Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Infinity of Meanings

When writing nonfiction, an author can’t help but encounter readers who have a different definition of a key word, which can be disconcerting at times. In these days of emails, blogs, podcasts, and other wonders of the digital age, authors are more likely to hear about it such discrepancies. Today I listened to a podcast on the wonderful Just One More Book review site about Missing Math: A Number Mystery. One of the reviewers mentioned she didn’t agree with the definition of infinity given in the book, “a number that never ends.” So, I left a comment on their blog to further discuss it. The basic definition I went by states that infinity is the quality or condition of being infinite; unbounded space, time, or quantity. After rummaging around on the 'net a bit, some people say infinity isn’t any particular number, but is instead a more general concept.

Hmmm... I think any number can become an example of infinity if endless numerals are added to it. And— there can be an infinite number of infinite numbers. In any case, it’s been fun to think more about it, (though after a while my brain starts to melt.) As for the s
tory itself, the thief was trying to string enough numbers together to reach infinity... while it can’t be done, it provided an absurd motivation for him to steal all the numbers.

One of my books was all about definitions, There‘s a Frog in My Throat: 440 Animal Sayings That a Little Bird Told Me (co-authored with Pat Street.) Many of the similes, proverbs, idioms, and other sayings could have more than one meaning. For example, “hot dog” can be an exclamation of appreciation; a show-off; or the act of showing expertise. To avoid protestations that we‘d left out a definition, we put an authors’ note at the beginning to explain that one popular meaning would be shown for each saying, but that the reader may know another one.

My fall 2008 book is Crazy Like a Fox: A Simile Story. I‘ll describe it in a future post, but it did cross my mind that some people might object to the word “crazy” because it can have a derogatory connotation in regards to mental health. It’s too soon to say if anyone will object to that word... my feeling was that it’s ultimately a compliment in the context of this saying, since the confusing actions are intended to mask an intelligent strategy.

I mentioned in a previous post how a change in the definition of planet excluded Pluto from official planetdom and thus had a deleterious effect on my Postcards From Pluto. Usually word meanings come from common usage rather than get decided by a group of experts.

This example isn't within the text of Missing Math itself, but a School Library Journal reviewer's comment about the illustration was a little perplexing: “Imagine a world without numbers. Madly trying to replace them, but to no avail, two-dimensional, wide-eyed, nattily dressed animals cavort on brightly colored pages...” Two-dimensional? Aren’t most illustrations in books two-dimensional? Aside from pop-ups or photographs of real objects such as in the Look-Alikes books by Joan Steiner, I can’t recall ever seeing that aspect of artwork mentioned quite like that. The reviewer may mean that the artwork is not rendered with a 3D look as in the movie Toy Story. With a print review no discussion is possible, but I did wonder about it. It’s like saying the book’s pages are trimmed at 90 degree angles... aren’t they usually?

There have been other instances of questionable meanings over the years, but not an infinite number, thankfully. While some people get upset when others don’t agree with their definitions, I find such discussion to be useful and necessary... how else can people communicate clearly except by fine tuning their understanding of what is meant by a given word? In our family, we run to the dictionary as needed (or use Google in a pinch.)
And though there is usually room for debate, we mustn’t go as far as Humpty Dumpty who declared, “When I use a means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”

Instead, (and with thanks to my husband Andy) it seems fitting to close with Buzz Lightyear’s immortal words:
To Infinity and Beyond!


Liz said...

Actually, the most prominent example that comes to mind is "theory." To a scientist, a theory is an idea that is so well-supported that it is considered true. In common parlance, a theory is an idea that we are not sure about (which to a scientist would be a "hypothesis"). So when scientists talk about the theory of evolution, they are actually expressing great certainty, as I'm sure many here know.

Vicki Cobb said...

In science there are often definitions that depend on how you want to use the information. If you ask what light is, a physicist will say, "That depends"--sometimes we think of it as stream of particles (photons) and sometimes we think of it as a wave (electromagnetic energy). My son, Josh, an optical engineer, has no precise definition of light although he manipulates it in myriad (as opposed to infinite) ways.

steven said...

I think the "two dimensional" comment is fine; and not meant as a negative, just a description. That sheep on the cover has less visual depth than, say, the sheep in Nancy Shaw's "Sheep in A Jeep" (the only other sheep book I have handy). That flatness gives the illustrations a playful quality and focuses our eyes more on the shape of the figures, all of which works very well in your books. There may have been a better descriptive word or phrase to use, but when I read "two dimensional" I don't think "bad" at all.