Eureka!

You might know the story of the word Eureka. Or at least that it involves an old man in a bath. The ancient Greek scholar Archimedes reportedly stepped into his bath, noticed the water level rose. Realising that the water displaced must be equal to the volume of his foot, and that he had figured out a way to accurately measure the volume of irregular objects (which was a big deal at the time), he exclaimed Eureka! twice.

Well, he actually said εὕρηκα!, but you know what I mean. It means I’ve found it!, and the English language snapped it up as a snappy way to express sudden realisation. It’s an interesting word, as it’s a fairly rare example of a word coming from Ancient Greek almost directly into English. It’s also interesting because of the type of word it is. Even if you haven’t studied much grammar, you probably know a little something about different types of words: nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. Most are pretty easy to define based on their function: nouns are things or concepts, adjectives are words to describe nouns. We can see how they work within a sentence, and how they relate to the words around them. Basically, they’ve got a place within the grammar that we use. They fit within the system.

Words like Eureka though, seem like they’re outside the system, because they don’t really work as part of a sentence. We use them on their own, and they don’t require another word to go with them. We call words like this interjections. Most of these words are single utterances that express a spontaneous feeling e.g. ow, oops, wow, f**k etc. There are many more examples, and a few different types, but for now I’m just concerned with the general concept. And yes, they don’t really come under the rules of grammar, as they’re isolated from other words, but from a macro perspective, they certainly fulfil a function. They might not fit into an individual sentence, but they provide meaning across longer utterances. In fact, they’re quite efficient, and I admire how simply they can communicate quite complex meanings.

Eureka of course means I’ve figured something out!. Ow! tells people that we’ve been hurt, Oops! tells us that something’s gone wrong, and F**k! or Bollocks! can communicate a variety of subtle variations on anger and frustration. Imagine we didn’t have interjections, and instead had to use full sentences: I’ve just hurt my foot really badly! or, I’ve accidentally dropped the lamp, and it’s smashed on the ground, and that’s terrible! Not easy to come out with those in the heat of the moment, is it? But using a simple interjection and a certain tone of voice can convey all of that information in an instant.

I’ve been thinking about Eureka recently though, as it’s quite appropriate in terms of how I usually write my posts. I have a 11-page word document where I write ideas for posts when they come to me. Some of them have been there since the beginning, some of them I’ve already written about and haven’t got round to removing yet. Some I write down hastily in case I forget them, ending up in shorthand which I won’t understand when I have a look at the document (I know what “finger numbers” refers to now, but I bet in two weeks I’ll have no idea). Sometimes I don’t know what to write, and I’ll have a look at the document to get an idea. Usually though, I find those posts a little difficult to write, and I’m never really satisfied with them, because I don’t really write them spontaneously.

Usually though, I don’t refer to the document. During the day, a word or phrase or concept will occur to me, and that’ll be my post for that day or the next, if I’ve already written one: Why do we use that word like that!? What is grammar, really? I wonder where that word comes from? I’ll do some research if I need to, and I’ll write fairly fluidly while I still have the excitement of the idea in my mind. I find those much easier and more interesting to write, and it also pleases me that it means I haven’t had to use an idea from my Ideas document, maintaining my store of ideas for the time I dread when I run out of new ideas.

So my Eureka moments are very important to me. And vicariously, you, as they give you something to read, and think about. And one of my favourite things about writing this blog is that I learn from writing it. Sometimes I’m inspired by an epiphany, but more often I begin with a question. And sometimes I can answer that question myself, and that process is what you get to read. But other times, I have to do some exploring, and the results of that are what I put into words. And very often I’ll learn some interesting new facts. Like the fact that Eureka is the state motto of California, referring to the discovery of gold near Sutter’s Mill in 1848, and that there are almost 40 places in the US called Eureka, most named after 1848 when the phrase entered popular use.

I can’t imagine my life without that information, just like after his Eureka moment, Archimedes probably couldn’t imagine life without being able to measure the volume of irregular objects.

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