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Fun English

October 01, 2008

Just for the fun of it

Masumi Muramatsu, Chairman, MM Cross-Cultural Forum

"What is 'ig'?" - goes an Australian wordplay. It's an Eskimo house without a loo. Sorry for an antiquated term; Inuit might be more appropriate today. And sorry to non-British-English speakers: loo means toilet in that vast zone.

Small wonder, therefore, that some Japanese scientists or inventors didn't quite comprehend the message when they were first told that they were nominated to receive an "Ig Nobel Prize." The word "ignoble" is not in common parlance here. Since the Japanese language does not have clearly accented syllables (ours is a more monotonal speech), many wouldn't hear the first syllable, and even if they had heard Nobel, modesty should prevent them from believing that they had won that noblest of the most noble recognitions of human achievements.

A nation where most denizens are monolingual, Japan in 2002 produced a gadget called Bowlingual. Developed by leading toymaker Takara Co. in collaboration with Index Corp. and Japan Acoustic Lab., the tiny mobile-phone-like device translates a dog's growls and huffs (some 200 expressions) into Japanese.

It was for this novel but spuriously scholastic gadget that the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, published by a Harvard group of scientists (Hot AIR at www.improb.com), awarded one of the 2002 Ig Nobel Prizes to Takara.

Japanese pet lovers reacted enthusiastically to the device, and last year Takara came up with Meowlingual, a device that translates cats' thoughts into Japanese. I am not in the habit of talking to animals, but I would think that real pet lovers would be able to communicate with them without electronic gadgets.

Having said that, one should appreciate this sort of playfulness, on the part of both creative folk and academics. The respected and beloved Harvard group of scientists that publishes AIR magazine has been awarding 10 Ig Nobel Prizes each year since 1991 to "commendable, if perhaps goofy" achievements. The list to date includes some dubious, wacky but genuine inventions.

One chemistry Ig Nobel laureate in 1999 was an Osaka detective who developed a chemical that, when sprayed on an unfaithful husband's underwear, would show tiny remnants of his semen in a bright blue color. Lots of wives rushed out to get their hands on this product, according to an AERA magazine report.

In 2003, Dr. Yukio Hirose, of Kanazawa University, was honored for his discovery as to why pigeons and crows avoid defecating on one certain bronze statue among many likenesses of historical figures in the Kenrokuen Park, built in early 19th century and renowned for its serene gardens, ponds, trees and flowers.

Not that the birds had any respect for Prince Yamato-Takeru-no-mikoto, a semi-mythological ancient Japanese warrior known for his undocumented saga of pacifying the "barbarian tribes" in northern Japan. As Prof. Hirose discovered, it was a trace amount of arsenic in the alloyed metals used in casting this particular statue that effectively kept the birds at a safe distance.

The scholar, with his refined sense of humor, appreciated the prize offered, and, like most other recipients from around the world, traveled to Boston to accept a trophy of sorts, to speak for 30 seconds and no more, and to give a lecture at Harvard and MIT. No expenses were paid. But all present themselves there for the sheer fun of the occasion.

Prof. Hirose sounds like a real renaissance man. A coffee aficionado, he has published a book on the proper brewing and tasting of espresso and other styles of coffee.

Another Japanese recipient (in 1992) was a bit nonplused. He was quite serious about his research pursuit and paid no attention to the notice. He didn't even know about the prize until recently when he visited the Hot AIR Web site, according to AERA magazine.

The recipients include French President Jacques Chirac for commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima by detonating an atom bomb at Mururoa Atoll (Peace Prize) and the disgraced CEOs of Enron, etc., "for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world" (Economics Prize).

There was an Australian who disclosed the secrets of belly button lint in 2002. An American came up with deodorant-imbued pants, preventing insomnia caused by a bedmate's farting.

Which pleasantly reminded me of a lecture by a lady scholar during the annual meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies held at the University of Maryland in 2001 on the erudite (but incidentally entertaining) subject of "Farting for Fun and Profit," harking back to medieval French literature full of stories of this most human sound.

Having just joined the executive board of directors of ISHS (for the 2004-2005 term), I might propose, as we meet next in Dijon, France, in June this year, that the society consider issuing an invitation to some of those hot-AIRing scholars.

Who knows what might, if you excuse the expression, come out of it?

Masumi Muramatsu is the chairman of MM Cross-Cultural Forum, a nonprofit organization to encourage humor and English for smoother communication. He is also on the panel of judges for the Bikkuri English competition.

(This article was first published under the column name "You Can Say That Again!" on the Nikkei Net Interactive Web site, January 19, 2003)

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