Curiouser and curiouser

I recently discovered the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart, hosted by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science at about my level of general science. He finishes each video saying “Stay curious”. I assume that means wondering and eager to learn or know, and not causing interest and speculation by being unusual. I assume the first meaning came first. Because of the two meanings, it is (just) possible to say “Very curious people are often very curious”.


Conspiracy theorems

I have written before about students choosing the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. Sometimes two words in their language correspond to one word in English, or one word corresponds to two.

The class was practicing ‘first conditional’. The first half of sentences were given, and the students had to write a suitable second half. One was “I’ll do the washing up if …”. The expected answer was “you cook”, but I can imagine a number of other answers which would be suitable (eg, “if you do it tomorrow”). One Korean student wrote “I theorem”. This is obviously wrong and he’d obviously chosen the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. But I wanted to find out what he’d meant, he showed me his translator and there were no other obvious words in sight, but I couldn’t guide him toward telling me anything else about this mysterious household activity. Another student from Korea was there, so I got them to talk about it briefly in Korean, but the other student couldn’t explain either.

When I got home I asked my wife about it, she said that 정리 (jeong-ni) can mean either ‘theorem’ or ‘tidy up’. Google Translate gives ‘theorem’ and ‘arrangement’, so 정리하다 means ‘arrange’. I thought about ‘theory’, which Google Translate gives as 이론, but my wife said “That’s a completely different word”. She couldn’t tell me what the difference was (explaining Korean words (her first language) in English (her second language)), but I’m not sure that I could explain the difference on the spot, either (explaining English words (my first language) and English (my first language).

I know that Pythagoras had a theorem and Darwin had a theory. Hercule Poirot might have a theory about whodunnit, but not a theorem.


Today’s Google Doodle acknowledges the equinox , which actually falls tomorrow, Australian time. One mark to Google for knowing that the seasons in the southern hemisphere are reversed (this doodle appears in Australia, New Zealand and southern South America). One mark from Google for calling the doodle “Fall 2019”. In Australian English (and as far as I know, New Zealand English) it’s always “Autumn”.

The planets

For some reason, I got thinking about the pairs of adjectives venereal and Venusian, martial and Martian, and jovial and Jovian. The second of each pair relates only to the Roman goddess or god or the planet, while the first relates to personality (jovial), soldiers or personality (martial) and love (venereal). The last could have positive collocations (affections, delights) but has come to be associated primarily with sexually transmitted diseases and their symptoms.

So, are there also mercurial and Mercurian, and saturnial and Saturnian? No, lower-case mercurial refers to personality and upper-case Mercurial to the god and the planet. Lower-case saturnian refers to personality ‘prosperous, happy, or peaceful’ and upper-case Saturnian to the god and the planet. But saturnine means ‘sluggish in temperament; gloomy; taciturn’ (somehow one god and/or planet was seen to be responsible for both happiness and gloom) as well as ‘due to absorption of lead … suffering from lead poisoning’ . (In Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Saturn is subtitled ‘The Bringer of Old Age’.)

These were the planets known to the ancients and early and middle English speakers. From the modern age come Uranian, ‘pertaining to the planet Uranus’ and ‘(of males) homosexual …from Aphrodite Urania heavenly Aphrodite, inspiration for male homosexuality in Plato’s Symposium’; Neptunian, relating to the god or the sea, the planet, or ‘(often lowercase) Geology. formed by the action of water’.

Where’s Pluto? For the sake of completeness, I’ll add Plutonian ‘Also, Plutonic of, relating to, or resembling Pluto or the lower world; infernal’.

Note also the chemical elements mercury (ancient), uranium, neptunium and plutonium (modern). In classical alchemy, Venus was associated with copper (?a woman’s mirror), Mars with iron (?a soldier’s weapons), Jupiter with tin (??) and Saturn with lead (see ‘lead poisoning’ above).

[all definitions from]


No matter what you think about the use or misuse of the word literally, the statement about last night’s (my time) eclipse, reported on a news website this morning:

It was literally cold and dark

strikes me as a remarkably clunky way to use literally (as well as a remarkably unimaginative way to describe a total solar eclipse).

(Because of time zones, I wasn’t going to stay up, or set the alarm. I just happened to wake up at 3.53 am, so I went downstairs and watched NASA’s webcast for about an hour.)