Daily Archives: July 5, 2012


The news is all abuzz with the confirmation (at the 5-sigma level, which is enough certainty for most people) of the Higgs boson. This is particle physics, so of course it’s pretty much Greek or Sanskrit to most people. But even if they’re all at sea, people still want to stay abreast of these things.

So… first, boson is not related to bosun (which is from boatswain, which is what you call the guy who’s in charge of the equipment and the crew work on deck on a ship). And it is not related to bosom, which has old Germanic roots. (It’s also not related to bazongas.) Nope, it’s from… wait for it… Sanskrit and Greek.

There are two classes of elementary particles: fermions and bosons. They are named after two pioneering physicists: Enrico Fermi and Satyendra Nath Bose. Fermions include electrons, quarks (some of which combine to make protons and neutrons), and a few other particles (neutrinos and mesons). No two fermions can occupy the same quantum state simultaneously; that’s a defining characteristic, and leads to the differentiations that have created matter as we know it.

Bosons, on the other hand, can occupy the same state. They’re fungible and you can herd them like sheep – into lasers, for instance: photons are bosons. There are three other elementary bosons – whoops, four. There are three that fill in the tidy grid that classifies elementary particles – they mediate the strong force and the weak force, and I think if I start explaining all these terms for noobs we’ll be here for a while (“o snob,” you think) – and then there’s the Higgs boson. Which is needed just because there’s nothing in the model for all those other particles that requires any of them to have mass. So there needs to be some all-embracing – catholic – particle that celebrates, I mean gives, mass. (You may know they call it the “God particle.”)

I’m not going to give a long explanation of the function and nature of the Higgs boson here when other people do it so well – for instance, this great video made from an interview with Daniel Whiteson of CERN, and even this tidy little article from the BBC. I want to get back to this word boson. This is, after all, a word tasting note. Knowing all about what the word signifies is an important part of that, but brevity is the soul of notes, eh?

I said boson comes from Sanskrit and Greek. Satyendra Nath Bose was Bengali, and his name – a fairly high-caste family name that’s been around for a millennium in Bengal – is descended from Sanskrit, and means (I am told) “forest dweller”. It’s a very common name in Bengal, and now around the world; another bearer is Amar Bose, an MIT professor who started a company that’s become pretty famous for making stereophonic equipment.

Where’s the Greek from? The on, which is the same on you see on electron – just the Greek neuter nominative suffix (various particles have this on ending, all modelled on electron, which for its part comes from the Greek word for “amber”, a substance that sparks when you rub it). Does that make on an elementary particle of English? Depends on how you spin it, I guess. Morphemes – which this on is in the etymological sense – are the smallest meaningful units, but then there are phonemes, the pseudo-individual sounds we stream together to say morphemes (pseudo-individual because, as I say, they run together when we say them, more like waves than particles, but when we hear them we identify them as separate: it’s our own linguistic version of the collapse of the wave function).

Not that all bosons are elementary particles. Any compound particle with integer charge spin (fermions have fractional charge spin) is a boson too, and is subject to a lot of the same rules. This is why, at temperatures near absolute zero, matter can start to become one incoherent mass just hanging together like a bunch of dopers at an extremely packed rave – a thing called Bose-Einstein condensate.

So you can tell the bosons by their charge and their fungibility. You don’t need to stick bows on them. They’re like the s and s in bosons – both are /z/ (though some people will say the one in the middle as /s/, with no buzz on it). They’re not like the o and o, which look the same but are said differently.

They also occupy symmetric quantum states, which is not quite like oso – though that has rotational symmetry. But in the strange and charmed world of particle physics, for all I know some kind of rotational symmetry will turn out to be important too, and the rotational-symmetrical pair of a boson will be a uosoq. You know, it has such a geeky charm to it that someone’s probably tried to make a theory that allows the use of that word.

But rotated letters don’t match up with rotated sounds. Boson has a springtime, bee-buzzing-in-a-blossom kind of sound; uosoq is rather harsher and more wintry, and looks like it comes from Inuktitut or Klingon. So let’s just stick with our boson buddy here, and not go for the bonus round. This matter is heavy enough as it is.


It’s Independence Day in the US, so Americans will be hearing their national anthem sung perhaps even more often than usual. And I’m willing to bet that, with current fads in singing, many will have heard it (as also at baseball and football games and so on) sung in a manner sometimes lately described as oversouled – a miasmal malaise of melisma: “O-oh, sa…ayee-ay-ayyy, ca-uh-aw-ah-uhn yoo-ee-uh-ew-oo-oo-hoo seeheee…” Oh, I smell a wannabe…

Even worse when you accidentally stumble into some “reality” music contest show or other, and they’re all trying to jam as many frills and trills in as they can, some of them (I swear I have seen this) tracing the air in squiggly lines with their index fingers as they do this. Talk about rhythm and bruise.

But while I have a dislike of pretentious oversouling, it would not be fair to tar all melisma with the same brush. Indeed, melisma is a foundation of western (and much non-western) music (with the exception of certain Finnish groups who seem to fit about seven syllables into the same note). At base, it’s just the practice of singing a single syllable over multiple notes. It can range from the long meditative but lifting lines of Gregorian chant (for instance in a Kyrie – click link for a video example) to the wail of a flamenco singer to practically every piece of Arabic song out there to Handel and Mozart and Hall and Oates to… well, take your pick. Not too many songs keep to one note per syllable. Not all have long and involved ornamentation, but I challenge you to find me a popular song (I don’t mean a kindergarten song) that has no instance of melisma: a syllable held over several notes.

Hardly seems even to need a word in that broadest definition, does it? And indeed the word melisma has only been in English since the 1880s, brought over from German (where Felix Mendelssohn used it in 1831), which took it from Greek – Hellenistic Greek melisma μέλισμα “song, air, melody”, from Ancient Greek melos μέλος “song, melody”. (Oh, yes, Greek music has it too. And long lines of melisma were apparently favoured in the ritual music of the Eleusinian mysteries.)

But it’s a lovely word, warm and friendly and lithe and, well, melodic. I feel certain that at this very moment there are hundreds of girls and women walking this earth with the first name Melisma. Why not? Warmer than Melissa, softer than Melody, longer than Lisa or Emma… It has not one phoneme in it that cannot by itself be sung for a long passage: /m/, /ɛ/, /l/, /ɪ/, /z/ (probably the least likeable, musically), /m/ again, /a/ (for singing, or /ʌ/ or /ə/). Reminiscent of mellifluous – which (cognate with French miel) refers to honey – and the Eleusinians and the Elysian Fields and perhaps Irish milseán “sweet, candy” and a smile and perhaps something lissome… And the isma could have been an ism like so many other isms, but the added a makes it so much more singable.

So while you may with justification dislike the many imitators of Whitney, Mariah, Christina, et al., I enjoin you to put them out of your head for a time and listen to Mohamed Khaznadji show how it’s done. Think of him singing the word melisma on one of his myriad-noted melodies…

Thanks to Doug Linzey for suggesting melisma.