Monday, April 28, 2014

Words that warn

     Somewhere in a high school English class was a small topic that intrigues me still -- "questions that expect the answer 'yes'."  A door opened.  Letting me see that what we say has expectations as well as information. In graduate school math classes we considered the warning word "obviously" -- in a proof, it was likely to mean "I'm sure it's true but am not able to explain."
     As I muse today about language I am wondering how unsaid words affect the population of women in mathematics, affect the numbers (too small) of women publishing mathematics.  Thinking about this in the light of a wonderful time on Saturday greeting visitors to an AWM (Association for Woman in Mathematics) booth at the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival.  Temple University professor and AWM member Irina Mitrea did an amazing job planning and coordinating  the AWM booth where hundreds of young people got some hands-on experience with secret codes and ciphers.
     My thoughts noted above have led me to the poem "Elliptical" by Harryette Mullen, offered below.   While not filled with mathematical terminology, Mullen's poem reminds us how (elsewhere, as in mathematics) words sometimes intend much more than they say.

Elliptical     by Harryette Mullen

They just can’t seem to . . . They should try harder to . . . They ought to be more . . . We all wish they weren’t so . . . They never . . . They always . . . Sometimes they . . . Once in a while they . . . However it is obvious that they . . . Their overall tendency has been . . . The consequences of which have been . . . They don’t appear to understand that . . . If only they would make an effort to . . . But we know how difficult it is for them to . . . Many of them remain unaware of . . . Some who should know better simply refuse to . . . Of course, their perspective has been limited by . . . On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . . Certainly we can’t forget that they . . . Nor can it be denied that they . . . We know that this has had an enormous impact on their . . . Nevertheless their behavior strikes us as . . . Our interactions unfortunately have been . . .

I found Mullen's poem at -- it's from her collection Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002).

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