good Letters

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
—Mark Twain in a letter to George Bainton, 1888

In the 1980s, NPR’s Morning Edition regularly included a short segment, “On Words,” featuring poet and translator, John Ciardi. In his smoky Boston baritone, Ciardi unpacked the history of familiar English words and phrases, happy as a gray-haired codger in an attic full of memories. A word lover myself, I shared Ciardi’s joy. I never imagined etymology a trivial concern. Knowing a word’s history made me fonder of the word itself, eager to use it well or not at all.

For similar reasons, I like knowing where my food comes from. That’s why I tend a garden, frequent farmers’ markets, and pay for a share in community-supported agriculture. Food and words are miracles, nurturing body and spirit. Knowing how a noun, egg, or melon traveled from its source to my mouth makes me (I hope) more careful, thankful, attentive.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the political silly season rankles me: so many good words pulverized to processed junk, without affection for their natural history, cultivation, or provenance. Democratic traditions may build more quickly than topsoil, but both erode in great chunks if poorly tended.

This year’s election theme, embraced by both major presidential candidates, seems to be “change.” I have no idea whether the vast, radical changes candidates propose will come to pass, but when campaigns and commentators turn verbal caviar into Twinkies, I hear Inigo Montoya (from that most quotable of movies, The Princess Bride) turn to Vizzini and say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“Paradigm shift,” is one such victim, used excessively by some; rarely by those who know its history. While physicist and philosopher, Thomas S. Kuhn, didn’t coin the phrase, he brought “paradigm shift” into common parlance with his influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1st ed., 1962).

Like his contemporary, Michael Polanyi (whose notions of “tacit knowing” and “indwelling” have fascinating applications in theology and the arts), Kuhn harbored deep misgivings about science understood as the progressive accumulation of new human knowledge.

Instead, Kuhn argued, during periods of “normal science,” exceptions to conventional theory are largely ignored, tossed aside in favor of more promising work. These oddities pile up over time until the old theory collapses from the weight of too many qualifications, and a new model, or paradigm, is proposed.

Paradigm shifts are often associated with single figures: Copernicus (the title of whose book, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, supplies the term “scientific revolution”), whose sun-centered model of the universe replaced Ptolemy’s geocentrism; Einstein, whose Relativity theory contradicted Newtonian physics; and Lavoisier (executed in Liberty’s name during the Reign of Terror), whose discovery of oxygen transformed Chemistry.

Nonetheless, paradigm shifts are rarely instantaneous. They typically unfold slowly as the new model proves more workable and appeals to a new generation who replace, over time, those holding the older view (sociologists call this “cohort replacement”). Einstein, for example, proposed his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, but his 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for other work, Relativity still being far too controversial. Do politicians really want to tell the world, “A generation from now, everyone will think I was right?”

“Sea change” has a dramatic source—William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act I, scene 2—in which Ariel lures Ferdinand with the song:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them, Ding-dong, bell.

From context, “sea-change” plainly constitutes a radical transformation, but it’s unclear (to me at least) what reality Shakespeare gestures toward: a sudden shift in current or conditions, sailing from one body of water into another, or a change of tide, which, though dramatic, can be gradual and is inescapably cyclical.

As the play reveals, Alonso, Ferdinand’s father—thought dead—is very much alive, and will soon undergo a transformation of the heart, a personal and relational metanoia. While later English writers allude to the phrase in context (there are repeated, oblique references in Eliot’s The Waste Land), pundits, politicians, and salesmen shamelessly abuse “sea change,” having long ago dropped its hyphen (which is understandable) and obscured its origins (which is unforgivable). In the great financial reckoning now underway, what changes await Americans may well seem strange, but they’re unlikely to make many rich.

“Quantum leap,” like “paradigm shift,” comes from science—in this case the vocabulary of atomic theory—and describes the change of an electron’s energy state within an atom. Before quantum mechanics, physicists assumed all energy changes were continuous, like a motor revving from idle to full throttle. An electron’s energy change, it turns out, occurs all at once and in a tiny, measurable package, or quantum. These miniscule leaps play an important role in fluorescent lights and lasers. While the vernacular use of “quantum leap” to describe change maintains a sense of abruptness, the tiny scale of its original usage is ignored. The light from the lightning bug’s hind end and the lightning bolt both consist of quantized photons. A careful writer knows the difference and chooses the right word.

I realize I’m a fool to imagine politicos and pundits will suddenly care for—not pander—words, and I’m hardly perfect myself. I sometimes buy Chilean produce in the winter, craving a tomato that doesn’t have the texture of Styrofoam. I often use words poorly, unwisely, unknowingly. I don’t mind being told when I fall. If it doesn’t keep me honest, it may at least keep me humble.


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