Flight of Ideas
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Flight of Ideas

Heuristics with words

I discover

The word heuristic comes from philosophy. It denotes a technique used to solve problems with practical methods that need not be optimal or perfect. But the technique is sufficient to reach a short-term result. Trial and error, rule of thumb, and making educated guesses are all examples of heuristics.

The heuristic has another sister word that comes from the same root as the word heuristic. Any guesses?

The word is Eureka (means: I have found it). And it comes with its own interesting story. Archimedes dipped himself in a bathtub when that water level rose. Suddenly, he stumbled upon a realization. He had solved an age-old problem to measure the volume of irregular objects. The volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the body submerged. Submerge an irregular object and measure the volume of water displaced and you have volume of the object. Overcome with joy, he ran naked on the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka, Eureka! and wrote the history. Was he applying heuristics when he reached the conclusion?

16th-century illustration of Archimedes in the bath

Let’s practice heuristics.

  • The painting’s simulacrum was sold as an original by the shady art dealer.

What does the word simulacrum mean here? The word is similar to the word similar and this is what it exactly means. Coming from the root similis meaning resembling something. So the word simulacrum means a similar copy (an imperfect copy.)

Heuristics can be of immense help when you encounter a new word. A little experience with the roots of other words can help you decode the meaning of this word you encountered. But this heuristics, as I have commented, is not a perfect solution. So it comes with its own risks.

Take the word fungible. It is a legal term that means a mutually interchangeable commodity. Heuristics leads me to its root fungi which means “perform” but here I reach a dead end as I cannot deduce its true meaning.

Take another example of the word exhortation. A little knowledge of the Latin root would make you guess that word has something to do with gardens (hort — garden and gives us words like horticulture). But that does not happen to be the case with the word exhortation. It comes from another Latin hortari which actually means to encourage or to urge. So the word exhortation actually means to encourage someone by communication/speech. An example can be when Gandhiji exhorted people to burn their English-made clothes in favor of desi hand-spun clothes.

So heuristics can be a misleading tool in such cases. But used carefully it is a very useful weapon in your arsenal.

Eureka with words

The story of the word eureka brings to me another interesting word with a fascinating backstory. Lionize. The word means to treat someone as a celebrity by giving them a lot of attention. It is a newer word in the language and it is said that the word derives its meaning from the lions kept in the Tower of London in the 1800s. Lions were unseen in those parts of the world and were seen by the public with extreme curiosity. Gradually the word took the world and became more generalized to take its current meaning.

Another interesting word is uber which means supreme/perfect example. A multinational company by the same name has popularized it in recent decades. It comes from the concept of Übermensch given by Friedrich Nietzsche which literary means superman or beyond man. It is said that the creators of superman were actually influenced by this concept of Übermensch when they came up with superman.

With this we come to the end of this post. I hope that from now onwards heuristics will play an important role in your learning and understanding of words.

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Priyash Jain

Priyash Jain

Psychiatrist. Aspiring writer. Voracious reader. Tech junkie. A logophile. History enthusiast. Foolishly optimist.