The Trouble with Asks

Being in a relatively brain-dead mode here at the end of the year (my only excuse being a return from a mentally exhausting visit to Florida where I started a new job, shopped for and bought a house, videotaped my niece’s wedding and attended several large family gatherings), I am unable to come up with anything particularly interesting to write about as the last post of the first year of this blog. So I will finish 2006 with one of the countless unimportant things that regularly distract me from actual thought. Today’s example: the word “asks”, or any word that ends with “asks”. Why? It’s a short word, one vowel, technically one syllable, yet it is not possible to get that last “ks” sound out with adding another syllable. Say it. Repeat it. Slowly. As-kus. I hate that. Happy New Year.

There’s Nothing Banal about Mischief

Let’s get this straight once and for all:
It’s “mischievous” (MISS-chi-vuss), not “miss-CHEE-veeus”. Take a close look between the v and the s and you shall find e’s, i’s, and y’s are missing.

And please: the French gave us a perfectly reasonable pronunciation for “banal.” Let’s not ruin it by making it rhyme with anything other than “canal.” Or, if you like, “ball” with an “n” in the middle. I was once in a play with an actor who insisted on making it rhyme with another word with a similar spelling. She bet me a six-pack of soda that she was saying it right, and to this day I’m sorry to say that I found a dictionary that did list that scatalogical pronunciation as an acceptable alternative. Well, it’s not acceptable to me.

But I did give her the sodas.

Galaxy Quest is not a Spoof

Yes, Galaxy Quest is old news. But this has been bugging me ever since it came out. As much as I enjoyed the movie I was that irritated by it constantly being described as a spoof of Star Trek.

Galaxy Quest is not a spoof of Star Trek, or of anything for that matter. A spoof is a work that imitates another work in an exaggerated fashion for humorous effect. Spaceballs spoofed Star Wars, among other movies, by replacing Darth Vader with Dark Helmet whose dark helmet was comically large, and Jabba the Hutt with Pizza the Hut. Get it? Galaxy Quest is funny not because of the similarities to Star Trek, which are present, but because it puts a bunch of actors on a spaceship and forces them to be the dashing heroes they played in their television show. The ace pilot doesn’t know how to fly the spaceship and can barely get it out of spacedock. Because he’s an actor. Guy panics at the sight of the “red thingy” and the “green thingy” on the screen because he’s some shmuck from Los Angeles who has been transported to an alien spaceship that’s about to get blasted by a giant lobster. It’s funny because of the juxtaposition of our everyday life with a fantasy life transformed into reality, not because there is another corny (though filled with insights on the human condition) science fiction TV show with a rabid fan base.

The only part of Galaxy Quest that comes remotely close to spoofing Star Trek is the science fiction convention scene. Frankly, real Star Trek conventions are more amusing than the Galaxy Quest convention. I speak from experience. The sparkle of Galaxy Quest comes from seeing a bunch of regular 20-th century actors confronted with an absurd situation.

Alan Rickman’s alien bears virtually no resemblance to Spock, and whatever resemblances there are, aren’t funny. (Spock has prosthetic pointy ears, and Rickman’s character has a prosthetic headpiece. It bears no resemblance to Spock’s ears, and actually it’s a pretty good alien make-up job.) If Rickman’s character had 10-inch pointy ears and a permanently raised eyebrow, that would be a spoof of Spock. What makes his character funny is that he’s an actor with some pride in his craft forced to walk around with a piece of rubber glued to his head saying things like “By Grapthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, you shall be avenged,” on a campy TV show and then has to confront the very real existence of a world he has scorned for so long.

Sigourney Weaver’s cheesecake character on the Galaxy Quest TV show repeats whatever the computer says. If a character did that on Star Trek, then that would be spoofing Star Trek. But no one does that on Star Trek. If Sigourney Weaver wore a giant telecommunications insert in her ear, that would be a spoof of Uhura. If there were a medical doctor on Galaxy Quest who regularly announced that someone was dead and repeated that he was a doctor all the time, that would be a spoof of McCoy. If there was an engineer on Galaxy Quest with a thick ethnic accent bemoaning the inevitable destruction of the ship because there’s not enough time, that would be a spoof of Scotty. If there was a race of aliens ridiculously more interested in death with honor than actually living, that would be a spoof of Klingons. But there isn’t.

Weaver’s character’s role on Galaxy Quest is funny because they put a hot woman on the show with no role other than to attract young male viewers, and that’s a spoof of TV in general but not Star Trek (which usually had hot villainous female guest stars). Tony Shaloub’s engineer is funny in Galaxy Quest because he is cool and unphased by his alien surroundings that would totally freak out any normal person (like Guy). It is funny because, as Gwen DeMarco (Weaver) says, “we are actors, not astronauts.” A Star Trek spoof would take place entirely within a fictional universe like the Star Trek universe, but everything would be exaggerated. Someone could probably make a pretty funny spoof of Star Trek. Galaxy Quest is pretty funny, but it’s not a spoof. Geez!

Ode to Eccentricity

It seems like scientists have a different meaning for perfectly ordinary words. To an astronomer, for example, “eccentricity” does not mean an inclination to strange behavior. Nor does “inclination” refer to a tendency. There are also the anomalies: true anomaly, mean anomaly, and eccentric anomaly. None of these are anomalous or eccentric. And don’t get me started on wakes. “Eccentricity” is one we deal with all the time. It simply describes how much an object’s orbit differs from a circular orbit. I have noticed an interesting trend among my younger colleagues the last few years: they pronounce “eccentric” either “eh-sentric” or “ee-sentric”. Call me old-fashioned, or maybe eccentric, but I can’t stand by and see a perfectly good double-c get the s-treatment. This ode is dedicated to the eccentrics.

Ode to Eccentricity
by Josh Colwell

“Eccentricity” has two c’s
like “occipital” and “accidentally”.
“Eccentricity” has two c’s
sandwiched between two short e’s.

Syllablically speaking,
If one can do such a thing,
That’s an “ek” then a “cen”:
Two c’s: no redundancy.
To skip one of those c’s
While maybe a breeze
Fills the ears and the brain with a bit of a quease.

Do our cars A-celerate when we step on the gas?
Only acceleration allows us to pass.
Howard Hughes’ bottled pee
Was no sign of E-centricity.

But we don’t need to rely on our O-cipital lobes,
Don’t take it from me,
Check the OED
The word is pronounced “EK-sen-TRISS-ity”

While soft c sounds may be palatable,
“E-centricity” is just not A-ceptable.

Tation vs Tion

Following on the “fragmentation” post, can you come up with words that, like fragmentation, segmentation, documentation, and regimentation get the extra “ta” but do not have roots ending in “ment” (like fragment, document, etc.)? Post them here as comments. I have thought of two so far.

The Trouble with Fragmentation

As a planetary scientist studying the formation of the planets and the evolution of planetary ring systems, the following terms referring to how a swarm of colliding objects (like ring particles, or asteroids, for example) evolves:
Accretion
Aggregation
Coagulation
Compaction
Fragmentation

At a meeting today of the Cassini UVIS science team, when this list of words appeared on the screen I was distracted from the subject by what appears to be an extra syllable. You see it, don’t you? It’s taunting us, or should I say “ta”unting us, there in the middle of “fragmentation”. Examining the rest of the list we see that accrete becomes accretion, aggregate becomes aggregation, coagulate becomes coagulation, compact becomes compaction, so why can we not have a fragmention? Is it unspeakable, or simply unmentionable? What is wrong with a frag? For that matter, how about segs? We have segmentation, but never is a seg mentioned.

So before the termination of this post I’d like to mention not only a frag and a seg, but also an imple, a regi, and a docu; those poor neglected prefixes that never get a mention.