Monday, September 28, 2009

War of the Words and I’m in the Middle

Images of Battle

A skirmish between a small detachment of raw troops boldly led by a green junior officer and a veteran regiment commanded by a grizzled officer initially went as expected. The sudden appearance of other experienced troops challenging the veteran regiment changed the complexion of the encounter. While enjoying what seemed like good theater, I realized that I was in the middle of this and it had consequences for me.

Using Words

I follow an e-mail discussion list involving professional paleontologists and others. It’s an amalgam of the trivial and the substantive, nothing usual about that. One thread struck a chord with me, prompting the war images above. Undoubtedly, these images are overdrawn and I sensed hostility where there really wasn’t any . . . perhaps.

The full content of the point and counterpoint of the skirmish is largely irrelevant. Rather, I was moved by stray cannon fire that threatened my “home.” In a nutshell, a doctoral student used terminology on the discussion list that brought a response from a heavy hitter stating that the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (see Notes below) had declared the specific terminology used by the student dead and buried. The proscription against this terminology, he said, was “the law.” That may have gone too far because other greybeards (I assume that’s who they were, though who knows) weighed in with more nuanced takes on the so-called criminalization of terminology – actual usage by the professionals will win out, they said.

Well, words do make a difference. Professional fields, scientific or otherwise, have a body of accepted terminology which changes as some words die off (or are killed by committee) and others are born. This mutually held terminology ensures that members of the field can communicate clearly and succinctly. Unquestionably, this terminology is also one of the weapons used to protect against the barbarians at the gate. So, a war of the words is important.

Early or Lower? Oops

In the midst of that exchange on the discussion list, there was a throw-away line about other appropriate and inappropriate word usage in geology, such as confusing two sets of adjectives – Early/Middle/Late, and Lower/Middle/Upper. Proper usage, as codified in the North American Stratigraphic Code (Article 82), dictates that the former be used to modify time or age (geochronology) while the latter should modify place or spatial relationships (lithostratigraphy).

Cripes! That stray shot hit home. I’d screwed it up in my recent posting on hunting fossils from the Devonian. (Rather sheepishly, I have since made what I think are the appropriate changes to that posting.) Taking just a moment to think about these adjectives, I can only acknowledge that their proper use is so clear and logical – time versus place. A no-brainer. But, knowing that I will be guilty of this mistake in the future, I find it amusing that this codified usage has Middle in both sets of adjectives. So much for clarity.

Coming to Blows

In the scheme of things, the skirmish in the discussion list over word usage was relatively civilized – a few written blows were struck, some sarcasm slung, and I doubt anyone came away really wounded. Restraint prevailed. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that this flare up died away so quickly. Perhaps I was expecting an encounter like the battle royal among paleontologists that Bret Harte (1839-1902) immortalized in his poem The Society Upon the Stanislaus (text from Complete Poetical Works – link here):

I reside at Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James;
I am not up to small deceit or any sinful games;
And I'll tell in simple language what I know about the row
That broke up our Society upon the Stanislow.

But first I would remark, that it is not a proper plan
For any scientific gent to whale his fellow-man,
And, if a member don't agree with his peculiar whim,
To lay for that same member for to "put a head" on him.

Now nothing could be finer or more beautiful to see
Than the first six months' proceedings of that same Society,
Till Brown of Calaveras brought a lot of fossil bones
That he found within a tunnel near the tenement of Jones.

Then Brown he read a paper, and he reconstructed there,
From those same bones, an animal that was extremely rare;
And Jones then asked the Chair for a suspension of the rules,
Till he could prove that those same bones was one of his lost mules.

Then Brown he smiled a bitter smile, and said he was at fault,
It seemed he had been trespassing on Jones's family vault;
He was a most sarcastic man, this quiet Mr. Brown,
And on several occasions he had cleaned out the town.

Now I hold it is not decent for a scientific gent
To say another is an ass,—at least, to all intent;
Nor should the individual who happens to be meant
Reply by heaving rocks at him, to any great extent.

Then Abner Dean of Angel's raised a point of order, when
A chunk of old red sandstone took him in the abdomen,
And he smiled a kind of sickly smile, and curled up on the floor,
And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

For, in less time than I write it, every member did engage
In a warfare with the remnants of a palaeozoic age;
And the way they heaved those fossils in their anger was a sin,
Till the skull of an old mammoth caved the head of Thompson in.

And this is all I have to say of these improper games,
For I live at Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James;
And I've told in simple language what I know about the row
That broke up our Society upon the Stanislow.

The North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (NACSN) has “the goal of promoting uniformity in stratigraphic nomenclature throughout North America.” (link here) Stratigraphy is “[t]he branch of geology concerned with the description and classification of bodies of rock and their correlation with one another.” (The Facts on File Dictionary of Earth Science (2000))


  1. Tony--

    A good article to read on the NACSN site is here:

    Your particular "sin" is discussed about halfway down, under the heading "Time Warps and Pitfalls..." Don't feel bad; you'll see this all the time, in peer-reviewed papers by people who should know better. This is geology's equivalent of the ubiquitous it's/its confusion, and it sneaks past proof readers and editors just as easily.


  2. Yes, I thought the commentary was a good read (funny, too). I know the rule ("it's the law") but am not sure it's always so clear to me how to apply it. After putting up this post, I was looking at Riccardo Levi-Setti's book Trilobites. He writes, "Since a time sequence translates into a depth series in the geologic column, the customary subdivisions of each geologic period into Early, Middle, and Late epochs correspond to Lower, Middle, and Upper series when referring to the stratigraphic position. Thus the latter nomenclature will be used in indicating the survival time span for each family [of trilobites]." Does that adhere to the rule? I have my doubts. (He is a physicist, after all.)

  3. I see what he's doing, but perhaps he has worded it badly. It makes sense to describe fossil occurrences/ranges in terms of the rocks (lower, middle, upper), since that's where they're found. I think it's risky talking about "survival time span", since fossil occurrences in the rocks are not necessarily a 1:1 reflection of their original (actual) "survival span" in time (preservation issues, unrecognized hiatuses and/or erosional events in the sedimentary layers, changes in geographic distribution with time, etc.). The "survival span" of fossilized organisms with respect to time is an interpretation of the "stratigraphic span" of their fossils. I think he should have written " indicating the stratigraphic range for each family...", but perhaps he (or his editors) wanted to avoid scaring lay readers with jargon.


  4. Yes, it was the phrase "survival time span" that made his choice of adjectives problematic. Your language would have taken care of it.


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