Friday, August 1, 2008

Ostra-blog 2 - To e or not to e

I was happy to see that Eric at The Other 95% put up a post about Ostracoda. There, he mentioned some of the stats on the group – thousands of species, both extant and extinct, making a living in pretty much any way you can imagine (except I don’t think there are any true parasites), and living pretty much anywhere there is water. I once hiked to the top of a Santa Barbara foothill (a mountain to a Wisconsinite) and found a crevice in a boulder that had filled with water. It teemed with Ostracoda. They not only live in mountain boulders, but also deep seas, hot springs, and even pools of water that collect in bromeliads.

Eric also raised one of the central issues of ostracodology, a war that has been waged for decades, a debate that elicits passionate arguments from both sides of a fundamental divide. This fray is so contentious as to be officially banned from the Ostracoda email list (called OSTRACON). The moderator, Rosalie Maddocks wrote “We further urge that the debate not be reopened on OSTRACON. We are as unlikely to settle the issue as we are to unite all religions and stamp out all disease.”

What is this debate that so enflames the passions even the most mild-mannered scientists? To e (ostracode) or not to e (ostracod), that is the question. In other words, how to spell the common name of Ostracoda in English?

Perhaps the definitive source on the matter was published in 1981 by Dick Benson, in an article entitled “The odds on "ode" in ostracode, or the omicron and omega of chancy spelling. Here is a link for those who can access JSTOR.

Professor Benson takes us on a wild ride through history, taking a few pit stops to enlighten us about etymology and the Greek language. He makes a fairly compelling argument that “ostracode” is more linguistically “correct” (can you guess which side of the debate he falls on?). But he is also quick to admit that “because language is based on more than logical correctness, the alternative usage is not considered wrong.”

I will not try to recount this harrowing journey through history and language in any detail. Instead, will leave you with Dr. Benson’s lyrical summary, before divulging which side of the divide I fall on:

In celebration of Oxford’s mode,
Most Americans spell it “ostracode”

The Britisher’s closer proximity to God
Causes him [or her] to spell it “ostracod”.

A German claimed Aristotle said it first,
And of the two “ostracod” is wurst;

While a Frenchman after having learned to spell it,
Said it right, by right appellate.

The Italians with gestures free,
Pronounce one “ostracod-eh” and two “ostracod-ee”

All the rest look on amused,
Most don’t care which one is used.

For now, both “ostracod” and “ostracode” survive;
The two of them very much alive.

I end this ode with a short delighter;
Both may be right, but one is righter!

(Note, Professor Benson signed his poetic summary “Anonymous”, because he “holds popular acclaim to be superfluous”)

Where, you are no doubt wondering, do I stand in this great divide? Well, I usually preach pluralism, but on this I must take a monistic stand. Although typically Americans have used “ostracode”, I favor “ostracod”, which is more typically British (despite this trend, documented by Benson, who combed journals to tabulate preferences, he also points out in an ironic reversal that the British Oxford dictionary favors “ostracode”, whereas the American Webster’s favors “ostracod”!) .

My own reasons for "ostracod" are two-fold. First, this is the word I first learned, from my advisor (typo excepted) and from a paper by Andrew Parker. Have you ever had an old friend, say "Jimmy", change his name to the more adult "James"? You still call him "Jimmy", don't you??

Second, I am a bleeding heart, linguistic liberal. Language is an evolving entity, constraining it by arbitrary rules is kinda a diss, ain’t so? Let’s let language continue to evolve! Language is decided by the masses – it’s what people use that determines its path. The only constraint should be clear communication, not ancient Greek grammar. But OMG - WTF is up with all those textisms? Even a lingustic liberal cannot keep up. ITCCTY (Is this clear communication to you?)

Chat lingo aside, I am not fully anachronistic. Eric at The Other 95% has weighed in on this issue using stunning, awe-inspiring new technology, perhaps not even conceivable in 1981 when Dr. Benson considered the question. Eric set up a GoogleBATTLE, pitting ode versus od. GoogleBATTLES scour the entire World Wide Web, tallying occurrences of one word versus another. Current usage (on the web at least) puts ‘od over twice as well used as ‘ode! Who is righter now?

So to summarize my views:

Although typical Americans might find it odd,
For me to use the Brit word, “ostracod”,
How else could I retain my nickname; “ostra-Todd”?

1 comment:

Eric Heupel said...

"ostra-Todd"!! LOL! TCN (Totally Cool Nick)

I never realized it was such a deep and passionate debate! Banned, even!

I imagine it is also taboo for discussion at whatever conference ostracodophiles gather at to prevent the fur flying. (er...setae scrapping?)

It's a riot (to me at least) to find these odes and other poetry to inverts. Hmmm....