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Mysterious Seriousness

November 28, 1986

The annual thinning of the ozone layer in the air above the North and South Poles justifiably concerns many people. Whatever the cause, which is a matter of hot debate, the reduction threatens to lead to a marked increase in skin cancers on Earth.

This problem has attracted a lot of attention because it's important, to be sure, but also because it has been given a good name: the ozone hole. Names and phrases that contain sound repetitions like the three long o's in ozone hole have an advantage in the marketplace of ideas.

English is full of such terms. Some rhyme outright: jet set, hi-fi, hotsy-totsy, payday, legal eagle, go-slow and fat cat, for example. But evenif the term does not rhyme with itself, any sound repetition gives it a boost: work week, card sharp, King Kong, high five, easy street and looney tunes, for example.

This preference in our choice of words for plays on sounds is not limited to English speakers. Nor is it recent. The second sentence of the Bible describes the Earth as "unformed and void," which in the original Hebrew is "toehoo vavoehoo"--a term that is more powerful because of its two sound repetitions.

Getting the right name for something is a way of helping it catch on. So whoever named the ozone hole knew what he was doing, and in the process he did the world a favor. This is a problem that needs to be addressed and should not be allowed to slip away. We need to know what is causing the loss of ozone, and we need to know what if anything can be done about it.

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