Wednesday, September 2, 2009

actabolism in two Chambers

I was looking for a word to describe the sum total of the thoughts and actions of a person - over an hour or day, possibly week (but not a life or even a year) and thought of perhaps "actabolism", based on a mixed-up analogy with "metabolism" which Chambers defines (offline, 1976 - a big red hardback dictionary ) as "the sum total of chemical changes in living matter".

(And since I was in any case mooching about a way to interpret some meaning into all the slog of miscellaneous microscopic myopic thinking and doing as being maybe somewhat like that great complex of miscellaneous microscopic myopic biochemical metabolism - a rather disturbing mess up close but actually supporting a worthwhile homeostatic constancy if you stand back a bit. An intricate machine to provide constancy in the face of friction and don't forget to dot the i's and cross the t's and put out the rubbish and file the weekly pointless management report because it all does have a point after all, its all part of the intricate metabolism of life - the worthwhile achievement of (more or less) homeostasis in the face of environmental, social, professional, psychological, familial and financial friction and adversity !)

Anyway - it turned out interesting to contrast that 1976 definition of "metabolism" - "the sum total of chemical changes in living matter" , with the slightly less poetic sounding online definition given by Chambers 33 years later in 2009 :

"sum of all the chemical reactions that occur within the cells of a living organism..."

So what has changed ? :

* "changes" has become the more technical and less agnostic "reactions"

* "sum total" , suggesting a complete enumeration of a collection, has become the more quantitative sounding "sum" - which vaguely suggests some sort of chemometric summation of reactions.

* ...and the lovely antique phrase "living matter" redolent of natural philosophy and the Victorians has become the more microscopically correct "cells of a living organism". (I wonder if the newer microscopically correct version is actually correct though...I would have thought a fair bit of metabolism occurs outside cells - e.g. in the action of salivary enzymes and gut acids on food....or maybe that is not counted as part of metabolism proper ?)

The other change in the online definition is that it goes on to add "...including both anabolism and catabolism of complex organic compounds", with these terms (anabolism and catabolism) hyperlinked as I have them. The offline version has both of these as separate dictionary entries but not of course inter-linked (and the entry for catabolism delegates to katabolism)

(I hadn't met these before but have met katabatic and anabatic winds, which are winds that blow down/up the slopes of mountains, as these cool or heat the air immediately above. Hence analogously katabolism breaks down compounds while anabolism builds them up. Nice words, I'm glad I met them).

Anyway getting back to "actabolism" - although Google finds it, its
clear it only makes it into their keyword index by virtue of being
an anagramatical typo' of "catabolism" - see for example where both versions occur.

So I do actually have freedom to operate here - there is no such word as actabolism -but my derivation is not pretty and also wrong. I really (?) need to replace the "bolism" with something denoting a thought or action, not the "meta", as this prefix supplies (?) the "sum total" part of the concept. Or so I thought with my meagre etymological knowledge

This brings out another interesting contrast between the offline and online definitions of "metabolism". The offline version occurs within the context of an ordered list of terms appearing on the page, whereas the online definition occurs on its own without any context - true there are links to the related terms anabolism and catabolism, but links are completely different if not diametrically opposed, to context. The online definition occupies a whole web page - in fact it is really more fragmentary than that, just a web sentence.

In this case the ordering of the terms in the offline dictionary is quite interesting and informative - it is not strictly alphabetical, in fact when I first looked in the big red book for the word "metabolism" I couldn't find it because this word comes after "metacarpal" and "metacentre" which confused my tiny mind ! Well - thats because "metabolism" does not (apparently), despite appearances, derive from the "meta" root after all - and the offline Chambers collects all of the words derived from the "meta" root together, even if this upsets strict alphabetical ordering.

(This is explained in a note in the dictionary's preface section - "The Arrangement of Entries" :

"...Derivatives are not listed in crude alphabetical order but in a more logical form....etc etc")

Grumpy-old-luddite-bastard-time-out :

How much of that sort of informative and rich non-semantic context that you get from "Arranging the Entries", are we going to lose in the new strictly semantic electronic information infrastructure ?

Snap-value-judgement-time-out :

Are hyperlinks always all they are cracked up to be ? Is the current web too hyper' ? Can / will the web stay the way it is now or do we need / will there evolve some "Arrangement of Entries" ? Maybe it needs to become more of a "semantic manifold", with local contextual structure, density and continuity, and less of a porous semantic web, of tangled links between tiny fragments.

True , I was only looking at one of the "freebie" definitions - but even in a
full online entry - e.g. (one of their marketing examples) - you still only get a single definition on a page - there is not the context of similar words to excite the pattern-finding and insight-forming parts of ones attention as you got in 1976. (Interestingly, the structure of that 2009 online page corresponds almost exactly to the design set out in "The Arrangement of Entries" note at the beginning of my big red dictionary of 33 years ago - even though there is no longer really any "arrangement of entries" needed, as there is just one per "page" !)

Well, after all that I still haven't settled on a word to denote , analogously with metabolism, the "sum total of the thoughts and actions of a person - over an hour or day, possibly week (but not a life or even a year)"