Friday, July 20, 2012

A Tempest in a Teacup

The word “exotic” can be defined as that what is extraordinary.  For example, blonds are exotic in the Middle East but quite commonplace in Scandinavia.  When a phenomenon is exotic, it creates problems of description.  While the dictionary literally translates words from language to languages, the phenomenon they describe can in practice vary, as in the example of weather.
Rain in some quantity is essentially a global event experienced by basically all cultures.  So, the word storm exists in all languages. However, it means different things to different people.  I lived in (Western) Oregon, home of such classic jokes as “It rains twice a year, from January to June and June to January” and “Oregonians don’t tan; they rust” (To be fair, the same jokes are made about the northern half of the Pacific Northwest, Washington state).  If the weather forecaster mentioned a storm, it had to be more than the usual constant piss outside, something with high winds and torrential rain.  There was no purpose in saying there was a storm outside to describe the constant fall of water particles typical of nine months of the year (in a good year).  I imagine that the British also can relate to this.   By contrast, in the arid Middle East, a storm is anything more than a half a day of rain.  A whole slew of experts appear on television to advise the public how to prepare for the event, each and every millimeter of rain, in terms of dressing children, driving precautions, and staying healthy.  Two days later, the whole nation joyfully listens how the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) went up such and such millimeters and is this far from the red line.  The only real damage is a few more car accidents than usual and a few low lying areas get flooded (as they do every year due to non-existent drainage).  However, you have to watch out for that storm.
In contrast, there is the wonderful term heat wave.  In northern Europe and parts of the United States, a heat wave is anything beyond 30° C (86° F) for more than three days.  The main reason for this panic is the lack of air circulation within the cramped cities, air conditioners, ice, or any other means of getting cool, and general knowledge of how to react to heat.  Hundreds people in Europe actually died during a recent wave there.  In the Middle East, this is not a heat wave; it is the climate.  From May until October, the temperature is over 30° C, often even at night, not taking account high humidity in the coastal areas, an added pleasure as any New Yorker would know.  A heat wave, like we are having now, is a week of over 104° with some added high humidity.  Now that is suffering, as we say as we sit in our air-conditioned cars, offices, and houses.
On a final note, I once asked a group of newly-arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union what temperature they considered cold.  Apparently, most of them came from the Siberia region as their consensus was -30° C (-22° F).  They said that -20° C (-4° F) was quite tolerable.  To paraphrase Alice, a word means what I want it to mean.

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