Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/98

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little David in Saul's armor, the system has been weighed down with superfluities. A simple illustration may be given of its highly artificial character. A sufficient table of currency would be—

100 cents make a dollar.

What would this become, subjected to nomenclature? For dollar, we should have to substitute some Greek word, say argurion, or argur. But give the benefit of familiarity by keeping the word dollar, the above table, metricized, would assume this form:

10 millidollars make a centidollar.
10 centidollars make a decidollar.
10 decidollars make a dollar.
10 dollars make a dekadollar.
10 dekadollars make a hectodollar.
10 hectodollars make a kilodollar.
10 kilodollars make a myriadollar.

What is needed?—The utmost simplicity and straightforwardness. The system should carry no dead weight. Starting with no superfluous units, these units need—

Names.—And here comes in the process of "conscious word-making," the conditions of which have only recently been much studied. The department of science which qualifies men to suggest suitable names or principles for their selection is not physical but linguistic.

The extraordinary vitality of old words was observed by Lord Bacon with his usual practical sagacity. Even in philosophy, addressed to the learned, he remarks, "I am studious to keep the ancient terms . . . though I sometimes alter the uses and definitions." Again, with unwonted earnestness (still referring to language), he declares himself "zealous and affectionate for antiquity." Taking pains to explain the modifications of meaning, he retained ancient terms, knowing how bewildered men become with a strange vocabulary, especially when, as in the metric nomenclature, a great batch of new words is thrown upon them at once—long and strange, and slow to yield their meaning.

These sagacious anticipations of Bacon have been abundantly confirmed by modern observations. Prof. Whitney, whose works exhibit great good sense and clear-headedness as well as ample learning, uses such expressions as these, showing the habits of mankind in the formation of words, "Stretch a familiar name to cover it;" i. e., a new idea. Again, he speaks of "new applications of old (word) materials," and of "the short cuts" which language frequently makes.

One pregnant sentence we will quote in full: "We have had to notice, over and over again, the readiness on the part of language users to forget origins; to cast aside, as cumbrous rubbish, the etymological suggestiveness of a term, and concentrate force upon the new and more adventitious tie."

How much "cumbrous rubbish" impedes the metric names!