Thursday, March 24, 2011

Birder phrases: Pair of binoculars

There are many phrases that people say so frequently that few of us actually think about the words and what they mean put together in those phrases. Some such phrases are idioms, expressions whose meanings are not predictable from the usual meanings of their constituent elements -- such as "I'll pick you up at 3:30" (or the British version, "I'll knock you up at 3:30") -- the phrase is not used to indicate that the speaker is actually going to bodily pick up the listener, at 3:30 or any other time. However, other phrases have just come into being incorrectly and their use has been perpetuated by most of us without parsing the phrase to understand it or correct it. This essay is about those types of phrases, specifically those related directly to birding.

The most commonly-used and widespread phrase that is used indiscriminately is "pair of binoculars." Raise your hand if you've ever really contemplated that one; I will bet that there are very few hands in the air. Let's parse the phrase, shall we.

"Pair" means two of a kind in general English usage, though does have a different meaning that birders/ornithologists use (indicating a mated pair of birds, one of each sex). However, we'll stick with the general usage of two of a kind, as in aces, shoes, and dice. (How we got the phrase "pair of pants" is best left for a different venue.)

"of" is a preposition that indicates in this case the items that make up the "pair."

"binocular" is the tricky bit here, as the word is usually used in an adjectival sense, nearly always modifying "vision." However, since it's part of the prepositional phrase "of binoculars" that is modifying the noun "pair," we're obviously not using "binocular" in the sense of vision. Let's take a closer look at that word. It is composed of two parts, a prefix "bi" that indicates two -- bipolar = two poles; bi-weekly = twice a week -- and "ocular," which in this sense is referring to the lenses at the end of the equipment in consideration that one generally puts up to ones eyes (the ocular lenses; the lenses at the other end are the objective lenses). Thus, "binocular = two oculars."

Using algebra -- you remember, "if a=b and b=c, then a=c" -- we'll replace "binoculars" in the phrase of interest with "two oculars," which results in

"pair of two oculars"

or, if we do the multiplication, we have four oculars. (I bet that you didn't expect an essay on words to delve so deeply into mathematics, did you?) But, to have four oculars, we would have to have two of those far-seeing optical devices made by companies such as Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. That is because there are only two ocular lenses on those tools.

So, we come to the gist of the essay, "How did we get saddled with a patently incorrect phrase such as 'pair of binoculars?'"

A few years back, I got to thinking about that phrase for the first time and decided that I would not use it anymore and would henceforth use the correct phrase... well, it's barely a phrase because I didn't need the preposition any longer, because "pair" is no longer needed, so I don't have to indicate what items make up that pair. That leaves just the single word "binocular." As in, "Let me get my binocular and we'll head out." Or, "Did you get a new binocular at the sale at the Obs this month?"

When I moved back to Cape May a couple years back, I found that Michael O'Brien had also cogitated on that phrase and had come to the same conclusion. As far as I know, he and I are the only ones using "binocular" in this sense. Whether we're initiating a sea change or simply tilting at windmills has yet to be determined.