‘On Language’ 9/6 - When is a ‘planet’ not a planet?

New confusion as definition spins out of control
On Language
Chicago Tribune
September 6, 2006
By Nathan Bierma

Astronomers tried to settle the debate over Pluto’s status by changing the definition of “planet” and renaming Pluto a “dwarf planet.”

But critics say that only led to linguistic confusion.

“We now have dwarf planets, which are in fact not planets. I consider this a linguistic catastrophe,” Owen Gingerich, chairman of the official planet definition committee of the International Astronomical Union, told the British press. “I think the union is going to get a lot of flak for this, in doing it in such a muddy way.”

The confusing terminology could even benefit Pluto fans, one astronomer told the IAU gathering. “It could be argued that we are creating an umbrella called ‘planet’ under which the dwarf planets exist,” said Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who oversaw the IAU proceedings. Accord ng to reports, she tried to lighten the mood by holding up a stuffed toy of the Disney character Pluto under an umbrella.

That argument is true linguistically, wrote Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log (http://www.languagelog.org). It’s hard to exclude Pluto as a planet by using a term with the word “planet” still in it.

“In a compound noun of the form A-B, we generally assume that the compound is composed as a hyponym, [with A as] a particular type of a more general category B,” wrote Zimmer, who is senior lexicographer for American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “So alley cats are types of cats, rocking chairs are types of chairs, bay windows are types of windows, and so forth.”

Zimmer concluded: “The fact that the IAU would like us to think of dwarf planets as distinct from ‘real’ planets lumps the lexical item ‘dwarf planet’ in with such oddities as ‘Welsh rabbit’ (not really a rabbit) and ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’ (not really oysters).”



Posted by Nathan Bierma on 09/09 at 12:05 PM
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