The nerdier corners of the Internet have been abuzz lately with a surprising discovery by writer Dave Madden: Many of the “word notes” in your Mac’s thesaurus were written by famous writers, including Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. Some of them are quite well hidden. Here’s one example: If you look up the word “beauty” in the Dictionary app, click on the “Thesaurus” button at the top, and you’ll be rewarded with this “Word Note” by Wallace:
pulchritude. A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves. —DFW
It turns out that the Mac’s thesaurus program is actually the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus—a reference book featuring idiosyncratic annotations by a number of famous writers and word-people, including not just Smith and Wallace, but also David Auburn, Michael Dirda, David Lehman, Stephin Merritt, Francine Prose, Jean Strouse, Simon Winchester, and Erin McKean. (The new edition of the Thesaurus has an introduction by Ben Zimmer; both he and McKean have written “The Word” column for Ideas.)
All this may give you a good reason to use the thesaurus more. If you don’t feel like relying on serendipity, you can find a list of the word notes by author on McKean’s blog Dictionary Evangelist.
By the light of apple tree
Remember those science kits that let you power a clock with a potato? The photographer Caleb Charland has done something magical by taking the same principle applying it to an apple orchard. By wiring a group of LED lights up to 300
living apples—and by taking a long-exposure photograph of the the result—he was able to reveal the chemical energy hidden in the apples in the form of light.
The invention of segregation
When and where was segregation “invented”? It sounds like a question without an answer. Here in the United States, we associate segregation with the legacy of slavery, but expand your scope and it comes to seem like a perennial problem, part of humankind’s obsession with “in-groups” and “out-groups.”
It turns out, though, that the practices and institutions that enable modern segregation—that is, along color lines—have a particular and surprising origin story. As the historian Carl Nightingale argues in his new book, “Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities,” segregation as we know it was invented “in the Indian Ocean,” during the 19th century. There had been segregation before—Nightingale explains how it worked in ancient Mesopotamia—but the practice really took off in an organized, omnipresent, institutional way once colonial governments consolidated their power:
British colonial officials in Madras and Calcutta adapted concepts of color and race for the specific purpose of dividing cities. There, officials, reformers, and land speculators also invented some of the most enduring justifications for their policy of racial segregation: that it could demonstrate the grandeur of the Western imperial mission; that it allowed officials to administer multiracial colonies efficiently; that it could reduce the dangers of epidemic disease and race mixing; and that it could protect the value of white people’s urban property.
From Madras and Calcutta, the arguments and techniques used to create segregation (enlisting banks, rewriting property laws) spread, “stainlike,” to other colonized places. Often, the spread was precipitated by historical events. An outbreak of bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894 led to the institution of segregationist policies, justified as a matter of public health; the same happened in Mumbai in 1896. As the outbreak spread to Europe, segregation spread, too, and those practices eventually made their way to America. There was, Nightingale writes, an “early twentieth-century segregation mania”—one which, unfortunately, continues to shape our cities today.