A Thought on Disambiguation
From author Sam Knight
I am going to pick on Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pies for a moment, and I want to make something very clear: I love me a good Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pie. I used to use my allowance to buy myself one from the school cafeteria with my lunches (back in the day before fast food companies moved into the schools—don’t get me started).
Today, when someone has a problem with disambiguation (confusion caused by multiple things with the same name) I always think of Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pies.
Why? I spent many a lunch reading the ingredients of my Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pies, and long enough puzzling over one in particular that I finally looked it up in a dictionary. The word I looked up was agar.
Now, to be fair, I am sure the dictionary I used was the same crappy one from the 1930’s that all the other kids laughed at because it defined a fart as “a small explosion between the legs.” (Yes, I have that memorized to this day …) We kids all recognized and made fun of the ambiguousness of that definition.
But whatever dictionary I used, the definition it gave me for agar was: sheep’s blood. Now I wish I could find that dictionary and show it to you, or even just set up a hyperlink to it, but I can’t, so please trust me that this (or something very similar) is what it said. Specifically I think it said something about sacrificial sheep’s blood used in pagan rituals, but that was many years ago and my memory is not so hot, even when it comes to something that shocked me so much I had to hesitate before I took another bite of my Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pie.
In the end, it did not deter me from my Hostess Chocolate Pudding Pies. It did make me wonder though …
So now, I was recently wondering, what is it really? So I looked it up. (On Wikipedia, of course!) Agar is a gelatin-like substance made from a red algae. It is used in food as a thickening agent.
Whew! The dictionary got it wrong! I haven’t been eating goat’s blood all these years!
Or have I?
It turns out that it is also used as a culture medium in petri dishes, to grow bacteria and fungi. Blood agar has animal blood cells in it to be used as nutrients to grow the bacteria and fungi.
Usually sheep’s blood.
Chocolate agar is similar but made a special way with slow heating that turns the agar a “chocolate” color. (No actual chocolate involved.)
There is a great page on all the different kinds of agar at sciencebuddies.org. ( http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/MicroBio_Agar.shtml )
So, to my point on disambiguation:
Please be clear with what you mean. Just because you know a lot of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, similes, metaphors and literarily artistic ways to get your point across, doesn’t mean your readers do. And even if we do, you might not have been clear enough. As a fellow writer, a reader, and as an editor, I implore you to err on the side of clarity. Don’t make me put your story down in revulsion because your possibly psychopathic character suddenly, ambiguously, plays chopsticks with organs, or decides to ambiguously maroon his pants to show his membership to a secret group of people who love balls. Just, please, aim high toward understanding that overstating simple prose is simply underrated.
I love you, I don’t know that it is really your fault that agar is used in those other ways, and I don’t know that you should have to be clear about the agar you are using does not have sheep’s blood in it, but until you are, I will continue to wonder.
Dear Crappy Old Dictionary from School,
I hate you. I hated you then, I hate you now. I can’t even guess how many words I tried to look up you didn’t have listed, but even the ones you did have listed were poorly defined and full of ambiguity. I bet you would define that as “opaque or hard to see” wouldn’t you?
Then we would all clearly understand.