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Learned Volume 5, Issue 46
This week: Our exploration of jargon continues with the discovery a tool paint-makers use to, uhm, make paint. Read on!
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Mulling It Over
Sometimes I learn a new word by accident. In this case, the new word I thought I learned was actually my ears mishearing a totally other word. Which I, in fact, did not know. So, what's this new word? Muller, which our friends at Merriam-Webster define as:
: a stone or piece of wood, metal, or glass used as a pestle for pounding or grinding
Cool. Anyway, the actual word itself is not as interesting as how I came across it. So, as you may be aware, there's a social media site called Tik Tok where people post short videos of themselves going about their daily lives. Sometimes, performatively, sometimes genuinely, often somewhere in between. I have mixed feelings about Tik Tok but I spend more time on the app than I like to admit.
Anyway, the point is, the algorithm has steered several broad categories of content my way, one of which is "people making stuff." In particular, one account that I've come to really enjoy is one that goes by the name @dreamlandwatercolor. The account owner / content creator, Emma, puts her camera over the table as she mixes watercolors together. And, to be clear, what I mean is she lays a bunch of colored pigment on a smooth table, adds a binding agent (usually a kind of oil, I think), and then uses a palette knife to mix the color.
Once she's got the paint roughly mixed, Emma uses a glass muller to break any remaining large pieces of pigment into a fine powder in order to more throughly mix the paint. This creates a smooth, beautiful color she is able to then sort into paint trays, where they dry and are packaged into custom, unique water-color sets. Although I have yet to buy any of her paints, I find the process hypnotizing and the gently-spoken voiceovers she adds to the videos are as soporific as a gentle rain on a spring afternoon.
Now, if you'll notice, in the middle of that last paragraph, I used our new word for this issue - muller. In this case, the muller is a large, glass tool that looks a little bit like a cross-between an upside-down, flat, snowglobe and a clothes iron, if you can imagine an iron made out of glass. But that's not what I heard.
In one of the first videos of hers that I watched, I could swear I heard her call her tool a muddle, and I was immediately fascinated. Why is it called a muddle and not a muddler? Does that suggest that the noun came before the verb? And away I went to look up the word muddle. Here's Etymonline:
"intellectual confusion, bewilderment," 1818, from muddle (v.).
Now, if you look carefully, you'll see an absolute lack of anything relating to muddle as a synonym for pestle. I checked some other dictionaries, all the usual suspects like Merriam-Webster and Oxford and...no dice. Nothing about muddle as a tool for mixing paint. Well, no matter, maybe she said she would "muddle the paint," a much more common verb-noun phrase. Or maybe, just maybe, I didn't hear the right word at all and what she actually said was something like that she would use her muller to refine the paint.
(Since I can’t find the original video I watched - I thought I had saved it, but…here’s a different video where she uses the muller. And it’s still cool to see it in action.)
So, in the end, there are two things to consider. One, we've got another new piece of jargon related to an industry or skill we didn't know much about and we can list it proudly alongside zarf, swarf, and azimuth. But I find myself weirdly disappointed that it’s just a new word and not a new usage for a word I already knew. I haven’t quite figured out why that particular feeling is sitting on me, but it’s there.
But, two, this small anecdote illustrates a danger that I find myself having to counter more and more each year - making sure that what I heard is what was actually said.
Now, to be clear, I don't have any hearing issues. I've had my hearing checked recently and I'm fine. In fact, when I expressed some incredulousness at this diagnoses, the doctor said, "you're just getting older." Thanks, Doc.
What I've realized is that the issue here in not in my ears but in my arrogance. I assume, too often, and for really no good reason, that I'm right. Whatever it was I think I heard, if there was a mistake, it wasn't on my end, because I know what words mean and I know a lot of words, therefore, the miscommunication was on the part of whomever I was speaking to. And that's not a good look for any adult, much less a professional teacher.
The blank page is the bane of every creative endeavor, but we, as language users have some undervalued tools for overcoming this obstacle. This weekend, February 12, 2023, I’ll be hosting a workshop explaining how making up words can help us defeat the blank page and get our ideas out into the world.
The workshop will be on Zoom and it’s free for anyone and everyone. In other words, not only is there no registration fee, you don’t even have to be a subscriber to Learned. So, if someone forwards you this letter, feel free to join in!
On the morning of February 12th, Japan time, I’ll be updating the Ling Fest 23 page with the Zoom meeting info. I’ll also be sending out an invite via this newsletter, so you can just wait for it in your email inbox if you’d like.
The workshop is scheduled to last for 45 minutes with a few minutes at the end for questions and discussions. Again, if you have the time and are interested, please feel free to participate.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Just a very short rabbit hole this week highlighting three YouTube channels of artists who produce a ton of videos teaching us all how to paint better:
James Gurney - rose to fame in the 90s with Dinotopia. Fantasy and amazing world building.
Shibasaki - Japanese watercolor master in five minute increments.
Bob Ross - the OG, the GOAT, the painter of happy little trees.
From the Archives
Since the upcoming workshop will be held on Zoom, it might be worth taking a look back at what exactly zoom means and where it comes from. Here’s Learned Volume 3, Issue 44, Zoom Zoom:
Yes, this is sarcasm. The real challenge is finding someone who doesn't know about Tik Tok. When you find them, cling to them like a life raft in a storm.
The others seem to be language-learning, linguistics, funny animal videos, and the occasional right-wing talking head spouting bullshit. To which I can only say, cool, cool, cool, and wtf Tik Tok? Anyway, I'm making an effort to spend less time there.
And for the life of me I cannot find the one that would have the phrase I misheard. If you go down that rabbit hole, please let me know if you find it.
Truthfully, such is middle-age. What they never tell you about life-long learning is that once you get past, say, 30, a lot of the learning you do is in response to things you weren't sure you heard / saw / read correctly. In other words, the older you get, the less learning is about taking on wholly new information and the more it is about reconciling what you think you know with what is actually happening around you. And gods it's annoying.