Lemmas in Your Domicile

Some years ago, Dr. Steve and I took a couple of years of Latin in high school, partly because teachers said it would expand our vocabularies. If you know a little Latin, you get the meaning of “agriculture” or “ domicile” even if you never heard of them.

As it turns out, everyone has heard of agriculture. And domicile? I’ve yet to encounter a situation where you could speak the word without sounding like a pompous ass. Now, then:

Our word for today is “lemma,” which does not refer to a small northern rodent falsely accused of suicidal migrations off seaside cliffs.

“Lemma” comes from the Greek (for “husk”) rather than Latin. In publishing, it means a subhead or subject title, as distinct from “Boldface Italics,” which refers to an unruly mob in Palermo.

In forensics, polemics, and bickering, “lemma” means an assumption accepted for the sake of argument – ie, a proposition assumed to be true in order to test the truth of another proposition.

So nobody uses that, either.

Like domicile, lemma is a word you never say whose sole purpose is to make people feel ignorant.

True, one often finds oneself on the horns of a dilemma. I’m not sure where the horns came from, but a dilemma presents exactly two choices, both of them bad. And as if that weren’t sufficiently discouraging, this week’s Economist is talking about “trilemmas.”

Wise-Ass Oxford exhibitionists.

Their current issue carries an article about currency exchange systems, like the gold standard, the Bretton Woods agreement, or floating exchange rates. In preparing that essay, the editors realized that no such system will ever quite work. All attempts seek three goals – a fixed exchange rate, free movement of capital, and sovereign independence of monetary policy – but the fact is, you can achieve any two of these but not all three. (eg, under a gold standard you meet the first two criteria but not the third.)

Likewise, in designing a healthcare system, you want to control the three C’s – Cost, Coverage, and Choice – and you can achieve any two of these but not all. People will be furious, and none of them will want to hear about trilemmas.

So chalk up another unusable word – trilemma. Feel free to forget it entirely.

Unless it shows up in the news. Larry Ellison might decide that a three-masted trilemma could win the Americas Cup.

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.