Monday, February 04, 2008

Words Only Dead People Should Know

"Don't laugh at me, okay?" I said, "I made up a story to help us memorize the urea cycle."

"Okay," said Paul, sitting down.

"It's sort of a mythological story of origin, okay? In the beginning, there was only CO2 and NH4+, but 2 ATP were invested to create the first man, named Carl (carbamoyl phosphate). Carl mated with a bird goddess, named Ornithine, and together they had a daughter named Citrulline who was actually an orange fruit. Citrulline was all happy and innocent until one day she was bitten by an ASP (aspartate), which turned her bad and sucky (argininosuccinate). Since she changed names to reflect her new identity, like J.Lo, Argininosuccinate started smoking (release fumarate, "fumar" means to smoke in Spanish). She quit smoking, however, and reformed like Lindsay Lohan (haha), changing her name to plain Arginine. Then Arginine drank some magic water (H20) and peed (urea), transforming Arginine into her mother, Ornithine."

There was a short silence. Then Paul said, "So man screws a bird --"


"And the bird lays an orange. Then a...what is an ASP?"

"It's a poisonous snake, can't you see the drawing?"

"It sounds more like ASS to me, so a DONKEY bites the orange and turns it evil."

"Fine," I said, "A DONKEY bites the orange. Geez, you don't know what an ASP is?"

"No," Paul said.

"It's the snake that bit Cleopatra," I said.

"That's a COBRA," Paul replied.

"NO, it was an ASP," I insisted.

Later that week, I referred to Wikipedia to resolve the COBRA/ASP issue, and found that ASP is an ARCHAIC term for several poisonous snakes, and that it has fallen out of common usage. In fact, many believe that the "asp" mentioned in ancient and Elizabethan literature as the snake that killed Cleopatra is the COBRA.

I had to apologize to Paul and then reevaluate my vocabulary -- am I using words that only dead people should know? Outdated and antiquated words are charming when you know that they are actually dead, but it's another thing to run around saying a person with TB has "consumption" and believing that you're using modern terminology.

Now I just feel like an idiot in a time capsule. I would blame Harvard for this, because certainly there are many people there who relish learning dead tongues and forgotten customs (some of them in the English Department). In fact, there are a fair number of people there who would probably be better equipped to live in 12th century society, but I never suspected myself to be one of them.


^ said...

I also learned in one of my Lit classes that "asp" was a small poisonous GREEN snake. I even looked it up in the dictionary at the time to make sure...

Craig said...

too cute dear

Stephanie said...

here's another word, Craig: "offal." :)