Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Literal Measure of Beauty (or — How Many Ships Have You Launched Lately?)

Finally, an objective way to gauge everyone’s appearance!
millihelen (MILL-eh-HELL-en) — noun: the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship.
Today, Helen of Troy is known as the beauty who launched a thousand ships. Taken as a literal measurement, then, a millihelen would be one-thousandth of a helen, and therefore pulchritude enough to launch one ship. Once you get beyond ships, the math gets complicated. How many millihelens would one need to launch four guys riding two tandem bicycles? Or a VW Thing full of dogs? Or a tricked-out cropduster piloted by Erik Estrada? That’s for the eggheads to figure out, I suppose. There is probably a doctoral thesis somewhere in here.

rossana podesta, launching more than ships in a scene from the 1956 epic helen of troy
Helen, wife to Menelaus and therefore the queen of Sparta, was kidnapped by Paris, a prince of Troy, and we’re told this offence set off the Trojan War. The phrase “the face that launched a thousand ships,” however, doesn’t appear anywhere in the Iliad. No, it’s actually Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus that first uses that phrase in reference to Helen, who appears as a non-speaking character. In fact, as Wikipedia points out, the Iliad actually notes that 1,186 ships left for Troy: “As such, Helen herself has a beauty rating of 1.186 helens, capable of launching more than a thousand ships.”

There seems to be some disagreement over who invented the word, with some sources crediting mathematician W.A.H. Rushton and others Isaac Asimov. Because Marlowe’s full description of Helen includes that she “launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium,” David Lance Goines writes that the arson potential is also important: “If ships launched were the sole measure of beauty, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower would emerge, without peer, as the most desirable of women. Marilyn Monroe would not even be in the running. The pyromaniacal inclinations of the toothsome Mamie and Eleanor were, however, imperceptible. They didn't even smoke.” Goines therefore calculates that a millihelen should be beauty enough to launch one Homeric warship and burn down a house. Goines also estimates that those possessing an attohelen of beauty (10-18 helens) could inspire someone to “light up a Lucky Strike while strolling past a shipyard,” while those possessing a picohelen (10-12 helens) would be capable of getting someone to “barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube into the pool.”

And if unusual units of measurement are your thing, know that there is also a unit of measurement called the barn, so there are actual scientific implications to describing something as being “as big as a barn.”

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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