Saturday, October 24, 2009

Go Ask Alex

The recently discovered Ardipithecus ramidus skeleton is 4.4 million years old. And if you believe in science and evolution and all that crazy stuff, it's the oldest known human ancestor. So, considering what an important archaeological artifact this is, why do we insist on naming it something silly and cute like "Ardi"? We did the same thing with that 3.2 million-year-old partial skeleton when we named her "Lucy." Ardi and Lucy don't sound like our earliest ancestors -- they sound like people you might see at a supermarket, stocking up on groceries and other household necessities.

It's not that I'm against giving things cute easy-to-remember names, but 35 years after Lucy was unearthed, how many people know she was a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species? And in five or ten years from now, how many people will remember that Ardi is short for Ardipithecus ramidus? Probably not a lot of them.

And to be fair, there's no reason why they should. Listen, I don't care if people don't remember this kind of stuff or not -- I've already forgotten it myself, but that isn't the point. However, I happened to be watching something on either the Discovery Science channel or the National Geographic channel earlier this month, and they kept plugging their show on "Ardi." That's what they showed on the screen, that's what the narrator called it, and that's probably what the show is called. In the commercial, they showed the word "Ardipithecus" for less than a second, so it's clear that they want us to think of this thing as "Ardi," and not as Ardipithecus, let alone Ardipithecus ramidus. Something about that just rubs me the wrong way.

Like I said, it's not important. The only reason I'm bringing it up is that a while ago, a couple of people I know were teasing me for complaining about some terminology in the latest IKEA catalog, which we were looking at online. Specifically, IKEA has a product they refer to as a "drawer unit on casters" and since everything you can buy at IKEA has a cute little name, this product is called "Alex." The "drawer unit on casters" description is very accurate, by the way, since that's exactly what it is, but we've already got a word for drawer units on casters and that word is tabouret. The word has been around for a long time, but you may not know about it, so I'll quote from Wikipedia: "...a small portable stand or cabinet, with drawers and shelves for storage. It is used as a method to bring organization to a work area. This name for a portable cabinet is common to artists."

I don't know why IKEA doesn't simply call it a tabouret, but my guess is that they don't use that word because most people don't know that word. It makes perfect sense, until you realize that the reason most people don't know that word is that nobody ever uses that word. It's a vicious circle that keeps us ignorant and stupid. If IKEA started using the word "tabouret," most people would see the word and look at the picture and realize that a tabouret is a drawer unit on casters. In other words, they would have learned something. Knowledge would have been gained, and nothing would have been lost.

I don't know about you, but I like to be presented with information (such as the names Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus afarensis, and tabouret) so I can decide for myself whether or not the information is useful to me. If I decide to call something a "drawer unit on casters" or maybe simply "Alex," I want that to be my decision, not IKEA's. And I'm picking on IKEA because this tabouret incident happened recently and is still fresh in my mind, but you really see this sort of thing happening all over.

With that in mind, here's today's bad poem:

I couldn't fall asleep
when I went to bed at night.
I was wide awake until the early morning.

But instead of counting sheep,
I just turned on every light,
then got dressed and fell asleep without a warning.

I realize this poem has absolutely nothing to do with anything I was talking about earlier in today's post, but it was too hard to think of something that rhymes with "Ardipithecus."