Daily Archives: November 28, 2012

mantissa, meniscus

Mantissa was a lovely little number of Etruscan extraction. She was small but significant, a details person who was always helping the powers that be – she was seen with the greatest exponents of her time. She knew what her base was; she knew when to go on indefinitely and when to be brief or even disappear altogether. She always got the point, and she never forgot where her roots were.

Meniscus was a Latin of Greek extraction. He had a name that smacked of greatness – like a warrior or a playwright. But he found himself ever at the edges, on the rim. A connector. Not great in himself, but capable of magnifying others. He always had a lens on the glass of the times; any time tension surfaced, he was there. But he was never sure if he was waxing in power or waning.

When Meniscus heard of Mantissa, he was over the moon for a sight of her. He felt sure that they were made for each other. Both were small in themselves, seemingly minor and accessory, but both were inescapable. He knew that Mantissa might be more indispensable than he was. But they seemed so compatible – right down to the names, so similar, the m, the n, the crisp stop and soft s, the three syllables amphibrach – and each with the same sound at heart, that soft and relaxed but certain I.

How would he contact her? He was not calculating as she was, as were those around her. But he had a fluid intelligence. He beat a natural rhythm on a log, and with ease he brought her to him.

Immediately he knew he had her number: he could see she was not rational. She voiced her devotion. Such expressions as would appear hyperbolic to others seemed straighforward to her. But amid her protestations there was a reserve.

“Can we ever get together?” Mantissa said, at last. “You spend your life above the line; I work below the line. You must know I will never be a whole one.”

“But I, too, am ever incomplete; this is how I am made,” Meniscus replied.

“How do I know this is not simply an angle you are taking to contact me?” she said.

“But, Mantissa, how do I in turn know you are not simply preying on me?”

“Do not trifle with me.” She took his hand lightly, touching barely more than the lunulas of his fingernails. “I cannot have men; I can have only one man.”

Meniscus was torn. How could he be other than he was? At length he prevailed. “I spend my life forever halfway between sea and ground,” he said. “You add a new dimension to my existence. Will you take my measure?”

“If you will keep my point floating,” she said.

“I will not let go,” he replied.

They professed eternal devotion. But in so doing, they undid themselves. As they made perpendicular contact, and she declared “You are my one and only,” he disappeared and she disintegrated, and nothing was left but the flat surface where they had been.

Perhaps this needs some explanation for those less familiar with the words.

A mantissa is the decimal part of a logarithm. A logarithm is the power you put a base number to in order to get another number. For instance, the base 10 logarithm of 1000 is 3, since 1000 = 103. Natural logarithms, useful in many areas of math, have e as their base, which is not a rational number – the decimal goes on indefinitely (it is, to 3 decimal points, 2.718). Any number that is a perfect power of the logarithm base will give a logarithm with no mantissa. The logarithm of 1, for any base, is 0. A mantissa is also the number on the left in floating point notation – for instance, in 6.022 × 1023, the mantissa is 6.022.

A meniscus, on the other hand, is a few things, all shaped reminiscent of a crescent moon, whence the name. It can be a bit of connecting tissue on your knee, or it can be a concavo-convex lens (as in reading glasses), or – in its best known usage – it can be the bit of liquid that curves up (or in some cases down) at the sides on the top surface of liquid in a container. The specific liquid and container material determine the angle of contact; if the angle of contact is perpendicular, there is no meniscus – the surface of the liquid is flat from edge to edge.


This word seems to me to have layers of ensiform leaves, like its object. It has a neat partial symmetry, with the opening and closing a’s and the mirroring i’s flanking the not-quite-central post of the d. The layered feel may come in good part from the pair of /s/-plus-voiceless-stop clusters, sitting neatly at syllable boundaries – many a linguist will tell you flatly that in both instances the /s/ is fully at the beginning of the latter syllable and not at all part of the former, but others will point out that the phonological effect is as though the /s/ is at the end of the former syllable. Ask someone what the third syllable of this word is and they will probably readily say “dis.” (Ask them to say the first syllable and they’ll probably think you’re being naughty.) We don’t, after all, have “short i” in an open syllable. So even if, in saying it, we tend to glue the [s] onto the [p] or [t], that’s something that happens just at the moment of articulation – and possibly not completely even then.

For quite a few years I added, in my mind, another layer to this word. Somehow aspidistra seemed like it didn’t have quite enough to it, so I thought of the word as aspidispstra (and no, this was not some mere dipsomaniacal fantasy). That made for a rather larger-than-usual version of aspidistra! But not perhaps the biggest in the world. That would be the one in Gracie Fields’s song “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” which she came out with in 1938 and which was popular during World War II.

Why an aspidistra? This plant has become emblematic of British middle-class dull respectability – even the Oxford English Dictionary includes this aspect of its social significance right in its definition. George Orwell’s 1936 book Keep the Aspidistra Flying cemented its place as epitome, but by that time it was already past its peak in that role. It happened to have been one of the few plants that could thrive presentably in the dim cold and mildly toxic air of the gas-lit households of the British middle class during the Victorian era and on until electricity took over. (It occurs to me that I could probably get away with using one – perhaps the kind called “cast-iron plant” for its resilience – to replace the scraggly seven-year-old poinsettia that my wife keeps threatening to dismember and put down the garbage chute. I’m sure there’s a local aspidistribution centre somewhere in the aspidistrict I could get one from.)

This word has tastes of other life forms too. It opens with asp, which is a snake; its form is perhaps reminiscent of Latin names for bugs, such as Coleoptera; the stra makes it look like a Dutch family name (cf. Feenstra, Hofstra, Keegstra, Kooistra, et cetestra). But for all the menagerie of its letter salad the plant is not fantastic or exotic or exceptionally colourful; its leaves are like wide swords, but the name gladiolus is being used by something else, and somehow this plant got named after a shield instead – Greek ἀσπίς aspis plus some modern Latin morphology to finish it off. The word entered English about the time Queen Victoria was born.

Of course you could always call it by its Mandarin name yè lán or its Japanese name haran; after all, the plant’s originally from that part of the world. But those seem like such simple words, lacking the aspiration to sophistrication and respectability of the broad British middle class. The aspidistra keeps it flying, full banners in the breeze: the escutcheon of the world’s salary slaves.