Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for March, 2011

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

What does ‘Frack’ Mean?

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Fracking has been creeping into the news for the past few months, so I decided it was time to bring it up on the website. To frack is to fracture the rock surrounding a well to increase the flow of oil, gas, or other useful fluid by forcing some liquid under high pressure into cracks already there.

We should be careful not to confuse fracking with fragging, shooting one’s own officer during war and reporting the incident as death from enemy fire. That was a problem in the Vietnam War but does not seem to be one in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Interest in the gas reserves in the US has risen precipitously recently with the application of fracking, which allows profitable amounts of gas to be extracted from shale. Arkansas, however, where the practice is well under way, has suffered 800 earthquakes in the past six months and evidence points to the fracking in that state as the cause of them.

Fracking has been around since the 40s. It has been used widely by oil drillers. How many earthquakes it has precipitated—if any—is unknown, at least to the general public. If you are interested in where the word came from, you might be interested in the Good Word writeup.