A newspaper ad I saw this morning that used the phrase "quantum leap" to promote the company's new technology got me wondering about the origins of the flawed metaphorical meaning.

My background is in Physics, and in the world of science a "quantum leap" or "quantum jump" has a very specific meaning, in which an atom transitions from one energy state to another. The higher states take less energy to achieve, so in science a quantum leap is one that becomes less and less significant. I've always been amused (and bothered, I'll admit) that the metaphorical phrase has come to mean a very large advance, no matter what.

So I just checked the online Oxford English Dictionary, and found their earliest citation for the metaphorical meaning:


1956 H. L. Roberts Russia & Amer. i. 10 The enormous multiplication of power, the ‘quantum leap’ to a new order of magnitude of destruction, is something very real and comprehensible.


It may have been used before, but as far as the OED is concerned, the guilty party is one H.R. Roberts, who wrote a book called "Russia and America" that was published in 1956. However, a quick Google search turns up nothing significant about Mr. or Ms. Roberts.

Anyone know where I can find more?

(By the way, for those interested, the OED's official definition of "quantum leap" in its metaphorical meaning is "A sudden, significant, or very evident (usually large) increase or advance.")
For those of you who are interested, I see that lexicographer [livejournal.com profile] harmless_drudge has posted her thoughts about the 2008 Words of the Year, which are:

New Oxford American Dictionary: hypermiling
Webster's New World Dictionary: overshare
Merriam-Webster: bailout
American Dialect Society: bailout

My own, brief thought? Bailout is too obvious a choice. I'd go with Blagojevich. :-)
So far today, I've seen

Veterans Day

Veteran's Day

Veterans' Day

Which is it?
"You can usually tell that a period of human disquietude has evolved into something of historical dimensions when the lexicographers become involved."
Simon Winchester in today's New York Times
I discovered the sad news today that physicist John Archibald Wheeler had died on Sunday morning at the age of 96.

For those of you who have never heard of him, Wheeler will probably be most remembered by the general public as the one who invented the term "black hole" for a dead star so dense that not even light could escape its gravitational pull. Oppenheimer and Snyder had suggested this possibility out of Einstein's general relativity, and it was at a conference in 1967 that Wheeler came up with the term.

The concept of a star so massive that not even light could escape had been discussed long before the equations of general relativity suggested the possibility, but no one had come up with a good term for the idea. Probably the most well-know phrase before "black hole" was "frozen star," which doesn't quite create the same image in the mind as "black hole" does.

Black holes have become a longtime staple of science fiction; I even used one for my first cover story, "Escape Horizon" (Analog, March 2000).

As someone who studied general relativity as a graduate student, I used Wheeler's classic co-authored textbook on the subject: Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. It's one of the clearest explanations of general relativity for the physicist that I have ever seen. I also learned some of special relativity out of the classic Spacetime Physics book that Wheeler co-authored with Edwin Taylor; and although I did get to meet Taylor once (when I almost served as his Teaching Assistant), I never did get to meet Wheeler. I wish I had; I understand he was a great teacher. Wheeler was probably the most influential physicist of the 20th century who never won a Nobel Prize, and he deserved one a thousand times over.

If you want to learn more about him, here's a link to his New York Times obituary: John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term 'Black Hole' Is Dead at 96.
I think this might interest some folks:

From the World Jewish Digest, the article "When Harry Meets Hebrew" by Sarah Bronson, all about the issues involved in translating the Harry Potter books into Hebrew. The translator of the books, Gili Bar-Hillel, seems to have found it a challenging but rewarding task. For example, how would you translate the name Remus Lupin? Should a Hebrew-speaking Harry Potter eat bacon? And so on.
As a follow-up to my post about the New York Times using the s-word earlier this week, I notice that Language Log has also commented on the usage, in a post titled The NYT Transgresses. They do say that new ground has been broken; apparently, the only time the Times has ever printed the s-word before was in quotations from the President of the United States:


For some time now, we've been tracking the NYT's handling of taboo vocabulary. The paper's policy is not to print dirty words, even in quotations where they might be relevant, and also not to use asterisking, "[expletive]", "the F word", or other standard avoidance techniques, preferring instead to allude indirectly to the banned words (or to omit the material entirely). However, over the years the paper has relaxed its policy, allowing s*** when the President says it -- first, in 1974, from Richard Nixon (Abe Rosenthal at the time: "We'll only take s*** from the President"); then in 1976, attributed to a fictionalized version of Lyndon Johnson; and, more recently, from George W. Bush... [asterisks mine]


Language Log also has a few amusing examples of how the Times goes about avoiding the use of expletives with their circumlocutions.
I was surprised to see this morning that the New York Times, for the first time that I can recall, published the s-word in one of its articles.

True, the s-word was used in a quotation, but it was still there. My understanding is that the Times makes a point of avoiding the s-word and the f-word; in fact, when they reported on the episode of South Park that used the s-word over 100 times in the space of one episode, they referred to the word with a variety of circumlocutions.

For those who are interested, the s-word appears in the article "Politics Seen in Nasty Call to Spitzer's Father" by Danny Hakim, which starts on page A1 and jumps to page A16 (at least in the New England Edition). On the website, the article has a slightly different title, G.O.P. Consultant Accused of Threatening Spitzer's Father, but it would appear to be the same article, with only slight alterations. And the s-word is present there as well.

The article quotes a caller as saying, "“There is not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-s*** son can do about it.”

Since the standards of Mabfan's Musings are different from those of the New York Times, I've edited the s-word accordingly, but in the Times, it is spelled out accurately and completely, a letter "s" followed by the three letters "hit" in that order.

Does anyone know if this is a change of policy or simply an error?

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