[Paleopsych] NYT: Safire: Chimera

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Sun May 22 22:04:30 UTC 2005

On Language by William Safire, New York Times Magazine, 5.5.22

    Hank (Don't Call Me Henry) Greely, professor of law and of genetics at
    Stanford University, created a stir in the scientific world, not to
    mention in the zoological fraternity, when he told Sharon Begley of
    The Wall Street Journal, ''The centaur has left the barn.''

    A centaur is the mythical beast dreamed up by the Greeks with the head
    and arms and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse. It is
    one example of a chimera, best known as a fire-breathing she-monster
    mixing a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail that gave
    ancient Greek children nightmares. (It's always described as a
    ''she-monster''; you never hear about chimerical ''he-monsters.'')

    Because we'll be hearing more of chimeras, let's first get the
    pronunciation straight: it's ky-MEER-uh or ke-MAIR-uh (take your pick)
    and not SHIMM-a-ruh, which sounds like an activity of one's sister

    Until recently, the word meant ''crazy idea,'' expressed in
    dictionarese as ''fanciful notion, departure from reality,'' or in
    current pooh-poohing, ''bugaboo, scary illusion.'' Now, however,
    chimera's postmythic scientific meaning is coming to the fore: ''a
    combination of tissues of different genetic origin,'' or as defined by
    Jamie Shreeve in a prescient Times magazine article last month, ''an
    organism assembled out of living parts taken from more than one
    biological species.'' The old adjective chimerical is a modifier that
    goes to the early meaning of ''figment of imagination''; the newer
    chimeric is applied to genetic manipulation.

    What brought this into the public eye recently was an admonition to
    researchers by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences not to
    cross-breed species involving the human animal. This followed the
    rejection by the U.S. Patent Office of an application for making a
    humanzee, a proposed mixture of chimpanzee and human being (a name
    evidently preferred to chimpanbeing). The headline over the Wall
    Street Journal article was ''Now that Chimeras Exist, What if Some
    Turn Out Too Human?''

    Medical researchers can have a serious purpose in implanting human
    cells in animals. For example, by using human cells to create a human
    immune system in a mouse, scientists can conduct experiments to
    enhance human immunity that would be unethical to try on human
    patients. The Stanford biologist Irving Weissman asked Greely's
    committee to come up with ethical guidelines for putting human nerve
    cells in a mouse brain to study diseases like Parkinson's and
    Alzheimer's -- but without ''humanizing'' the mouse.

    ''You don't want a human brain in a mouse with a person saying, 'Let
    me out,' '' Greely says. In a Library of Congress presentation this
    month with Michael Gazzaniga, the Dartmouth professor who pioneered
    cognitive neuroscience and is the author of ''The Ethical Brain,''
    Greely observed, ''We care more about our brains and gonads than about
    our gallbladders.''

    I immoderated that discussion about neuroethics and had a chance
    afterward to ask Greely how he came to the choice of words in his
    catchy comment, ''The centaur has left the barn.'' Wouldn't it have
    been more accurate to say ''is out of the barn?''

    ''It's rooted in the old saying 'the horse is out of the barn,' of
    course,'' the lawyer-geneticist-ethicist replied. ''But to give it a
    modern feeling, I combined it with 'Elvis has left the building.' ''
    This guy knows how to fuse a chimeric phrase.

    Early in March, Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota,
    proclaimed President Bush's Social Security ideas to be ''a big wet
    kiss to Wall Street.'' A couple of months later, when Bill Frist, the
    Senate majority leader, suggested what he considered a filibuster
    compromise, the Senate's Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada,
    picked up the derisive phrase and gave it a slightly broader
    ideological scope: he called the Republican proposal ''a big wet kiss
    to the far right.''

    I have been following this popular phrase closely (it's had more than
    27,000 citations since Google started counting it) because of an
    interest in ''emoticons,'' a word coined in 1987. These punctupix use
    combinations of keyboard symbols -- asterisks, directional carets,
    hyphens, pound signs and the curvaceous tilde -- to signify emotional
    states. That symbol-art is more creative than simple initialese, like
    HAND for ''have a nice day'' or LOL for ''laughing out loud.'' (I am
    not so scornful of the secretive POS, which means ''ignore this
    message, or be most circumspect in your reply''; POS stands for
    ''parent over shoulder.'')

    The gradations of osculation include the soul kiss, also called the
    French kiss, in which the tongue is inserted into the partner's mouth
    (leading to the term tonsil hockey). There is also the butterfly kiss,
    seductively fluttering the eyelashes against the partner's cheek; the
    upside-down kiss, which should be self-explanatory; the passionate
    neck nuzzle, resulting in a bruise called a ''hickey'' or ''love
    bite'' and necessitating the wearing of a scarf for days; the air
    kiss, often blown by a ''walker,'' in which no physical contact is
    made; and the enthusiastic, juicy eyesucker, which I used to dutifully
    receive from my beloved grandma.

    A big wet kiss, however, is not a real kiss at all. The meaning of the
    phrase is ''fulsome praise,'' in its precise definition of ''lavish,
    excessive, immoderate, overweening.'' In its political usage, the
    attack phase is intended to leave the recipient with a big red hickey.

    Send comments and suggestions to: [2]safireonlanguage at nytimes.com.

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