Full Circle: Words, words … but, what do they say?

Published 9:34 am Saturday, January 12, 2019

It’s 3 a.m.  I should be asleep. Instead, I’m lying in bed thinking; not deep thoughts about life and love, but rather quizzical thoughts about … well, here goes …  words.  You know, English language words. ( Am I the only one who does that?)

Peculiar as it may seem, I like to use these darkest of hours to ponder the ambiguous vagaries of our native tongue.  There are so many.  For example, why do we say things like, “I’m a big reader?”  Does that mean I am big and I like to read?  If so, then why don’t we say, “I’m a little reader,” if I’m little and still like to read?

Then there’s … “Let’s eat, Gramma.”  But, what if we leave out the comma?  “Let’s eat Gramma.”  Yikes!

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When my son, Matt, was a child, I would ask him, “Did you take a bath, Matt?”  It never failed to sound like I was accusing him of stealing a rug.

In a similar vein, I’ve never figured out which side of serendipity is the phrase, “I lucked out.”  Is that  good or not so good fortune?  Furthermore, what’s this business with “pretty awful?”  Gosh, I get so confused.

Let’s also consider how we meet someone for the first time.  We ask, “How do you do?” Honestly now, do we really want a health report, a financial declaration, their marital status or, in general, a synopsis of the life of this perfect stranger? Not really.  Why won’t a simple “It’s nice to meet you” do?

I glance at my clock.  It’s now 3:30 a.m.  My thoughts drift to the phrase, “I was gobsmacked.”  It has a decidedly ishy ring.  Like what kind of gob was it?  And did it hurt to be smacked with it?  It’s these kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Growing up Presbyterian, I always marveled at how many handy saints the Catholic kids from St. Augustine’s had. It seemed there was one for each of life’s indiscretions.  And if I interpreted things correctly, it seemed that if the kids simply uttered one of those sainted names, they were instantly absolved of their impure thoughts and/or even impurer transgressions. Somehow the guilt slipped from their shoulders onto those of whichever redeemer they were pleading their case. I especially wondered how Saint Jude, the Patron of Lost Causes, operated.  I mean, we had lost causes all over the place when I was a kid.  Heck, we were the lost causes! Did Saint Jude simply sponge them up?  To be sure, one thing was crystal clear. We Presbyterians definitely got short changed in the saints department.

To further enhance my nighttime vocabulary studies, I recently read a book on avalanches.  We’ve all heard that Eskimos have umpteen words to describe snow.  Actually we here in Austin also have umpteen words for snow. There is one, however, that is most often heard … “the Minnesota curse.”  But then, to be fair, the Eskimos fall short on rain words.  That’s understandable because they don’t have any, whereas snow is their world—their igloos, hunting ground, play land, terra firma and the ice for their smoothies.

Did you know that snowflakes begin to take shape between 30,000 and 40,000 feet above the earth?  Yes, somewhere between the troposphere and the stratosphere.  Believe me, that’s way up there where the temperatures dip down to 75 degrees below zero.  (Like in Fargo!)  Floating  above those clouds are thousands of species of bacteria, fungi and protozoa, along with the pollen of some 10,000 varieties of flowering plants.  And don’t forget the untold quantities of atmospheric dust.

Each tiny nuclei becomes a center around which water molecules freeze.  To make a single raindrop requires ten million of these particles.  To then freeze them into a single snowflake requires about a million frozen crystals. No one’s counting, but that’s close. A ten-inch accumulation of snow on one acre of land may total up to a million billion snowflakes.  (But, then again, who’s counting at 3:45 in the morning? Yawn.)

As a snowflake begins its descent to earth, it starts out in the initial shape of a hexagon.  Then, like a kaleidoscope turning, it gradually changes. (Personally, I also believe each flake comes with an embedded postal delivery code.  My driveway!)  As the winds sweep the snowflake thousands of feet up and down, the shape of the crystal gradually changes as the six points of the hexagon grow or lose their spindly arms.

The snow scientists have come up with ten words to describe snowflakes: plates, stellars, needles, columns, capped columns, spatial dendrites, graupel, sleet, hail, and a catch-all category for the remaining irregulars. There is a significant aesthetic difference in each crystal’s appearance. Capped columns, for example, look like empty bobbins for thread.  They refract countless millions of prisms, making the sun and moon appear to be surrounded by halos. (And here all along I thought that unearthly glow was radiating from the golden halos that encircled the heads of those St. Augustine saints.)

The homeliest snowflake is the graupel. (I’m pretty sure this is the one we see on Main Street after a snowy, extra heavy traffic day.) It is formed when water droplets float through regions of fog or cloud and become bonded into hardened pellets. By the time graupel reaches the ground, it looks like frozen blobs of brain tissue.  (Yup, that would be Main Street in February alright.)

In 1910, a Russian meteorologist in St. Petersburg claimed to have observed 246 different kinds of snow.  And as if one loony person were not enough, between 1884 and 1931, an even more obsessed guy in Vermont published a photographic portfolio with 2,453 micro-photographs of individual flakes. He claimed that he had barely begun his list. (Don’t quote me on this, but I’m thinking he did this work while strapped to a cot in a state asylum.)

One single cubic foot of snow may contain up to ten million flakes while the total snow accumulation on earth—from the beginning of time to now—would be something like 50 miles deep.  But the truth is that these are way too many numbers to think about. Perhaps we should simply hibernate all winter or—even better—put our efforts toward the beautification of the graupel snowmen on Austin’s Main Street.

Alternatively, I could just stop thinking about words and go back to sleep.