Weekly Word Watch: laser jock, Ledumahadi mafube, and exomoon
You know what seems to get all the love on the Weekly Word Watch? Politics, men, and portmanteau words. Yes, this week we were watching himpathy, or sympathy for powerful men in matters such as sexual assault, as some believe US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is enjoying amid allegations against him. We also didn’t miss the hyped hybrid of Yandhi, Kanye West’s self-sanctifying followup to Yeezus and apparently likening himself to Gandhi.
But fie! This week’s theme is science, and we’re kicking it off with a woman who describes herself as a laser jock.
This week, Canadian associate professor Donna Strickland, along with two others, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, only the third woman to receive the prize and the first in 55 years. The Nobel committee honored her work in what’s called chirped pulse amplification techniques for lasers, whose optical blasts have many real-world applications. Fellow physicist Gérard Mourou joined her in the award for this research.
Strickland is an expert in laser physics, but she likes to call herself something else: a laser jock. Her self-given title caught our attention as it made the rounds of news reports on her incredible and historic feat, but it’s not new to her. Interviewed by Ontario’s Waterloo Record in 2010, Strickland addressed the popular stereotypes of scientists: ‘Who wants to be a nerd or a geek or whatever they’re calling us now? That’s a problem’. That’s why she styles herself a laser jock instead of, say, a laser nerd.
Laser has become so familiar that we forget it originated in 1960 as an acronym, short for ‘light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation’. It’s modeled on maser, a slightly earlier device that amplified microwaves, and an acronym for ‘microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’. Laser has since supplanted the term for all such devices regardless of wavelength. Other science and technology acronyms hiding under our noses include radar (radio detection and ranging) and scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).
Jock, for ‘sportsperson’ (usually male), is apparently short for jockstrap, a strap (support) for the jock, an old slang term for ‘penis’. Strickland’s nickname alludes to the jock/nerd binary so commonly depicted in media – or lived out in so many secondary schools. The jocks, as it goes, are attractive and popular but dim while the nerds are ugly and unliked but bright.
But not so fast, lexically speaking. Starting at least by the 1960s, a jock named any enthusiast or expert. The Oxford English Dictionary cites ‘math jock’, for instance, as US university slang in 1968, just five years after the last woman, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. What’s more, nerd in the 2000s has taken on similar meaning of an unabashed enthusiast in some area. It’s almost like a delightful inversion of the jock/nerd binary: the jocks are the nerds, the nerds the jocks.
Perhaps Strickland could call herself a laser nerd after all. Whatever the connotation of jock or nerd, her accomplishment is definitely very cool.
The scientific name of an organism, as you may recall from biology class, is composed in a modern form of Latin in a system called binomial nomenclature. But that doesn’t mean the two-part name itself has to be Latin. Enter Ledumahadi mafube.
After decades of work, paleontologists officially discovered a new species of dinosaur that made South Africa tremble 200 million years ago. Paleontologist Blair McPhee headed the research along with Jennifer Botha-Brink and Emese Bordy, among others. They called it Ledumahadi mafube, which is roughly pronounced lay-doo-mah hah-dee mah-foo-bay. It’s said to mean ‘a giant thunderclap at dawn’ in Sesotho, with mafube doing the work of the ‘dawn’ portion of its name, for your lexical orientation.
As a name, Ledumahadi mafube is very resourceful. First, it’s in Sesotho, a Southern Bantu language spoken in South Africa and Lesotho, at whose borders the dinosaur’s bones were found. Second, Ledumahadi acknowledges the creature’s size (‘giant thunderclap’), twice the weight of a full-grown African elephant. Third, mafube notes that a dinosaur this size lived much earlier (‘dawn’) than expected, based on the fossil record.
Paleontologists observe that the forelimbs of Ledumahadi mafube were smaller and able to grasp, like its contemporaries, while its back limbs were more trunk-like, anticipating the giant sauropods like the brachiosaurus that have so captivated our imaginations. For our part, we’re always captivated whenever we get to learn something about other languages, especially ones like Sesotho that are far less familiar to many English speakers.
You may be familiar with the word exoplanet. This is the name for a planet that orbits a star other than our sun; it’s in its own planetary system. While the concept is old, the term is recorded in 1992 upon the first confirmed detection of one. It’s called PSR B1257+12, or Lich, apparently after a magical, undead creature in fantasy and based on an Old English word for ‘corpse’.
Since 1992, astronomers have discovered thousands of them, but this week two stargazers, David Kipping and Alex Teachey, think they may have spotted the first exomoon. As they state in their research findings: ‘Exomoons are the natural satellites of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, of which there are currently no confirmed examples’. They estimate their exolunary candidate, to try a term, to be the size of Neptune, nicknaming it Nept-moon. It’s orbiting a planet the size of Jupiter, though much more massive still.
In the past decade, Kipping and company have suspected some other exomoons, a word which is evidenced since at least 2006. Its exo– is a Greek-derived, scientific prefix meaning ‘outside’ or ‘outer’, as seen in other such words as exoskeleton or exodermis. Exoplanet is in our dictionaries to date, but if additional data confirm Kipping and Teachey’s Nept-moon hypothesis, then perhaps it will prompt an additional achievement for them: getting exomoon officially added to the dictionary. Until then, exomoon remains in our lexical orbit.