Sunday, May 18, 2014

Humor me!

The word was disparate, uttered without conscious thought, simply because it fit the context of our morning’s discussion—triggered by a New York Times story this morning titled “Statistics 10, Poets 0.” I ventured the dismissal, having glanced at the headline, saying: “Statistics takes things apart, poetry puts things together.” But then, recognizing that statistics actually does put things together, by counting disparate but also quite distinct but similar things, I was off on that. Then Brigitte said to me: “Hand me that dictionary. Humor me!”

Our exchange and the request for a dictionary—which is on the floor of the bedroom by the window, underneath a tiny bookshelf, overshadowed by a vast and glorious orchid which takes all the light from the huge window—is a pretty routine sort of thing during our coffee-drinking moments in the morning.

Brigitte was looking up a word, but I didn’t know which until she confided that it was disparate. “I’m looking for additional meanings,” she said. “Words—I can’t help myself. Absolutely everything. Words. Words.”

That makes two of us. In the silence of looking for disparate, her last words, Humor me!, were revolving in my mind—and a wonder arose how that word, which originally described the body fluids the ancients thought were at the root of every state of mind—yes, blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile—could have produced this phrase…

Well, Online Etymology Dictionary on my screen, the tracing becomes easy. Yes, the humors determine the state of the mind. But the meaning is relaxed, not absolutely deterministic. We have a certain freedom to pick the humors we need to deploy in any one situation. Therefore, eventually, the notion of deploying more of one humor, rather than the other, came into usage. And the meaning of “indulge me,” arose, although quite late, in the 1520s. The humor used for that purpose is probably “blood,” which is ardent and sympathetic.

Now as for that article, it is about numbers and metrics—and how these are displacing feelings, I suppose they mean. Not the experience but the duration of sexual encounters is measured—measured in some fantastic way by using apps and cell phones and no doubt secret feeds from the NSA. And mapped—so that we can look down on regions where sexual encounters are of the shortest duration. But I’m not going there.  But here’s a brief quote to get the flavor across:

That God-shaped hole in the universe? It’s been filled with social science. Whereas once we quoted politicians or preachers, now we quote Gallup or Pew.

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