asymptomatic, asymptotic

Come closer. I’d like to touch on something that has come around recently: two words that at first may seem the same but that have an important difference –asymptomatic and asymptotic. Like concupiscent adolescents, they appear to be kept apart by ma. But that’s not quite it…

Asymptomatic means ‘not having symptoms’; it comes from a-, ‘not’, plus symptom, plus -atic, and symptom comes from Greek σύμπτωμα súmptōma, ‘happening, accident, effect of a disease’, which is from συν- sun-, ‘together’, and πίπτω píptō ‘I fall’. So when you have symptoms and it seems like things are falling apart, well, they may be, but the Greek roots mean they’re falling together.

Asymptotic means, to quote the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics (edited by John Daintith and R.D. Nelson), “Describing a curve (or surface) that has a line (or plane) as an asymptote.” More to the point, it’s the adjective of asymptote. And what is an asymptote? “A line related to a given curve such that the distance from the line to a point on the curve approaches zero as the distance of the point from an origin increases without bound. In other words, the line gets closer and closer to the curve but does not touch it. See hyperbola.” A further point, provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, is that “a rectilinear asymptote may be considered as a tangent to the curve when produced to an infinite distance.” In other words, an asymptotic curve will never touch the line… until infinity. But once the distance between them is small enough, it rounds off to zero.

And where does asymptote come from? Greek ἀ- a- ‘not’ plus σύν- sun- ‘together’ plus πτωτός ptōtós ‘apt to fall’, and πτωτός in turn comes from πίπτω píptō ‘I fall’.

Oh. Well. That kind of… fell together, didn’t it, at long last? In the fullness of historical time, asymptotic and asymptomatic are the same thing. In our time, however, they touch on different subject areas… one is mathematic while the other has that thematic ma.

All of which made me want to write a poem. So here.


Sometimes things fall together
Sometimes things fall apart
You turn me like the weather
But I can’t touch your heart

I’m having chills and sweating
My fever’s running high
These symptoms I am getting
Whenever you come by

I’m straight but you are curving
I won’t admit defeat
Love’s labours make deserving
In finity we’ll meet

My plight has made me plangent
That’s no hyperbole
Let me go on a tangent
And reach you verbally

I cannot be neurotic
About this number stuff
If you are asymptotic
I’ll just say “Close enough.”

4 responses to “asymptomatic, asymptotic

  1. Fun! Was this a reaction to the tweet from a House candidate and former White House physician that also referred to the absence of comorbities?

  2. This was enchanting. So much synchronicity in a few short verses.

  3. David Milne-Ives

    NIce elliptical nod to Yeats! But – sometimes – the circle does hold.

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