Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Word for Tearing Things Apart

This little series on strange and wonderful words, which I began nearly four years ago with fissilingual, has covered a great deal of verbal territory — from obsolete gems (darkle) to words that name such specific, obscure things that you’d be surprised to learn that anyone bothered to coin them (jumentous) to jargon known only to specific communities (weeaboo) to awesome non-English words that we’d be better off incorporating (slampadato). But my favorites are always the ones that name familiar things that I’d previously just described in a roundabout way. It just makes my happy to know that they do, in fact, have proper names.

And on that note:
obelus (OHB-uh-lus) — noun: 1. the mark ÷, used to represent the mathematical operation of division. 2. one of several marks used in ancient manuscripts to indicate a spurious passage.
The phenomenal typography blog Shady Characters recently invited readers to name the “approved curl,” a symbol used to mark correct exam answers. (An aside: I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. No, not because I’m dumb. Stop that.) In all the ensuing typography talk, the author mentioned that the technical term for the division sign is obelus. This was news to me. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the term comes from the Greek obelos, “a spit” or “a sharp stick,” which is the same sort of the word obelisk, which, now that I think about it, is the architectural equivalent of a sharp stick.

What surprised me about the history of the obelus is that it didn’t always refer to the math function. That’s weird because if you really look at this sign, you’ll see that it’s a great visual representation of division: a line that is literally dividing two dots.


But yeah, it once had another purpose: The smartypants of old used the obelus to call out chunks of text that might be somehow wrong, whether as a result of translation errors or info that was just plain bad to begin with. For example, there’s some debate about the Gospel of John’s Pericope Adulterae — the story where Jesus saves an adulteress from stoning by making her would-be punishers remember that they too have sinned. Although the story is one of the more famous of the New Testament, its authorship was questioned by the third-century scholar Origen, who marked the passage with an obelus. And yes, there is a certain irony to him being the one to find fault with the passage that gave the world that famous line, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t always the ÷ that was written. A simple line could also be an obelus, as could the dagger symbol, or even the sign ./., which is sometimes called a lemniscus and which somehow evolved into the ∞, or the infinity symbol. (This symbol is properly called a lemniscate, and I wrote about it in a previous “word of the week” post.) In fact, there seems to be a great deal of overlap, both in form and name, with the division sign, the infinity sign and the symbols people use to say “Hey, this passage is wonky.” I am not clear why. According to Wikipedia, the obelus was first used to represent division in a 1659 algebra book, and it’s retained that meaning ever since, save for some parts of Europe that use it today to represent a range of numbers or even subtraction, thus explaining my failure at the Norwegian mathlympics.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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