Monday, June 20, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - The Body As A House + Some Sci Fi

Over the course of history, people have used metaphors to explain the new and unknown. Metaphors offer us a point of anchoring when approaching complex or novel issues. By relating something new to something we already know, it becomes easier for us to understand it and make it our own.

The human body has been subject to hundreds of metaphors. In a previous post, I commented on a few anatomic metaphors. In this post, I want to be more general and speak of the human body as a whole. Across history, the body itself and all its systems have been likened to a house, a machine, and, more recently, a plant.

First of all, let's take a look at the human body as a house. Here is possibly one of the earliest, or at least most well-known, representations of this metaphor:

The Polish-Jewish physician Tobias Cohn published a series of eight books called the Ma'aseh Toviyyah (Work of Tobias). Each encyclopedic volume focused on a field of knowledge (Volume One: Theology, Volume Two: Astronomy, Volume Three: Medicine...). In the third volume, Tobias Cohn illustrated the human body side-by-side with a house in order to liken both structures.

The Bible makes several references to the body as the home of the person's essence, the physical place where the soul resides. The body may be mortal, but the soul most certainly is not! Thus, the soul merely occupies a home during its stay on Earth.

To nobody's surprise, works of science fiction have dealt with the subject of body and home. Have you ever heard of superior beings leaving behind their physical bodies and living only through the psyche? This transformation occurs to our hero Dave at the end of his adventure in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While his fate might not be so clear in that novel, subsequent novels leave no place for doubt: Dave, with the help of the superior race, has left behind his mortal body--his home or shell--and become a superior being himself, unrestricted by space and time. This concept is nicely addressed in the book How to Live Forever: Science Fiction and Philosophy by Stephen RL Clark.

While the entire body might be considered a house, what is it a house to? Apart from the "soul," there are many representations of the brain as the center of one's essence. Science fiction, again, has dealt with this and I'm sure most of us are familiar with the brain in a jar scene.

Red Dwarf: Poor Lester has a nasty shock when
he sees his possible future self in a jar.
Essentially, the idea is that if we can transfer the brain from one body to another, moving from one house to another might save us from certain death if the rest of the body fails (the house falls apart).

But what about taking it one step further? The brain is also prone to decay, and it is also part of the physical home of the intangible soul, so what if we leave behind absolutely everything? What if we could upload our memories and our emotions--essentially ourselves--into a digital format and exist in a form of digital immortality?

In an attempt to cheat death, science fiction has postulated that humans can use artificial limbs until the mortal body is completely eradicated. The next step from there would be to discard the artificial bodies and thus the soul, or the psyche or whatever you would like to call it, is free from its home.

Further Reading

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review - Rosemary's Baby

You've probably heard of Rosemary's Baby before. The classic 1967 novel by Ira Levin was transformed into the 1968 film by director (let's keep our personal opinions aside for now) Roman Polanski. The movie has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes! The story was also made into a TV miniseries in 2014 with questionable appeal...

I personally haven't seen the movie but I've heard about it and already had a general sense of what the book would be about when a coworker offered to lend me his copy. Personally, I'm glad I didn't know too much beforehand because Rosemary's Baby was a delightfully dark read.

The story begins vanilla enough: Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, recently married, get into the New York City apartment building they've (she's) been longing for: the Bramford. But the Bramford has a dark history of Satanists and cannibals, tee-hee! Even though Hutch, Rosemary's close friend, tries to put her off the building, Rosemary and her husband move in and begin a new life together.

Although not much happens in the first part of the novel, aside from moving in and decorating, meeting the neighbors and encountering a suicide, the matter-of-fact way Levin has of explaining Rosemary and her husband Guy's day-to-day kept me turning page after page. Of course, the action centers around Rosemary, only twenty-four years old and married to up-and-coming actor Guy Woodhouse, who is nine years her senior.

Rosemary initially came off as a naive housewife suffering from too much dependency on her husband. She parted with her religious beliefs and her family ties when she decided to marry Guy. However, as the couple meets their sketchy (and nosy!) neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet, Rosemary's personality becomes clearer. She's not so much naive as gentle-spirited and uprooted from her natural habitat. This made for an endearing main character, who I could sympathize with up to the final page.

When Rosemary finds out she's pregnant, something she had been yearning for, her surroundings turn a shade darker and now people who seemed to be her trusted neighbors and friends look more like enemies.

In the final third of the novel, Rosemary puts all the pieces of the puzzle together and realizes exactly what is going on around her. She becomes a take-charge type of character, who is still limited by her duty to her husband and her obstetrician (who happens to be in on the entire scheme surrounding her baby).

I don't want to reveal any of the action in this review because the both the novel and the classic film have been talked about to death already, but let me just say that Rosemary's Baby was an excellent thriller--not a horror story. The ending, however, left me wanting more because the story takes a sudden sharp turn into the paranormal and opens up so many fantastic doors which we never get to cross because the novel simply ends. The last scene in the novel made my heart go out to Rosemary and truly demonstrated what a gentle soul she is.

Rosemary's Baby receives five Pirates!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Making Time Sneak Peek

Have a look at the first chapter from my upcoming sci-fantasy novel Making Time!

   The smell of death soon became unbearable. It seeped into every corner of the Heyday, past closed doors, weaving around the walls, the floor, and the furniture until you could taste it, roll it around on your tongue. Rancid. Rusty. Guilty.
   Strangely though, death didn’t come from the corpse hidden in the small bedroom at the end of the hall. No, Tristan Cross’s body wasn’t at fault; it was encased in glass, untouched by the passing of time. A zig-zag of stitches held together his shattered skull.
   He was dead and gone, so the rancid, rusty, guilty flavor that filled the ship with rot and unease couldn’t come from him.
   It’s coming from me.
   Robert stared blankly at the light screen in front of him, his hands cupped around an empty whiskey glass. He’d been sitting there for almost an hour, looking without seeing, still as a rock while his mind buzzed with overlapping thoughts.
   I had the power to stop this from happening. It’s not too late. I can still set things right. But I’m an idiot. I should stop wasting my time. But I owe it to Time. I have to regain her trust in me. Do I really think I can undo death? Of course I can. It won’t be easy, but I’ll manage. I already told myself that before. And I failed. That time was different. Tristan’s soul is in the Repository. All I have to do is go in there and pull it out.
   “He is dead. Leave him be and move on.”
   The voice jolted Robert. For the first time in the better part of an hour, he scanned his surroundings.    He hadn’t turned on the flaring overheads in the command room, so the only light that shone was the emergency pilot over the door and the dim blue of the screen in front of him.
   Darkness was best for giving a voice to inner thoughts, but this darkness was made up of broken shadows and voices that didn’t belong to Robert. As he watched, a shadow detached itself from the rest. With as much noise as a feather fluttering to the floor, the shadow leapt onto the empty acceleration couch beside him and squatted there, smiling.
   It had no eyes.
   Damned creature. Robert turned away from the specter and reached for the bottle of Green Goose he’d left on the command console.
   “Still not speaking to me, I see.” The creature’s voice rubbed against Robert’s flesh like sandpaper.
   He cast it a sidelong glance while he poured. The specter perched on the armrest like some form of grotesque monkey. Its arms dangled by its sides, almost long enough to graze the floor. A silver thread fell loosely from its mouth. Robert found his eyes following the thread, even though he already knew what was on the other end: himself.
   He and this nightmare had been bound together since the afternoon Tristan died and the pack of specters rushed into the cemetery. Only two had come looking for Robert—a dozen for Eneld. But Eneld had been so shielded in his own shock and grief that he couldn’t see the specters surrounding him while he clutched his dying brother. He couldn’t hear them beckoning, so their ghostly claws slid right off him.
   No, Robert told himself as he sipped the whiskey. That’s not entirely true. Eneld heard some of their promises. He just protected himself better than me.
   That made it all the worse. Why me and not him? Robert ended up with a new companion, a shadow by his side to poke fingers in his mind and dissect his thoughts.
   The specter would die; Robert was sure of that. He would find a way to weaken it until he could pull out the thread without harming himself, and that began by starving it of his attention.
   He tilted back the glass and drank it dry. The muscles in his shoulders loosened.
   The specter clacked its tongue. “I can read your mind, you know.” It cocked its head in a playful gesture. “There is nothing you can hide from me.”
   It was lying, as usual. It could catch a thought floating in the air every now and then, but it was far from reading his mind.
   “Your silence is futile…” it said in a singsong tone. “You will talk to me eventually. And oh, what chit-chat we will have!” It leaned forward. “You should tell the boy some problems cannot be solved. His brother got what he deserved. Now have him go his merry way.”
   The specter paused. Robert glanced at it.
   Two swirls formed on its face until it stared back at Robert through round yellow eyes. “Or you can make sure the boy never bothers you again…” It huffed excitedly and did a little bounce. “He is on Time’s plane as I speak…but he left something behind…”
   Robert frowned. For a moment, he couldn’t understand what the creature was insinuating. It couldn’t be what he suspected.
   The truth was Robert had hidden two bodies on board the Heyday: Tristan, who was dead and frozen in time, and Eneld, who was very much alive and coping with his grief on Time’s plane. Mortal bodies could not travel to higher astral planes, so Eneld had left his behind until the Heyday reached its destination.
   The specter knew an empty body was a helpless body…
   No. No. Robert cut off the thought chain before reaching the final links.
   “Do not ignore me!” The specter growled and before Robert could do anything, it plunged its fist into the light screen. Its claws moved swiftly, scrambling and rearranging several symbols on the display.
   A dull twang echoed across the Heyday, like the hesitant first note of a harp.
   According to the information flashing on the screen, Time once more flowed over Tristan’s body.
   “Master,” the specter muttered as it sat back, “he is nothing more than a corpse. Let him rot. Call it a system malfunction.” It grinned, and Robert caught a glimpse of the endless rows of tiny sharp teeth lining its mouth.
   Clever little bastard, Robert mused as a grim smirk tugged at his lips. He hadn’t expected the shadow to know how to work the commands on the light screen.
   The little trick wouldn’t last, though. For very brief periods—and on very specific targets—Robert had found a way to make time stop, at least until the buildup became too much and time overflowed. Strangely, he’d also discovered that the method worked the other way around: if time had stopped flowing, Robert could awaken small parts of it and create an illusion, at least for a few minutes until the effects fizzled out and died.
   It was a trick that crept along the fringe of the goddess Time herself; something even she hadn’t noticed—yet. It was a trick Robert was still practicing, and he had no intention of showing it to Eneld.
   I’m already teaching him enough.
   But the specter had somehow known. Curiosity burned in Robert, though he wouldn’t quench it by speaking to that beast.
   A blunt, cool claw drew a long chill down the back of Robert’s neck. He swerved toward the specter, ready to beat it for daring to touch him. However, the specter had its back turned. Gripping the couch, it bristled and snarled while it stared into the darkened corridor leading to the bedrooms.
   “Master, we are not alone.”
   Without hesitating, Robert stood and marched down the hall.
   The specter scampered after him. “What are you doing, Master?”
   His footsteps rang with determination.
   “What are you going to do?”
   Robert wanted to wheel around and yell at it to shut up for once, to let him think, to let him hear, to let him feel what the hell had crawled onto his ship. Instead, he bit his tongue and plunged into the shadows of Tristan’s bedroom.
   He stood over Tristan’s transparent casket and stared at his corpse. The faint reflection of the emergency light over the door drew spirals on the glass.
   The corners of Robert’s mouth dropped into a frown. The swirls on the casket played with each other.
   “Come out.” He waited, but nothing happened. He held his hands over the glass. “I order you to come out.”
   It was cold on the Heyday, and Robert could feel heat radiating from his skin. He rubbed the back of his hand against his forehead. He was warm, almost feverish. Not a good sign. “I am Robert the demon master. I order you to abandon this body.”
   A shiver rushed through Tristan’s body, and Robert almost took a step back.
   “Show yourself to me,” he said in a louder voice, his feet firmly grounded.
   A long, thin trail of black smoke rose from Tristan’s mouth.
   The specter next to Robert twitched and hissed. “Master… Did you know he also had a companion?”
   Robert swallowed. I suspected something…
   The smoke gathered above the casket and settled until a specter formed. However, it was very different from Robert’s specter; this one looked beaten and worn, thin as a twig, its darkness so dim it was almost transparent. Splotches of light gray covered its body, making it look like a tattered old rag about to fall to pieces. It crouched on the glass over Tristan’s corpse, leaning forward and panting.
   “You called?” Its voice sounded like a dry cough, like the voice of a man who hadn’t spoken in years.
   This is what starvation looks like, Robert realized. He lifted his chin. “You’re inhabiting an empty body.”
   “I know you,” the specter said in its broken voice. “We met before.” A large yellow eye formed in the center of its face as it studied Robert, then the eye shifted, rolled down to one side and focused on the shadow linked to him. “You already have a companion.
   The creature at Robert’s feet growled and paced back and forth.
   “You will leave,” Robert said to Tristan’s specter. “There is nothing for you here.”
   “Give me his body.
   Robert stiffened.
   The specter leaned over the edge of the casket. “I know you… I know you can do it.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Fullmetal Alchemist - My Favorite Manga

During Christmas 2014, I made a trip to my closest FNAC to buy my husband a few Wolverine comic books, and I happened to discover a little something that stole my heart.

Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, who try to resurrect their mother using alchemy. The process fails, and Edward loses his leg whereas his younger brother Alphonse vanishes. In a desperate attempt to save his only remaining family, Edward sacrifices his arm and traps his brother's soul inside a suit of armor. Now the two embark on a quest to find the Philosopher's Stone to use its powers to recover their bodies.

Arakawa grew up on a dairy farm,
and always portrays herself as a cow.

Written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist thrives on strong characters, be they male, female or androgynous (the character Envy. What the heck is he/she/it?). For me, characterization is one of the strongest points in the story. We are presented to many people (think Game of Thrones amount of people...), and we have many women--something I appreciated.

Arakawa doesn't hesitate when it comes to blood, death and disfigurement. No one is safe in Amestris, and not just that, but Arakawa manages to make you care for each and every one of them. The Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, make a sympathetic duo from the get-go, and all the supporting characters (especially Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye) have their own intricate backstories as well as their own place in the story.

The adventure begins innocently enough, and the first few adventures are lighthearted--up until we learn about human chimeras. Soon the pieces of a much darker story fall into place and the characters discover they've been pulled into the heart of a nationwide menace. The story actually goes beyond the mere adventure, and brings forth questions on the meaning of God, "Truth" and the universe.

(Read from right to left.)

There has been quite a lot of talk about the religious message embedded in Fullmetal Alchemist. From posts which claim the manga is about Buddhism, to posts which claim that the manga has both a negative and positive message on religion. I tend to agree more with the mixture of positive and negative messages, as absolutely nothing is black or white in Fullmetal Alcehmist (and that's what I love about it).

Talking about black or white, Arakawa includes several intriguing villains, based on the names of the seven deadly sins. At certain points, readers actually care for the so-called villains, feel sympathy towards them, and hope they have a happy ending. But alas, we can't have it all!

The villain Envy transforms into a grotesque creature bubbling with
the faces of the innocent souls trapped in its body.

Overall, Fullmetal Alchemist grabbed me with its open-to-interpretation philosophical viewpoint, its rich story colored with tones of grey, and its sympathetic characters. I have the Kanzenban edition, comprised of eighteen colorful volumes. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an urge to take a peek at manga. You'll soon discover why it's become an instant classic.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review - Resolution by Robert B. Parker

Resolution is a story about rugged, dusty, sharpshooting, whiskey-loving manly men doing manly-men things such as shootin' and talking 'bout shootin', and then shootin' som'more. These men are too busy managing their testosterone to have emotions, too deep in the heart of Marlboro Country to make full sentences. They are macho.

Okay, now on with the real review.

Resolution is a western, not a genre I typically read (unless we go back to when I was around 9 and in love with The Oregon Trail and everything western). I bought this book on a whim in a used book store. It turns out it's the second novel starring the characters Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, the first one being Appaloosa. I haven't read Appaloosa but that wasn't a problem.

The very first page of the novel made me think of the wonderful online group Critique Circle and its infamous Hook Queue, where, only once a month, members have the chance to anonymously critique (savagely tear apart) the opening hook to the pieces submitted.

Just have a look at the entire first page from the novel and, if you're acquainted with the Hook Queue, tell me if it would survive.

  I was in the Blackfoot Saloon in a town called Resolution, talking with the man who owned the saloon about a job. The owner was wearing a brocade vest. His name was Wolfson. He was tall and thin and sort of spooky-looking, with a wall-eye.
  "What's your name?" Wolfson said.
  "Hitch," I said. "Everett Hitch."
  "How long you been in Resolution?" Wolfson said.
  We were at the far end of the big mahogany bar, sipping whiskey that I had bought us.
  "'Bout two hours," I said.
  "And you come straight here?" Wolfson said.

I have to admit I said "Oh, crap" when I read that opening scene. Fortunately, the story picks up immediately and we are whisked away to the brand new town of Resolution, where our main character is hired as a gunman for the town saloon.

Despite the choppy and curt style (it's Hitch's point of view, after all), and the ubiquitous "said," the unceasing action--however small--in each short chapter was enough to keep my attention and make me read just a little bit more. By the time I decided to stop I had already reached page 100.

That's probably the best thing about this novel: the chapters are short and focused on one scene.

More characters are introduced as the story progresses, and a main conflict also rears its ugly head: Wolfson wants to claim ownership of everything: the town, the surrounding land, the mine--and all at the expense of the current homesteaders.

Hitch is soon joined by his comrade Virgil Cole, and both end up doing Wolfson's dirty work, even though it goes against their ideals. It was interesting to see two tough western men doing things they didn't agree with, and all for a paycheck. I spent many chapters wondering when their patience would run out and they would turn on Wolfson.

But then the ending came and went without glory. I spoil it for you at the very bottom of this review, so you can have a look at it if you want.

As for the style, the conversations throughout the book had me sniggering more than once. Every spoken line is floating in its own little puddle of testosterone.

And not only that, but practically every line has "he said" nestled in it. After a few pages, I automatically skipped over the dialogue tags, and thank goodness I did because it would have driven me insane (as some Goodreads reviewers complained). Usually, we writers are urged to use "said" as a dialogue tag instead of more colorful options such as "muttered" or "shouted." Supposedly, "said" blends into the background easier.

Not here.

My God, I've never seen "said" used that many times!

Dialogue was, I'd say, the worst part of the novel. In an attempt to be macho cowboy men, the characters fumble through half sentences and speak with periods even when asking straightforward questions. Sometimes it was hard to follow.

All in all, because it kept me entertained throughout, but also had cringeworthy dialogue and a disappointing resolution, Resolution receives three Pirates.

** Ending spoiler.**

Wolfson fires the main characters and hires ex-military men to control the town. The main characters arrange a meeting with Wolfson. Wolfson appears with two escorts, Virgil Cole shoots them all dead. End of conflict.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening - Part 2

Words constantly change meaning. It's something inevitable that happens due to usage. This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. I posted a general explanation about this previously, and now I'm going to focus on one of the ways a word can change its meaning: broadening.

Broadening is basically a process in which a word used to refer to something specific goes on to refer to something more general. Its meaning broadens, widens, becomes more general.

In my previous post on semantic broadening, I used several brand names as examples. Names such as Kleenex or Velcro are commonly used nowadays not to refer to the specific brand, but to refer to the general object. Other words such as "escalator" or "aspirin", previously brand names, lost their trademarked status and became part of the public domain. This is yet another example of semantic broadening, and in the case of brands, "genericide."

Here are some other examples of broadening:


Procession of a guy.
This word nowadays refers to any male person. It originates from Guido (Guy) Fawkes, the most famous of a group of conspirators who attempted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. This was known as the Gunpowder Plot. You might recall a little rhyme from the movie V for Vendetta mentioning this.

After Fawkes's trial and execution, Londoners began celebrating the thwarted plot each November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and the burning of an effigy, which was called a guy (but usually represented the Pope).

During the 19th century, the word "guy" was used to refer to any oddly dressed person. In America, the word lost its pejorative connotation and came to mean any man, and that's the use we give the word today.

Ezio Auditore is the most
charismatic assassin ever!

The origin of this word is as twisted as you would expect! It seems that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a secretive murder cult which received the name "hashishin" meaning "hashish eaters."

This cult targeted prominent figures and also took money from contract killings. Even though their main goal was to coerce or murder, the group wasn't as bloodthirsty as you'd think. They were highly intelligent and trained killers, known for only inflicting harm on their target. They specifically took care not to harm bystanders or any innocent people who might be nearby.

Because of their assaults were focused on prominent figures, the words "assassin" and "assassinate" nowadays refer to killings of a major public figure. If an ordinary everyday person is killed, that is murder, not assassination.


The Old English word "docga" (or "dogga") is still a linguistic mystery. At the time, the word "docga" was used to refer to a specific breed of canine, but once it entered the language it gained popularity to the point that it forced out the Old English "hund" (which gave us today's "hound") and went on to mean any sort of dog disregarding its breed.


Is there a more general word than "thing"? Well, in Old English (it was "þing") the word referred to a council, meeting, assembly or discussion. It's incredible how generalized this word has become and how forgotten its origins are!


Oops! Sorry for cursing! No, not really. I honestly don't have any taboos when it comes to language because the word itself isn't inherently right or wrong; its the connotations we humans give it. So, let's talk about shit.

Originally, the word referred to fecal matter, and it still does today. However, its sense has been broadened. Have you ever heard phrases such as:

"I've had enough of her shit."
"I have so much shit to to today."

I'm sure most of you must have. In the first example, the word "shit" might refer to "problems" or "issues" or "drama" or "complaints." It's very general! In the second example, "shit" is also immensely general, meaning "things."

What's happening to the word "shit"? It's undergoing a process of generalization or broadening, but it's also on the verge of losing any meaning! When a word becomes so, so general, it risks losing its full meaning and becoming nothing more than a function word (used to express grammatical or structural relationships in a sentence) or an affix (a word element: prefix, suffix...). This process is called bleaching.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening Part 1 - Brand Names

Semantics! Yay!

Oh, come on! It isn't that bad... Here's a comic strip to get you in the mood.

Semantic change (also called shift in meaning) is a process in which a word changes its meaning over time. It actually happens a lot more than you'd expect! There are many words which we happily toss around in our everyday conversations which started out with a completely different meaning. Let's have a look at a few words that underwent a form of semantic change called broadening.

Also called widening or generalization, the process of broadening a word's semantics means that it takes on a more general sense.

Perhaps the most obvious use of broadening is related to brand names. Over the years, we've grown accustomed to using a specific brand name to refer to a general idea or item. Can you find all the brand names here?

When Julie finished her shift at the mall, she had a massive headache and really needed an aspirin. As she got on the escalator, she remembered she had some in her backpack. She checked all the pockets--even the ones shut with Velcro--but the only things she could find were some Kleenex, ChapStick and Band-Aids.

Easy, right? The brand names are capitalized: Velcro (registered name for "hook-and-loop fastener"), Kleenex (registered name for "facial tissue" or "handkerchief"), Band-Aid (registered name for "adhesive bandage") and ChapStick (registered name for "lip balm." Note the capitalized "s" in the middle).

That looks weird, doesn't it? Especially "ChapStick"! I'm so accustomed to using it as a generic name that seeing it capitalized is a bit unnerving. But have a glimpse at the official website and, yup, it's a registered trademark.

However, there are two more trademarked names in that segment: aspirin and escalator. But why aren't they capitalized?

Well, it turns out that these words lost their trademark status.

Let's begin with the easy one:

The word "escalator" was trademarked by Otis Elevator Co. in 1900, but in the 1950 case Haughton Elevator Co. v. Seeberger, the company lost its trademark rights because the court declared it had allowed the word to become generic, meaning nothing more than "a moving staircase." Thus, the company lost its trademark and "escalator" officially became part of the public domain.

The word "aspirin" was trademarked by the well-known German pharmaceutical Bayer in the year 1899. However, at the end of World War One, many of the company's assets and trademarks were confiscated and other companies jumped at the opportunity to use the highly acclaimed name. Bayer, however, still holds trademark in over eighty countries, including Germany, Canada and Mexico.

By the way, did you know that Bayer had also trademarked "heroin"? The name of the drug is actually diacetylmorphine. However, Bayer created its brand name Heroin from the Greek word "hero" in order to associate "heroic" traits to the medicine. As you might have guessed, the company also eventually lost trademark rights over this word.

These last two examples (three if we count "heroin") of semantic broadening are also clear examples of a phenomenon called brand genericide--when a brand name becomes a common name. Otis Elevator Co. failed to properly protect its trademark over the word "escalator", and Bayer pretty much had its trademark stripped from "aspirin" after WWI.

Other companies are currently at risk of losing their trademark this way, for example "Google" with regards to the common phrase "let's google this", meaning "let's look this up on the internet."

Brand name broadening has happened many times, and probably will continue to happen throughout the decades. It's a form of dying of success: the trademarked name becomes part of your day-to-day until you disassociate it from its source (the company) and use the name solely to refer to the item. Once we've reached this point of semantic broadening or generalization, court claims can be put forward to declare the word public domain--and other companies can jump at the opportunity to use a well-known word.

So, it turns out semantic change isn't something that only affects us nerds! The evolution of language has deep and long-lasting effects on society, and phenomena such as shifts in meaning have, as we've just seen, even been dealt with in court cases.

In my next post I'll give you some examples of broadening which affected regular words we use every day.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nostalgia Reading - R.L. Stine

Raise your hand if you also loved R.L. Stine as a kid!

I grew up reading Goosebumps and enjoying every moment of it! I remember going to the bookstore every month, bubbling with excitement, ready to get the latest book in the series.

Right now, I'm not sure which Goosebumps book I read first of all. I think it was The Ghost Next Door. It was the tenth book in the series, released in August 1993. From there, I went back through the list and read Say Cheese and Die! and Let's Get Invisible! and all the others.

I was hooked! I couldn't wait for the next book to come out--and they usually came out once a month or once every two months.

Shortly after turning ten, my love affair with Goosebumps guttered out.

The last Goosebumps book I read was The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight. It was released in May 1994. I still remember that day: I'd just bought the book and was at my aunt Delia's house. I sat on the big armchair in her living room and read the entire thing in about thirty minutes. Then I remember closing it and deciding that Goosebumps wasn't for me anymore.

I didn't stop reading just because of that book, though. The previous one, Deep Trouble, also wasn't all that I was expecting. The book prior to that one, Monster Blood II, involved something with a giant monster hamster... The previous one was called Why I'm Afraid of Bees. The cover showed a bee with the face of a boy... and I just wasn't feeling the love anymore. I think I actually skipped the bee one because the cover looked too silly. I was growing out of my Goosebumps phase and The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight marked the end.

Now that I think about it, I have such a strong sense of nostalgia towards these books, but if I do the math (August 1993 to May 1994), I was hooked on them for under a year! Even so, I must have read around 18 or 19 of them in total (the scarecrow one was number twenty).

I currently don't have all of the Goosebumps books I owned, but I still have most of them. I think I got rid of the ones I thought were too silly in a yard sale.

Around the time I was weaning myself off of Goosebumps, I discovered the Fear Street Saga, a trilogy set in different time periods, and I also immensely enjoyed it. The first book came out in 1993, so I must have been around nine when I began reading them.

Much darker than Goosebumps, the Fear Street Saga is a story of love, betrayal and revenge. I felt so grown-up reading it! I still have the trilogy, so last year I decided to give it a read and it holds up pretty well. The scenes aren't as vivid as I imagined them and the action seems rushed now, but I can still see the appeal.

One of the last R.L. Stine books I read was The Prom Queen. I still have it so I should probably give it another read, but I remember I didn't like it all that much. I think I had matured too much by then and was looking for stronger stuff.

I think that around age ten I moved on to things like Lois Duncan's Down a Dark Hall or Daughters of Eve (I don't remember much about that second one, but I immensely enjoyed the first one), or Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song.

I still don't know how my parents just let me get any book I wanted! Tailchaser's Song was not intended for a ten-year-old audience! But still, it's wonderful.

And now we come to present-day me, thirty-two years old and browsing through a used book store. I came across Call Waiting by R.L. Stine and immediately bought it just to have a nostalgic kick. I'd never read this one before, but I wanted to see if my favorite childhood author still lived up to my expectations.


I'm not going to criticize the style or the simplicity (or the predictability) of the novel because I'm not its intended audience, but I will criticize one thing: sexism.

The main character is a teenage girl called Karen. We don't really get to know her except for one thing: she has a boyfriend who she's terrified of losing. Her whole life revolves around her boyfriend and her suspicions of him cheating on her with someone else. Her thoughts and her conversations are centered on her boyfriend during the entire book. We don't really get to know anything about her, no hobbies or areas of interest.

Is the guy worth all that? All we know is that he has long dark hair and that's supposed to be very sexy. He barely interacts with Karen, and when he does, he comes off as aloof and not very interested in their relationship.

Overall, Karen came off as the typical "psycho girlfriend." That's just sad. The final straw came when readers discover the "phone killer" who had made the threatening calls was another teenage girl also after the boy.

The whole story boils down to two women fighting for a man.

It's not like this sort of situation can't actually happen, but an entire book portraying teenage girls as completely dependent on boys and void of any hobby or interest other than having a boyfriend just makes me think this isn't the best kind of role model you want to give your kids.

Am I reading too much into this? Children are incredibly perceptive but they might not be able to discern good role models from bad role models. Furthermore, I believe readers usually try to identify with the main character of a novel. Is a one-dimensional and dependent main character a good example for young readers?

Monday, May 9, 2016

What is Semantic Change?

Let's delve into linguistics! It was one of my favorite subjects at university, but sadly it only lasted one year. (I studied Translation and Interpreting--English, Spanish, Catalan, French and Arabic.)

More specifically, let's take a look at one of the main branches on linguistics: semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning. We can look at semantics from a logical point of view (logical semantics), and study sense and reference and presupposition and implication, or we can study lexical semantics, analyzing the meaning of words and the relationships between them. We can also study computational semantics, which deals with how to implement programs to process natural language.

The meaning associated to a word is susceptible to change over time--to the point that it can actually mean something completely different! This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. This is a common event in all languages and it simply implies that communication is forever undergoing evolution. If a language can't adapt to its users, it stops being useful!

An example of this phenomenon appeared in an earlier post, where I commented on the shift of meaning for "nimrod." Nimrod is the biblical name of the great-grandson of Noah, an expert hunter and ruler of Shinar, but thanks to some general wackiness the word is now synonymous to "idiot." This type of shift, which turned a name into an insult, is called pejoration.

In the following months, I'll be posting about some interesting shifts in meaning. Just for the more curious readers, here are some of the proposed types of semantic change.

- Metaphor - We've seen several examples of metaphors which have now become the common term in medicine. For example, the Latin musculus, meaning "little mouse" has given us muscle. But metaphors can be much more recent. For example, and let's look at the same furry rodent: the word mouse refers to the animal, but (given its physical similarity) it also to a computer device.

- Metonymy - Instead of calling something by its own name, we use an associated term to refer to it. For example, in the expression "The pen is mightier than the sword", words such as "pen" and "sword" are substituting their associated ideas "writing" and "force."

- Specialization of meaning - Also known as narrowing. A general word becomes more specific. For example, the Old English word mete used to refer to food. Nowadays, the word is spelled "meat" and its meaning has been narrowed down to "food which is animal flesh."

- Generalization of meaning - Also known as broadening. A specific word becomes more general. This occurs with famous brand names. For example, the brand name Kleenex is commonly used as a general term for "handkerchief."

Synecdoche - There are various types of synecdoche. This figure of speech uses part of something to represent the whole, for example: "they hired some extra hands." Here, the word "hands" is substituting "people." It can also use the whole to represent just part of something, for example: "The police arrived five minutes later." Here, we can safely assume that only a few officers arrived, and not the entire police force.

- Antiphrasis - This figure of speech uses a word to mean the opposite of what it usually means. It's basically used for humorous or sarcastic effects, for example: "So you dropped your keys down the well? You're so smart!"

- Auto-antonymy - Also called contronymy, this technique involves changing the sense and concept of a word to mean its complementary opposite. For example, the word "dust" can mean to add dust to something, or to clean dust off of something.

These are just a few of the linguistic processes involved in semantic change. Over the next few weeks, I'll post some specific examples of words that have undergone a transformation. Some of them are evident, such as brand names (using the brand "Kleenex" to refer to a tissue), but others not so much... I'm sure we're all in for a surprise!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review - Stardust

I saw the film Stardust many years ago on an overseas flight and immensely enjoyed it. The book, however...

**Warning! Spoilers for both the movie and the novel.**

Stardust was one of those movies I knew absolutely nothing about. I didn't know what to expect, and that was awesome. I remember the man sitting next to me on the plane was also watching it (his session was a bit ahead of mine) and he was literally laughing out loud, having the hardest time trying not to make too much noise.

Stardust is a fantasy adventure with magical and memorable characters: murderous princes, evil witches, a star fallen from the sky... and a regular love-stricken country boy, Tristran Thorn.

The story is basic: young Tristran promises to give Victoria, the woman he is infatuated with, a fallen star to prove his love. To find the fallen star, he must cross an age-old wall and search the magical land of Faerie. However, he doesn't know that other, much more dangerous, people are after the same star.

In my opinion, the movie greatly outdid the novel. The film adaptation was riveting, funny, quirky, full of memorable characters and beautiful landscapes. The novel, while it did have some positives, didn't feel as charming.

Where the film outdid the novel:

Overall, the tone of the film is much more enjoyable than the novel, at least in my opinion. Perhaps it's because I saw the film many years before reading the novel, and it already was one of my favorites. Also, the film seems to get more to the point. In the novel, it took Tristran a terribly long time to reach the star, Yvaine, and it's not a very long book. While reading, I kept worrying that I was about to reach a third of the book and he hadn't met Yvaine yet!

In both the novel and the film adaptation, Tristran and the fallen star, Yvaine, end up falling in love. They realize they're meant for each other, and Tristran abandons his quest to please the unattainable Victoria.

The love story between Tristran and Yvaine is dealt with nicely in the film. In their escape from danger, they board a sky ship high in the clouds. The captain befriends them and during their stay, we see the two characters interact and slowly fall for each other.

In the book, however, the two characters spend the vast majority of the time arguing or in a mood. Only near the end do they suddenly decide they should be together. It was a letdown and did not feel natural. Tristran treats Yvaine as an object during the majority of the book, and only realizes she has feelings and is in pain near the end. (Unlike the film, where the witch heals Yvaine's twisted ankle, in the novel Yvaine's leg is broken from her fall and she's in pain during most of the story. When her leg finally heals, she has limp.)

Now that I've mentioned the sky ship, I must also point out the captain, who in the film was called Captain Shakespeare (that was not his name in the novel). He was played by the impeccable Robert de Niro. For me, he is the most endearing, badass and whoopsie character in the entire film, so you can imagine the massive disappointment I was in for when I realized his persona didn't even exist in the novel. It was sad...

The ruthless prince Septimus was also much more charismatic in the film adaptation than in the novel--and he spoke, too! In the novel, he rarely speaks and is always--always--described as crowlike. Every time he appears on the page, expect to see crowlike lurking nearby. Unfortunately for him, Septimus dies both in the novel and in the film. The film had him dying in a magnificent final battle--which, to be honest, felt a bit over the top and Hollywoodish. His death in the novel was shockingly simple: he is bitten by a poisonous snake. I actually partly prefer the novel's way to off this character, because honestly, the film's final megabattle with the witches felt like too much.

Where the novel outdid the film:

The author isn't afraid to show blood and death if necessary. Both in the novel and the film, a unicorn is killed. In the novel, it is much more graphic and the witch later partially resurrects the unicorn for a ritual to find the star. That made for a highly interesting scene.

The film adaptation of Stardust portrayed Victoria, Tristran's initial love interest, as a superficial pretty girl and not much else. I was happy to see that she is a deeper character in the novel. She doesn't toy around with Tristran so maliciously, and she is in turmoil during the time Tristran disappears into the land of Faerie. Near the end of the novel, there is an excellent scene where Tristran returns to his hometown and discovers much more time has passed on that side of the wall than in Faerie. He meets with Victoria and she tells him how worried she was and how guilty she felt for making him walk into the magical land to find that fallen star.

Probably my favorite part about the novel, which I mentioned above, is that there isn't any big final battle between the heroes and the evil witches out to devour Yvaine's heart. That battle, while well-done, felt over the top, as if Hollywood can't fathom having an adventure without a fatal final showdown. In the novel, the main witch defeats herself with her own powers. Instead of having a final battle, the witch consumes all her powers in her search for Yvaine and becomes a frail creature, unable to do anything to acquire the star's heart. Yvaine ultimately takes pity on her.

Overall, in my opinion the film is much superior to the novel. I don't normally say this but good work, Hollywood! The main problem with the book is that I didn't feel I needed to go back to it. I didn't feel that invisible tug drawing me to its pages. While halfway through, I actually left it for over week and had to force myself to get back to it.

Stardust the film receives four Pirates!

Stardust the novel receives two and a half Pirates.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - Fertilization - A Personified Battle

Over the years, I've heard bumbling parents utter the phrase "Daddy planted a seed in Mommy" in films, television series, and who knows where else. It's become a cliché.

Last year, a friend of mine was expecting. She wanted a girl and the father wanted a boy. One evening, we were out on the street and several of the father's friends came up to us and started talking about the future baby. The conversation was full of macho phrases like "Prove you're a man and make a boy." Even though the guys were essentially joking around, the expressions still struck me.

My friend had a baby girl, by the way.

I am a strong believer that all jokes hold some truth, a glimpse into the psyche of the joke-teller. Even though these friends were joking around about making a baby boy, their words revealed an underlying belief that the man is in charge of selecting the baby's sex. And the baby's sex depends on or is a reflection of his manhood.

Of course, there is some scientific data to back this idea up. A woman has XX chromosomes whereas a man has XY chromosomes. Thus, all women's eggs will have an X chromosome whereas men's spermatozoa will have either an X or a Y. Up to here, that's all science.

However, what about the lexis surrounding reproduction? Dozens and dozens of articles I've skimmed through repeat the same tropes: The woman is a vessel. The woman's egg is a passive player, waiting for the sperm to reach it. The man is the active player. His spermatozoa swims and races to reach the egg.

It's been commonly taught to us that the first sperm cell to reach the egg is the winner. It decides if the baby will be a boy or a girl. It gets to fertilize the egg.

However, have you ever seen a video of fertilization? That ovum is surrounded by sperm cells!

So, is it really a matter of being the first one to win the race? Or perhaps fertilization is based on complimentary chemical reactions? The answer is chemistry, of course!

Have a look at this website from the Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago for a step-by-step explanation of the fertilization process.

So, it seems fertilization is infested with metaphors (plant a seed, the woman is a vessel) and something else: personification. Personification is a technique in which you grant human qualities to non-humans. These can be animals (the cat smiled with satisfaction) or objects (the dark towers sneered down at me).

If you have a look above, you'll see several instances of personification marked in italics. As with metaphors, personifying things helps bring them closer to us: it makes them more relatable. Nevertheless, some articles go a bit overboard. Just take a gander at the website What to Expect and their explanation of the fertilization process. For example (bold added):

But only one of those sperm will be crowned the victor in the frenzied fight to the fertilization finish, and it's a battle that's fraught with dangers lurking at every twist and turn of your reproductive tract (no one said it's easy being a sperm).

This website not only illustrates personification of the sperm, but it also incorporates another well-used technique in medicine: battle language. I will make a future post centered on battle language, but let me quickly mention that it is persistent in medical speech: you fight a disease, the virus attacks, you win or lose the battle with cancer...

Fertility is no less. The website What to Expect delights in giving us the following battle metaphors: fortify the troops, call in the transport unit, gather steam, check the coordinates, battle to the finish, mission accomplished.

It seems battle expressions and personification serve to make the text more pleasant to follow, less "sciency", and perhaps bring it closer to the reader and make it thus more relatable. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hey, Nimrod! - Etymology and Shifts in Meaning

"Hey, nimrod! How's it going?"

That wasn't very nice, was it? Chances are that if you greet someone like that you might just get a punch in the face, or at least a sour look. However, "nimrod" wasn't always an insult--it is actually a biblical name.

According to the Bible, Nimrod was the great-grandson of Noah, and the first person to play a large active role after the great flood. He was an expert hunter and the ruler of Shinar. Shinar is a biblical geographical region in Mesopotamia which has been historically linked to Babylonia. In fact, "The Land of Nimrod" is used in the Book of Micah (Micah 5:6) as a synonym for Mesopotamia or Assyria.

Although the Bible doesn't clearly state this, it is common belief in both Hebrew and Christian traditions that Nimrod was the leader who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. This connection was made mainly because the location of the tower fell in the heart of his kingdom.

With all this information, I can assume that Nimrod was considered an important and powerful man in biblical history. He was a mighty warrior and skilled hunter, the ruler of Shinar... 
So how did his name come to mean "idiot" or "inept"? You won't believe the answer...

In a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs’s fumbling nemesis Elmer Fudd as a hunter on the rabbit’s trail, the carrot-chomping coney sardonically refers to Fudd as a nimrod — insulting him by derisively comparing him to a biblical personage renowned for his hunting skills. Apparently, later generations of Looney Tunes fans who hadn’t kept up with their Scripture picked up on Bugs’s attitude without understanding the ironic allusion, and the word acquired a new meaning, while its original sense faded into the background.[1]

So, it seems we can thank Looney Tunes for this (unintentional) shift in meaning. Basically, Bugs Bunny's use of sarcasm equates to him saying something like: "Nice going, Einstein!"--where "Einstein" is used as a sarcastic form of "genius." As the name Nimrod was not well-known among its viewers, the meaning shifted over time.

However, just how true is this allegation? There are those who believe Bugs Bunny wasn't being sarcastic when he called Elmer Fudd "Nimrod." There are those who believe Bugs was using "Nimrod" directly as a synonym for "idiot," much in the same way Americans use "Benedict Arnold" for "traitor."

The reasoning is simple: let's suppose it was Nimrod who oversaw construction of the Tower of Babel. Some interpretations see Nimrod as an arrogant tyrant who ordered the massive tower to reach the heavens and make a name for the people. Some describe him as a rebel who defied God by constructing the gargantuan monument. The endeavor didn't end well...

Up until that point, the bible claims all humans spoke the same language, but God decided to put an end to the Tower of Babel absurdity by causing people to speak different languages and scattering them over the globe. This event is known as the "confusion of tongues."

So who was responsible for all this confusion and scattering? Nimrod, the ruler, of course. He dared defy God, and he was an idiot for doing so. Thus, some believe the Looney Tunes script purposefully used the name Nimrod as an insult--no sarcasm needed.

Which is the true explanation for this shift in meaning? We may never know...


By the way, I would also like to point out that other interpretations of the Bible see the Tower of Babel as a cradle of civilization, and the "confusion of tongues" not as a punishment, but as a way of explaining cultural differences around the world. This interpretation immediately reminds me of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, where the author gives interesting explanations of how some things came to be (how the elephant got its trunk, how the camel got its hump, etc.).


[1] Daily Writing Tips - Accidental Shifts in Meaning

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review - The Graveyard Book

When I came across The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman it sounded so, so good! Just read this premise and tell me if it isn't right up my alley!

After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

This is a story about a boy raised by ghosts! Ghosts! It's The Jungle Book meets Casper! Right? Right?

I wanted to love this book--I really did. But I just couldn't. It's a shame because the dark topic interests me, and the characters were sympathetic. The main character Bod--short for Nobody--Owens is a smart and likable child and as a reader you really care for him. His undead guardian, Silas, is a delicious mystery who quietly dominates every page he's on.

I think my main issue with The Graveyard Book is that I expected a continuous story about how Bod Owens grows up amidst ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Instead, each chapter jumps ahead several years in his life. Each one reads as its own short story, a more or less closed off adventure, and that made the whole book feel disconnected. I know Gaiman was taking a The Jungle Book approach to this story, but it just didn't work for me.

I guess I should've known better, since I read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book several times when I was a teen. Even so, I think The Graveyard Book initially promised something more linear due to how the story is presented in the first chapter: readers are given a terrible crime, a bloodthirsty villain, an innocent victim and a slew of ghosts to protect him. It felt like the perfect setup for one continuous adventure. Instead, we read one chapter focused on how he makes a living friend. Another focuses on how he is kidnapped by goblins. Another focuses on him going to school with the living... In the end, he always returns to the graveyard and to his dead companions, so each chapter has very little impact.

On a positive note, the best moments for me are, without a doubt, when Bod interacts with other living people. In those scenes, you can see how much of an impact life among the dead has had on the boy. The ghosts teach him certain otherworldly abilities, such as fading, and he uses these to his advantage when he's in danger. Perhaps my favorite story is when he attempts to go to a normal school (aka "for the living") and encounters a bully. The way Bod quietly solves his problems is admirable.

There are other bigger and much more dangerous problems Bod cannot solve on his own, and here his guardian Silas takes over--or others such as the witch Liza or the teacher Miss Lupescu.

However, I have a couple issues with this. At the beginning of the book, the ghosts Mr and Mrs Owens adopt Bod. The cemetery dwellers assign Silas as Bod's guardian because Silas is the only one who can step out into the human world (in order to bring Bod food, clothing, etc.). So what do the Owens do during the entire book? Not much, really. Except for the first chapter, they rarely appear, rarely interact with Bod, and are rarely mentioned. I ended up wondering if it wouldn't have been better to just ignore them and hand Bod over to Silas.

My second issue involving Bod's caretakers occurs near the end of the book. Silas and Miss Lupescu go on a quest to defeat the main evil-doers in the story. This part of the plot was so rushed and so glossed over that the significance of events was lost to me. In my opinion, the events involving these two characters--events which lead up to the final battle--could have been shown more clearly so as not to confuse readers.

The ending is highly predictable and the final battle is filled with clichés that I won't begin to list. Let me just point out that the worst cliché, in my opinion, is when the super villainous villain has the upper hand and is about to off our hero, but before going in for the fatal blow he decides to waste time revealing every single important plot point and evil plan to the hero who, once he has all the information, in one fell swoop vanquishes the evil-doer.

I really hate that cliché.

As with Coraline, also by Neil Gaiman, the ending to The Graveyard Book felt rushed in comparison to the rest of the book. I was expecting so much more. It physically pains me. This could have been so great. It had so much potential! Unfortunately, The Graveyard Book gets two and a half Pirates.

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