vinculum

I like to think of Sesquiotica as a sort of verbal wine bar, a locale of Lucullan delicacies with lexis for liquor and syllables for syllabub. I do not approach words with the conqueror’s mindset – veni, vidi, vici. Nor am I some Dracula who drains the blood out of words one by one. I prefer rather to inculcate appreciation, to cultivate not division but a common bond. For language, after all, is a grand conspiracy, a group-mind phenomenon: a language operates just by common consent and will of all, and since that “all” is constantly in flux and is made of so many diverse parts, language too is in flux. And we all bring different things to add to it, and it assimilates.

This verbal wine bar is also open to bring-your-own, no corkage fee involved. And today’s vin du jour has been brought by Doug Linzey: it is vinculum, a delicious word that uses fricative, nasal, stop, liquid to get the parts of the mouth working in cooperation from front to back and back to the front.

Well, how fitting an addition to our curriculum. As Doug points out, this is indeed a bar with a vin. You see, in math, a vinculum is a bar drawn over two or more terms to indicate that they are to be handled as an ensemble – rather like putting them in parentheses. It is from this function that it gets its name, for it comes from Latin vincire “bind” and the diminutive noun suffix ulum – so it’s a little bond.

But there are also other uses of the vinculum; a plain horizontal line can come in handy. It is used to indicate a repeating decimal, for instance (as over the 7 in the decimal for 7/9), and can signify negation in Boolean algebra. It is also what one calls the line between numerator and denominator in a stacked fraction. Ah, what binds divides – you can’t have one without the other. Good fences make good neighbours, and you need a good problem for a good solution.

A bar is all about solutions, of course: solutions of ethanol, mainly. But we escape such dissolution and dissipation when our consumption is words. The cups we want are the u and u, and we can cap them with the n and m. And then, still able to keep it in civil terms, we get down to the numbers: v, i, c, l – five, one, a hundred, fifty. Put a line in the middle and it’s vi over cl, 6/150, which is a twenty-fifth. Actually there are 26 ounces in a fifth, but 25 thirtieths in a 750, which is what fifths are at today’s bars – 75 cl.

But, really, at today’s bar we can have whatever fraction we want, and repeat. And if we have more than one vinculum? We have vincula or vinculums – seven or nine letters.

Or we can have Seven of Nine, a character in Star Trek: Voyager, a human who had been assimilated by the Borg and partially re-humanized thereafter. She was a repeating character – actually, a regular crew member. She provided insights into the group-mind of the Borg, who assimilated others and added the others’ distinctiveness to their own (a little like an intellectual-cultural incubus – or succubus, perhaps). Not that the Borg are exactly like language, even English: English is too free-for-all and heterogeneous to be Borg. But they are also united by a common bond, and that gets us to the heart of the matter: the heart of a cube-shaped Borg spaceship is also called the vinculum.

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