12. Pages 492-515 II
Bill Long 6/10/05
The "F's"--Not Quite Done
Let's devote our attention in this essay to four words that caught my special attention. I would like to discuss formant, formicary, fractal and frigorific.
The reason I decided to search for a while on formant is that the Collegiate defines it in a way that doesn't overwhelm with clarity. It is "a characteristic component of the quality of a speech sound; specif: any of several resonance bands held to determine the phonetic quality of a vowel." Well, I see we are in the acoustic analysis of vowels, here. The OED uses the words "the characteristic pitch of a vowel-sound." That is, a vowel has a "clear-cut" formant structure. An online graph representing the spectrum of vocal utterance of the vowel "i" has both smooth lines in the lower spectrum and resonant peaks. The latter are referred to as the formants. Another online resource describes formants simply as characteristic resonance regions. Composer Alvin Lucier has recorded a piece which he calls "I am Sitting in a Room," which features himself narrating a text and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recording it. This is then re-recorded. Since each room has its own formant (preferred resonating frequency) frequency, the effect of Lucier's action is that certain frequencies are emphasized as they resonate until eventually the words become unintelligible. Thus, the problem of the formant is taken out of linguistic theory for all to "hear."
Lots of words and interesting thoughts are triggered through this and associated words. A formicary, the Collegiate informs us, is an ant nest. The word formica is the Latin word for "ant." A trademark for the product Formica was issued in the 1920s to The Formica Insulation Company of Cincinnati, OH. I have not seen anyone explain how the laminated countertop/wall panelling material got its name, but from my youth I remember that the formica tables and countertops in my home had speckles in them that made it look like ants were running around. I am sure that some socialistically-inclined thinkers were delighted with the quotation from the Century: "In a formicary we can detect no trace of private property; the territory, the buildings, the stores, the booty, exist equally for the benefit of all." Lessons from nature, you know...
Then we have some other words such as formicate--make sure you write an "m" and not an "n"--which means "resembling an ant" as an adjective or "to crawl like ants" as a verb. You could point to a gaggle of giggling teens playing Twister and say, "They are just formicating all over the rug," but your point might be lost on the hearers. "From a distance the massed troops formicated, now this way and now the other." Formication is not a sin that St. Paul urges us to flee, but is "an abnormal sensation as of ants creeping over the skin." I know I especially get these feelings right after I kill a spider or ant that was crawling around where I have been working. Then I go back to work and start thinking, "Hm, is that a spider I feel on my leg?" Then I hit my leg very hard without looking, only to find it that there is nothing there. Maybe we can develop a new fear...and call it phantomformicaphobia--the fear of phantom ants. I must needs move on.
The word fractal, which the Collegiate defines in an opaque way, was coined by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. In the Introduction to his The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Mandelbrot tried to describe the geometric world in non-Euclidean terms. He said, "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line." By measuring these so-called geometric shapes with ever smaller and smaller "rulers," one develops a completely different understanding of what they are. As one internet article describes fractals, they are things that become more complex, rather than simpler, upon closer inspection. Just as formant above exposed my acoustic ignorance to myself, so does this brief treatment of a fractal. When will I have time to return to all of this?
Though the Collegiate only defines the term as "causing cold" or "chilling," the OED points to the dominant use of the term in science. "Data for determining the frigorific effect of the ice on the termperature of the Pole..." Yet, I was pleased to see that there were a few uses of the term in a humanistic way, such as Shelley's wonderful line from 1810: "A frigorific torpidity of despair chilled every sense." Horace Bushnell could use the term a few generations later, "Their moral nature wants the true frigorific tension of a well-wintered life and experience." I could say in 2005: "Her frigorific stare quickly brought him to recognize how much he had hurt her." Or "the frigorific climate in the church did not encourage, nor even tolerate, much freedom of expression or expression of dissent." We read news stories all the time about the "chilling effect" of some decision on free speech or creativity or economic productivity or something. Why not start speaking of the "frigorific" effect of these things? Not only does it carry with it the idea of frigidity in the word, but the "ific" ending connotes the idea of enormousness--such as in the words terrific or horrific. Frigorific deserves a renascence in our day, whenever we want to describe the quenching effect of some party's action on another's creativity or productivity.
That's all the time for today. I think we need to make some progress in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long