Word of the Day

Word of the day

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

asterism

[ as-tuh-riz-uhm ]

noun

a group of stars.

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What is the origin of asterism?

Asterism “a group of stars” derives from Ancient Greek asterismós “a marking with stars,” from astḗr “star.” Astḗr comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ster-, of the same meaning, which is also the source of English star and Latin stella. For the latter, compare constellation “any of various groups of stars to which definite names have been given,” which is often conflated with asterism, but the two share a slight distinction. An asterism is a group of stars, while a constellation is the named shape that multiple asterisms form. For example, the Big Dipper is an asterism comprising seven stars, but Ursa Major is the constellation that contains the Big Dipper as well as several other asterisms. Asterism was first recorded in English in the 1590s.

how is asterism used?

In a sky so full of stars it’s often difficult to figure out where constellations are, one dark spot stands out: The Coalsack Nebula. Parked near one of the five brightest stars comprising the Southern Cross—perhaps the most easily spotted asterism in the southern sky—the nebula looks like an inky black thumbprint. Where it hangs, the stars struggle to shine. It’s as if someone outlined a portion of the sky and dimmed the lights.

Nadia Drake, “A Nebula Illuminated By Its Missing Stars,” National Geographic, October 14, 2015

Examples of confusing and misleading scientific terms abound. When astronomers say “metals,” they mean any element heavier than helium, which includes oxygen and nitrogen, a usage that is massively confusing not just to laypeople but also to chemists. The Big Dipper isn’t a constellation to them; it is an “asterism.”

Naomi Oreskes, "Scientists: When Talking to the Public, Please Speak Plainly," Scientific American, October 1, 2021

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Monday, November 22, 2021

persnickety

[ per-snik-i-tee ]

adjective

overparticular; fussy.

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What is the origin of persnickety?

Persnickety “overparticular, fussy” is a variant of pernickety, a Scottish English word of uncertain origin. Per- is a common prefix in expressive words in the Scots language, such as perjink “exact, neat, trim,” perskeet “fastidious,” and perjinkity “exact detail,” all of which are similar in meaning to persnickety. One hypothesis is that persnickety and pernickety are compounds of this prefix per- and the noun nick “small notch, hollow place” or a diminutive of nick such as nickett. Alternatively, persnickety could be related to the adjective snickety, also meaning “fussy,” or to the noun snicket “passageway between walls or fences,” but the connection is unclear. The final theory is that persnickety and pernickety are heavily corrupted variants or fusions of particular “exceptionally selective” and finicky “excessively fastidious.” Persnickety was first recorded in English in the late 1880s.

how is persnickety used?

Many of the women (and a few men) were tourist attractions in their own right, with visitors flocking to the hotel as much to glimpse a quirky widow as to see the Pulitzer Fountain or to have a drink in the Oak Room. The Plaza staff grew accustomed to the widows’ peculiarities. One hotel manager began walking outside to get from one end of the building to the other, to avoid passing through the lobby, where persnickety widows would invariably be positioned on the divans, ready to greet him with a barrage of complaints.

Julie Satow, “The Widows of the Plaza Hotel,” The New York Times, June 7, 2019
[Prince] kept his cache of unreleased music locked in a vault beneath his Paisley Park complex in a suburb of Minneapolis. (The vault was a legend for years, until its existence was confirmed after Prince’s death.) In one story, the saxophonist Eric Leeds revealed that he had sequenced an entire album for Prince that was “the greatest thing in the world in Prince’s mind” for about three days. Then Prince got bored and shelved it. The vault is what remains of those myriad terminated sessions—remnants of the productive and exacting habits of a persnickety genius.

Sheldon Pearce, "Prince’s “Welcome 2 America” Seems like a Gift and a Betrayal," The New Yorker, August 3, 2021

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Word of the day

Sunday, November 21, 2021

tesseract

[ tes-uh-rakt ]

noun

the generalization of a cube to four dimensions.

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What is the origin of tesseract?

Tesseract “a four-dimensional cube” derives from Ancient Greek tésseres (also téttares) “four,” which is also the source of tessellate “to form small squares,” after the number of sides in a square, and the combining form tetra- “four,” as in tetrahedron, a figure with four faces, and tetralogy, a series of four related books or films. Tésseres comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kwetwer-, which is the source of English four, forty, fortnight, and farthing and Latin quattuor and quadri- “four” (as in quatrain, a four-line poem, and quad, a four-sided common space), quārtus “fourth” (as in quarter, which is one-fourth of a dollar), and quater “four times”  (as in quaternary “consisting of four”). Tesseract was first recorded in English in the late 1880s.

how is tesseract used?

[H]yperspace was to be apprehended by the “mental or inner eye”….The ultimate vision, at least for the trainee, came with the apprehension of the hypercube or tesseract, which could be visualized through the manipulation of … cubes. One was to build a tesseract from an intricate arrangement of those cubes and then—in order to “see” it—pass the tesseract through three-dimensional space. Just as a sphere passes through a plane in two-dimensional slices, so the tesseract would pass through three-dimensional space in three-dimensional slices.

Dan Burton and David Grandy, Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization, 2004

The robot is building a tesseract. He motions at a glowing cube floating before him, and an identical cube emerges. He drags it to the left, but the two cubes stay connected, strung together by glowing lines radiating from their corners. The robot lowers its hands, and the cubes coalesce into a single shape—with 24 square faces, 16 vertices, and eight connected cubes existing in four dimensions. A tesseract. This isn’t a video game. It’s a classroom. And the robot is Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University and bestselling author of several popular science books.

Nick Stockton, "String Theory's Weirdest Ideas Finally Make Sense—Thanks to VR," Wired, June 2, 2017

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