Weekly Word Watch: double negative, Typhon, and the Meghalayan Age
It’s of gods and men, science and politics, on this week’s Word Watch, and the terms take us from Helsinki and Delhi to deep caves and deep space. We better get started, then.
In a press conference in Helsinki this Tuesday, Donald Trump caused shock and outrage after he sided with the word of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies concerning Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. ‘I don’t see any reason why it would be’ Russia, Trump remarked of the meddling.
After a day of denunciations, Trump walked back his remarks, pinning a statement some former US officials called ‘treasonous’ on a little something known as the double negative. ‘I said the word would instead of wouldn’t. The sentence should have been: I don’t see why I wouldn’t — or why it wouldn’t be Russia… Sort of a double negative’.
The double negative, for those who’ve repressed memories of school-age reprimands for use of it, is a grammatical construction where two negative elements are used to produce a positive statement. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia has the force of I understand that it was Russia, as Trump claims he intended.
Standard English generally tsk-tsks the double negative, a phrase evidenced in the 17th century, on the logical grounds that it is supposed two negatives cancel each other out, i.e., I don’t want none technically can be interpreted to mean I want some.
Language isn’t formal logic, though, and plenty of English dialects use double negatives to clear and easy comprehension. It was perfectly grammatical in Old English and Middle English, with double negatives gracing literary cornerstones like Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. Why, even the Bard himself, Shakespeare, used double negatives, and it was around his day when logic-bent grammarians began formulating the double negative as a no-no.
Plus, double negatives see a fair amount of use for rhetorical effect, e.g., It’s not that I’m unconcerned, which is what Trump was apparently going for. But neither tweeters nor linguists weren’t… not dissuaded… by his double negative defence, though.
Socrates: "I misspoke. I meant to say I WOULDN'T want hemlock! And the unexamined life IS worth living."
— Nolen Gertz (@ethicistforhire) July 17, 2018
Elsewhere in politics, the Supreme Court of India condemned the ‘horrendous acts of mobocracy’ in the country in recent years. By mobocracy, a term for mob rule attested in the 1750s, the high judiciary was referring to the ‘orchestrated lynching and vigilantism’ spreading in India in recent years, many acts of which have been motivated by conservative Hindu intolerance.
As if the court didn’t offer a notable enough word in mobocracy, they topped it by describing the violence as ‘creeping threats that may gradually take the shape of a Typhon-like monster’ and urged Parliament to enact laws to address it.
Here the learned judges were alluding to Ancient Greek mythology, where Typhon was a monstrous giant with a head of a hundred shrieking serpents that breathed fire. Legend has it that Typhon fathered the three-headed dog, Cerberus, and the Winds, and that it took Zeus himself to cast the dreaded monster under Mount Etna, where he continued sparking fire and fury in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes. That’s a formidable reference, Your Honours.
Typhon is word already familiar to the Subcontinent, though, as many etymologists connect the name of the Greek monster to typhoon, a powerful tropical storm forming in the Indian and western Pacific oceans. In Ancient Greek, typhon literally meant ‘whirlwind’ – so personified in Typhon – and may have supplied the Arabic tufan, a more proximal source of typhoon via Portuguese in the 16th century. The word typhon itself is evidenced slightly earlier for ‘cyclone’ in English.
Whether monster or storm, the Indian Supreme Court no doubt found a powerful image to describe the surge of mob violence in their use of the word Typhon.
Typhon isn’t the only mythic being to make headlines this week. Astronomers from the Carnegie Institute for Science announced on Monday that, while searching for a Planet X, or Planet Nine, past the demoted Pluto, they discovered 12 new moons orbiting Jupiter. One they described as an oddball (a colourful term so far only attested in 1940s American English) because it spins around Jupiter in the opposite direction to the gas giant’s many satellites, likely causing the kind of collisions that may have given rise to Jovian moons in the first place.
Oddball won’t be the name for the new moon, though. The Carnegie team has proposed Valetudo, a name which would keep it all in the family, as it were, for Valetudo is considered a great-granddaughter of the Roman god Jupiter, the kingly planet’s namesake.
Mythologists identify Valetudo as the Roman form of the Greek Hygieia, goddess of health and personal cleanliness and source of the word hygiene. In Latin, Valetudo means ‘state of health’ and has contributed words of its own to English, though lost or obscure. These include valetude, ‘good health’, and valetudinarian, a ‘person in weak health’.
Perhaps the oddball Valetudo will give us occasion to revive various ‘oddball’ words, shall we say, like valetudinous and valetudinaire. And perhaps we can imagine, too, a parallel universe where the English word for hygiene is valetude.
Back down on Earth, geologists classified the past 4,200 years in the Geologic Time Scale as the Meghalayan Age, the latest division in the Holocene Epoch of the Neogene Period of the Cenozoic Era. We’ll just call it now.
The Meghalayan Age is distinguished ‘an abrupt and critical mega-drought and cooling’ that collapsed agricultural civilizations from Egypt and Greece to the Indus and Yangtze valleys, the International Commission on Stratigraphy recently explained. The stratigraphers, or strata specialists, named it Meghalayan after Meghalaya, the state in northeast India where they discovered a stalagmite in a cave that evidenced the epic climate event over 4,000 years ago. Meghalaya itself has a very un-earthy meaning, said to mean ‘abode of the clouds’ in Sanskrit due to the area’s mountainous and rainy climate.
— NDTV (@ndtv) July 18, 2018
Climate is, to be sure, a key word, as humanity’s dominant influence on Earth’s climate and environment have compelled some scientists to call the period from the Industrial Revolution onwards the Anthropocene, from the Greek word for ‘man’—and based on humans, we might say, acting like gods.