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Of Difference and Distinction

ISSUE:  Fall 2021

A story attributed to Aesop recounts a race between a tortoise and a hare. After taunting his slower opponent, Hare sped off and, far ahead, stretched out for a nap. When he awoke, he saw the plodding Tortoise cross the finish line.

In a Cherokee version of the story, the race had the same result, but the characters are called Turtle and Rabbit. Turtle won because of Rabbit’s failure to see distinctions: In Rabbit’s eyes, all turtles looked alike, so Turtle posted friends along the racecourse so that one turtle or another was always ahead of Rabbit.

All tortoises are turtles, members of the same biological order. There is a major difference between them, though: Turtles are adapted to live in water, whereas tortoises are landlubbers. Their environments mark a distinction between them. Just so, rabbits and hares are different: for one thing, rabbits prefer forested habitat, whereas hares favor open ground, among many other distinctions.

In noting differences and distinctions, we classify. Italian and English speakers are biologically the same. Their languages are different, one point that distinguishes them. Like English, Italian distinguishes rabbit (coniglio) from hare (lepre) and tortoise (testuggine) from turtle (tartaruga). Like most English speakers, most Italian speakers couldn’t tell you why there are different words for what seem to be the same things. Così è la vita—that’s just the way it is.

English is a treasure trove of words, each with a precise meaning. It is also a source of confusion and frustration, since so many of those words have subtle connotations and refuse to stand still. Consider our word fowl, which comes from the Old English fugol, meaning any old bird. Our word bird, conversely, comes from the Old English brid, meaning a young bird, especially a young chicken. We’ve reversed the order, so that fowl refers mostly to birds that are eaten—poultry, to bring a French-derived word into the mix. All fowl are birds, but not all birds are fowl.

By the same token, before 1300, girl referred to a child of either sex. The origin is obscure, but it may be related to the Old English gierela, a sack-like garment that children wore and perhaps made them all look alike. There are differences between the sexes, but now the distinctions that once applied are giving way to a welcome insistence on equalities.

It’s said that language changes about 10 percent every century, so nearly completely in a millennium, which accounts for the difference between Old English and modern English, Medieval Latin and Italian. Within those differences lie distinctions: geek isn’t quite the same as nerd; skill isn’t quite the same as expertise; graveyard isn’t quite the same as cemetery. A thousand years from now, assuming we make it through our current catastrophe, those words may well no longer exist, and those distinctions may no longer apply. It’s been my pleasure to have explored such things in these pages, and I give thanks and gratitude—again, not quite the same thing—for your company. 


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