'08 National (Senior) Spelling Bee VI
Bill Long 7/3/08
Moving to the Oral Rounds
It took 153 words to eliminate 15 of the 16 finalists in the recently completed National Spelling Bee. The list of those 153 words is here. The purpose of this and the next few essays is to "massage" some of these words so that these will be forever emblazoned in our memory. Everyone will have his/her own favorites from this list. Let me begin with about 10. As we know, words open worlds and lead to other words; thus, this list of 10 will lead us elsewhere..
Those that interest me are pterylae, synovitis, zerk, jarrah, huisache, eriophyid, probenecid, auxinic and czardas. Almost all of these well-selected words points us to a new world. Let's see if we can discover it.
Pterylae (TER uh lee/TER uh lay)
The first difficulty a speller needs to overcome when hearing this word is to think "pt" rather than "tir" or "ter." Indeed, English has the rare word tiralee, which is a succession of musical notes, and which sounds almost identical to pterylae (which is the plural of pteryla). Yet, I sometimes know too much; tiralee isn't in the Collegiate, so I need not have been confused. Luckily the word wasn't given to me. But, then again, if it had been my word, I would have noticed the "wing" reference in the definition and probably gotten it right. In fact, the word is taken from two Greek words meaning "wing" and "forest" or "tract." Underlying the last syllable is the Greek word hyle (pronounced HOO lay in Greek), which means either "wood" or "timber" in Aristotle but in later Greek philosophy it signifies "matter."
An example of the latter usage is from Henry More, the 17th Century Cambridge Platonist we have: "That Hyle or first Matter is mere Possibility of Being, according to Aristotle." In the 20th century the concept of "ur-matter," so to speak, received a big bang through the big bang theory. This time is was called ylem in English. From 1948: "Very shortly after the beginning of the universal expansion, the ylem was a gas of neutrons only." How does he know?
Let's return to our word, pterylae, before we fly too far away. It is, literally, a "tract of wings" or a "forest of wings." What possibly could that mean? If you look at the English definition you have your answer: "Any of the several distinct tracts on a bird's skin in which feathers grow." The word first appeared in English in 1867 in Dallas' translation of CL Nitzsch's Pterylography: "The feathered regions of the bodies of birds, to which I give the name feathered tracts-- (pterylae, Federfluren..)." Pterylography???? Only a 19th century German could have gotten away with writing a book so titled--the "scientific description of the disposition and arrangement of feathers on birds." Here is how it probably went: "Uh, well, the feathers can be here or there or, uh, over there. There you have it--pterylography." Invent a word or concept--assure your immortality. Sort of like karezza.
Well, it really is more complex, and more defensible, than that. Pterylography can also refer to the disposition of the feathers themselves on the "tract." We have, for example, this sentence from 1993: "Pterylography is slightly different from that of other galliforms. Not all megapodes are eutaxic, some being diastataxic. Words not only open worlds, as we see, but they open cans of worms--which may be eaten by birds regardless of pterylographic positioning! What do eutaxic and diastataxic mean? Here is a definition of diastataxic:
"Having no secondary feather corresponding to the fifth feather of the greater wing coverts. If a secondary is present, the arrangement is called 'eutaxic'. Diastataxy occurs in grebes (family Podicipedidae), geese of the genus Anser, owls (order Strigiformes) and pigeons (family Columbidae)."
Our imagination could really take wing here and we could get lost in the study of wings, clipping wings, various functions of the wings, etc. Indeed, one person who seems to hate believers in Intelligent Design ("ID"--the modern version of "Creationism," which asserts that the complexity of the world shows forth evidence of careful planning by some pretty smart force out there. But, even if we granted the "IDers" that point, which I am somewhat inclined to do, does that suggest that we have a God who is the "Christian" God? I don't see how we do. It could buttress the argument, for example, that we have a very intelligent egg out there which thunk it all out), in this article on diastataxy, gives examples in nature where the fifth secondary remex (wing for flight) is missing but the corresponding secondary covert is present, leaving a diastema or gap between fourth and sixth secondary remiges (plural of remex). The author triumphantly argues that this is surely a dumb thing, a sort of error in the mind of the great intelligent designer.
But I wouldn't jump too quickly to conclusions which call into question largescale intelligence behind the creation of creatures. Maybe we just can't yet figure it out. Like "junk DNA," which scholars confidently said for years had no purpose and now, seemingly, has some purpose, so someday someone may come up with a good explanation for the "erratic distribution of diastataxy and eutaxy." Indeed, I think it is a bit arrogant to suggest that unless something comports with our notion of "symmetry," it necessarily suggests deficiency in "intelligence." It suggests more to me the locked-in thinking of an author than a fault in some kind of design. If it meant that every creature so designed flew into windows and broke its neck, maybe I would be willing to change my mind. I don't have any evidence of that. So, in the meantime, learn the words, look at a bird in the next month or so, sort out the wings, and make sure that pteryla/ae is part of your working vocabulary.
Thus you see, once again, how one word can take us on the most interesting journeys. If you wanted, you might never return to normalcy after pursuing some of the leads suggested above. Whose life wouldn't be better with some escapes from "normalcy?"
We really must get moving, in the next essay.