Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

A glop taxonomy

on 2018 October 6

In my lifelong quest to un-confuse myself, I have gradually awakened to the fact that I was constantly thrown off by words that are defined associatively, because classical definitions are so much more accessible. As a toddler I would have been so much more aware of the world around me if people answered my demands for meaning in the form “X is a thing in set Y, but distinguished from other members of Y by variable Z”. Because no one would give me a clear definition like this, I spent all those decades not completely sure what an ottoman was, or a hatchback, or a ranch house, or khakis or bows or blouses, or salads or tarts or barbecues. I was more clear about things that can be defined classically, such as that fermions are particles distinguished from bosons by their spin, or that a county is a kind of jurisdiction that allocates 100% of the land area of states into non-overlapping regions. That kind of definition is so much more accessible than trying to figure out why some cars with doors in the back are hatchbacks and others are not, when no one could tell me the distinguishing feature of the class. When people would debate whether a tomato was a fruit or vegetable without defining fruit and vegetable, I thought there was some mysterious classical structure behind their claims, and I came to find out as an adult that there is not, and the question itself (which stole precious minutes from my life) was wrong. A fruit is that part of deciduous plants containing seeds, and a vegetable is any edible unprocessed plant part. At the time those minutes were stolen, I was too young to catch on that the dichotomy was unreal – the two options are not members of the same parent set.

The particular problem category I’m working on in this paper is words defined by fluid consistency. For example if we assume that peanut butter is made of the two ingredients peanuts and butter, as I naturally did, then we miss the critical understanding that “butter” does not indicate animal fats at all, but is instead used as a reference to the resulting consistency of ground peanuts. Coconut milk, by the same illogic, contains no milk. All my childhood I would wonder “what is oil” and “what is wax” and no one could say because every definition would fail to account for all other things that they would also call oil or wax but which were clearly different than the thing in question.

So it turns out, as everyone else already knew, that the meaning of words like butter, wax, and syrup is not about what is actually in the thing, but only has to do with how the thing interacts. In particular since the non-solid parts of us, and biomass in general, are mostly salt water, sugars and lipids, so many word definitions center on how materials interact with water, sugar and lipids. A “syrup” for example need not contain any sugar, but it is just anything that is “syrupy” – but then how do we know in the classical sense if something is syrupy? Answer: it has a certain range of solidity, coherence, and adherence; also it absorbs water and thus is easily washed by water. Molten metals such as mercury might have the same solidity but they lack adherence to water so they are not syrupy. Olive oil has the same solidity and the same adherence as something syrupy, but it repels water so it can’t be called syrup.

The variables

These variables appear to be the most relevant to how we define words for non-solid things:

  • solidity – at one extreme, a measure of how pourable the thing is, or at the other extreme, how much it tends to return to shape (rubberiness)
  • elastic energy – the effort required to re-shape the thing
  • friability – a measure of how pressure tends to either break the thing (like tofu) or stretch the thing (like sugars), or both (like corn starch or silly putty)
  • cohesion and adhesion – the binding qualities of the thing to itself and to other things, affecting surface tension and mixability

A note on elasticity vs solidity: While they might appear to be the same thing, consider jello (and generally things called “gels”) – it is easy to reshape compared to molasses, even though they are both sugar water. Jello has low elastic energy (moves with a light touch) but high solidity (does not pour), while molasses has higher elastic energy (requires greater time or force to spoon up) and lower solidity (it pours).

There are many other variables that chemistry knows about, but they don’t appear to be major players in word definitions. For example:

  • The volatility of solvents is a phenomenon you can feel (such as how hand sanitizer seems to disappear with use) but I could not think of a common word describing liquids with that quality.
  • Density does not appear to affect word choice, possibly because everyday things have very similar densities.
  • The irregularity of a thing because of contained materials affects word choice; for example grout or other cement, sand and gravel aggregates would never be called milky or pasty even if they match other properties of such materials. However there doesn’t appear to be an everyday noun describing aggregation.
  • The quality of surfactants, or soapiness doe not appear to have a word for the class of substance behaviors.

The taxonomy

Now to turn to the actual taxonomy of glop-words, I’ve placed those annoyingly un-definable words into a context of some of the variables above.

  • words for water-absorbing things with low elasticity, low friability, ordered from low to high solidity
    • water > milk > batter > glop > paste > dough > putty / clay
  • words for water-repelling things with low friability, ordered from low to high solidity (and also low to high elastic energy)
    • cream > oil > slime > grease > butter > wax
  • words for water-adhering things, ordered from low to high solidity (and also low to high elastic energy)
    • syrup > gel / jelly > marshmallow > gum > rubber

This is a limited attempt to give a classical definition to these 20 words by defining the class and the variable differentiating the thing from other things in the class.

There are a variety of other words that describe what a thing does for you, or how it affects a process, like a lotion, balm, or detergent. However we don’t use these words as a noun class defined by the exemplar of the class, the way we do with milk, syrup, and the other words in the taxonomy.

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