We learn about our world only by naming its elements. A person with a hundred cats can tell each one apart – so long as they went through the process of naming each one. The Himbu tribe can’t see the difference between colors we’d call blue and green, and they call their sky white, or black – but they can tell minutely different greens apart – all of them having different names in their language. This is part of my ongoing project to expand my own understanding and usage of the googolplex of words available to me – and you!
A dewlap is “a loose fold of skin hanging from the neck of certain animals,” and is present in dogs, lizards, cattle, according to wikipedia, “as well as cracids and some guans,” whatever the hell that means. In some cases it is mobile, like with those lizards, and sometimes, like with the wattle of a rooster, it just . . . wattles. Back and forth. While the bird bobs his widdle head.
Really, the wattle is not a true dewlap, which is described as a longitudinal mass of skin hanging beneath the jaw or neck; a wattle is a “caruncle,” another weird if mostly useless word.
And neither is that ominous, pendulous bob of skin which dangles from grandma’s throat a dewlap. But the meaning of “dewlap” has expanded to include these phenomena, and for most of us who are not bird enthusiasts or otherwise zoologically occupied, “grandma’s dangly neck fat” is the most useful use of the word. As in, I used to go around grandma’s a lot until she dropped that mean dewlap around age 70, which now seems to watch me when I walk around the room, or While grandpa’s sleeping in his chair, the cat plays with his dewlap. I suppose that you could use it for roosters and lizards, if you really like: Check out the sweet dewlap on that anole lizard as it expands and contracts as a method of attracting mates or repelling predators!
Dewlap would also be a great name for a character in a satirical novel or play, such as Quintus Dewlap, or Dewlap Dickson; or Sissy and Evangeline, the unsettling Dewlap sisters.
Word number two for today is:
Apophenia, n.: The experience of seeing meaningful patterns in random or meaningless data.
What a wonderful little word. I have literally pissed myself with excitement.
In the novel Cosmos by Witolt Gombrowicz, a pair of students are drawn against their wills into an obsessive quest to discover the meaning of a series of probably meaningless indicators, such as a dead bird hung from a string, or a series of marks on the ceiling which line up with a stick lying outside their window, and point in the direction of . . . something. Throughout the novel, the young men continually attempt to steer themselves away from their insane quest and make a good impression on the family that’s hosting them, but again and again they find themselves standing on dining room tables to examine scratches on the ceiling, or wandering around the outside of the house at night.
Gombrowicz is taking a certain human need – the need to find something, somewhere which makes some kind of sense in an otherwise chaotic and silly world – and dragging it out to absurd dimensions, putting a microscope to the pathetic consequences of such passions.
We are all subject to apophenia. It is part of the human condition. Whether people are finding Jesus in a piece of burnt toast (or whatever) or wearing the same pair of boxer shorts every time they give a speech, they are driven by this same mad tendency to fish for meaning in a sea of meaningless – and take control of their lives.
People once thought that left-handed folks were evil, simply because there weren’t many of them. This is clearly false, the result of apophenia, as are things like the ancient Romans’ belief in bird augury. Religion, people’s ideas about supernatural or extraterrestrial phenomena, astrology, atheism, global warming, the concept that Jamie Lee Curtis was born a hermaphrodite, the concept that global warming doesn’t exist, Tarot, etc. may all be the results of apophenia, after all. As is this:
We call this a face, but it’s only a few lines and circles put together. Our brains are hardwired to recognize a face everywhere that we think we might see one, either to detect danger or locate friends. A friendly face is one of the nicest things to look at, whether we’re still sticky from the womb or a hundred and sixty five years old. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not a face but only a few meaningless lines and dots which put us in mind of a face.
I meant to visit grandma more, but she’s got apophenia, and because I scratch my chin in a certain way while looking at my sister she thinks we’re plotting to kill her. Sasha is clearly an apopheniac: she thinks we all like her because we voted her in as president of the board game club, but the only other candidate has a mephitic aroma.
And to finish off today’s post, some easy and useful nouns:
Substrate, n.: A bottom or lower layer (plural: substrata). My boyfriend spends his evenings plumbing the substrate of the internet for bizarre pornography. I try to keep the sink clean, but I cannot cut through the indefatigable substrate of forks, knives, bowls, and liquified food.
Conbobberation, n.: A disturbance, a row, a tussle. Down at Grumpy’s we had us a big bloody conbobberation over Obamacare an’ marriage equality, and me an’ Giovanni barely got out afore the cops showed up.
Lamasery, n.: A monastery of lamas (not llamas), usually in Tibet or Mongolia. While hiking the mountains, we spotted a hospitable-looking lamasery couched on a snowy plateau, with little orange-cloaked monks wandering its purlieu.