Provocations #17 – What’s in a Name? A Pair of Scissors

Image from the Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.5 Generic license.

While I usually occupy myself with heavy topics in this blog, or so they seem so to me, I have a light question to pose instead: Why do we refer to scissors, which is to say the things we cut with, “a pair of scissors?”

A wise friend said it is because there are two blades.  There is a logic to that I admit, and it is the correct answer (read on). 

I must say however, that I don’t like this explanation.  Scissors entered the English lexicon in the 15th century. Merriam Webster defines scissors (noun) as “a cutting instrument having two blades whose cutting edges slide past each other.”    In a sense, the name “scissors” is defined by its action; it can only operate as intended if there are two blades.  You can no more cut with a scissor-like motion with one blade, than you can clap with one hand.   

Delightfully, Meriam Webster has a web page, “What’s the Singular of ‘Scissors’?”, devoted to this question. It turns out that scissors “is an example of a plurale tantum,” which is a word that uses a plural form to represent a singular object.  In explaining the origins of the phrase a pair of scissors, the article asks rhetorically, how does one distinguish between one scissors and a whole pile of them?  It turns out that the precedent was set a century before by reference to a pair of shears, and this is now the standard for all plurale tantum (glasses, pants, etc.). Thus my friends explanation is correct according to an authoritative source.

I’m glad I asked, but the contrarian in me likes standing on the wrong side of history, and I’ll continue to take exception to referring to a “pair of scissors” (even if I slip up occasionally and use this long engrained expression).

It seems self evident at this point, but interestingly, the use of the noun scissors predates the use of the verb scissor; as in ‘she scissor kicked the ball in mid air’.

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Provocations #9 – Liberal Thoughts

Image:  The seven liberal arts – Illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, 12th century.  Source: Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yes this is a provocative title, as I expect that many will immediately leap to the political connotations of the word “liberal”.  Liberal and conservative; left and right; right and wrong; etcetera.  Personally, I think that those words no longer have much meaning in modern political America.  These labels seem to be more about polls and elections, power and control, and less about what is best for the people and the planet on which we and all living things depend.

No, when I titled this Provocation I was reflecting upon my son’s recent graduation, and the context I had in mind is liberal education — as in the liberal arts. 

From the time I was young, through graduate school, I studied science.  And for me science is about seeking the truth.  As for ‘truth seeking’ I must confess that I think that many scientists do not seem to recognize this simple fact; though they would deny this lack of recognition on their part most strenuously if you put it to them in this way.  From my vantage point, it would seem that many scientists either miss, or ignore, or see only a part of the truth when they come across it.   An outcome of this (via the law of unintended consequences and other pathways), is that science and technology are at the root of our problems and challenges today.  That being said, it is likely that we will need science and technology, and more importantly new and ethical ways of using and applying them, to transition to a better state of affairs.  

How we use and apply science and technology takes us back to liberal education…  In a time when we seem to be engaging in “geek worship” and elevating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the humanities, we actually need need the liberally educated more than ever. 

It is only when we recognize that our greatest and most important problems are sociological and environmental, that we can begin to make better decisions, set better policy, and take appropriate and helpful actions.  In an outcome-driven, bottom line-obsessed culture, this shift in thinking will not come from the sciences.  We can only achieve this new way of thinking and decision making by recognizing the shared humanity in our plight.  And this recognition must extend beyond human beings to include all things, both animate and inanimate.  Only then will we actually create the conditions for a hopeful future for all.

So this is the truth that I have found. We have the cart before the horse.  Science and technology are now driving society and this is backwards.  Ultimately and fundamentally, the solutions to our problems are not technical.  They are driven by sociological and environmental imperatives.  Thus we must lead from the humanities and let them guide and direct the scientific agenda and set our policies.  Therein lies our salvation.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved