A skeptic over coffee: sick of lab meetings

rhinovirus

This post brought to you by a dedicated community of human Rhinovirus ( pdb model 1AYM).

Imagine the following dialogue between researchers:

Wayne the Brain: “Third one this week ::Cough:: I am literally sick of lab meetings.”
Wankdorf: “Oh I feel ya. There are way too many lab meetings. It’s a real waste of time, but that’s the cost of pulling from so many different realms of expertise in interdisciplinary projects.”
Wayne the Brain: “No no no, I am literally sick of lab meetings. All the exposure is really taking a toll on my health. ”
Wankdorf: “Why didn’t you say so?! Stay away, you purveyor of vile pestilence! ::cough::”

I hope, dear reader, that you spotted the root cause of their misunderstanding. Wayne (the Brain) was hypothesizing a suspected transmission rate while simultaneously advertising his own condition as definitely infected and possibly contagious. Wankdorf (unsurprisingly) misinterprets the statement by applying a more colloquial definition of the term “literally.” It’s not clear whether infection of the second researcher could have been avoided and the spread of the disease slowed had they practised more effective communication, but that scenario is plausible given what we know.

Of course this is an extreme example, and the consequences may not always be so dire. The most frustrating part of the above exchange and subsequent misunderstanding is that neither participant was strictly wrong in the definition they assumed for “literally.” This word now literally can be used to say “in the truest sense of the words” and the exact opposite, and my brain literally imploded when I learned about the new definition.

If you don’t believe me, check out the definition in both the Cambridge and Merriam-Webster online dictionaries. I’ve screenshotted the definitions to preserve this embarrassment for posterity:

merriamwebsterliterally

cambridgeliterally

Language is dynamic, some (Wankdorf etc.,) would even say that it is dynamical. Hence it doesn’t make you appear smarter to bore your friends by talking about Romans every time they say “decimate.” Language is constantly changing in response to the selective pressures of popular usage, subject to many factors as people and cultures interact.

Similar to many other examples of evolution, humans affect the way a language changes by taking note of and modifying the selective pressures they individually exert. The consequences may be particularly important in science, where English is the common tongue but not in general the first language of most practitioners. I expect that modern English will evolve to encompass multiple forms based on usage. Native speakers sat on the British Isles, laying in North America, and so on will continue to retain and invent complexity and idiosyncrasy, while international English will come to resemble a utilitarian version of Up-Goer Five English, paring off superfluous complexities while retaining the most effective elements to become as simple as possible, but no simpler. It’s possible that international English will even retain sarcasm.

Pop quiz: what’s your favourite English speaker idiosyncrasies used in this article?

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