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Quark

26 Aug 2016

If you’ve been keeping up with the HH YouTube series, you’ll have seen a few literary lists crop up amidst all the weird words and word origins. Back in February, we marked Dickens’ birthday with a list of words derived from his characters. In April, we marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a list of words he used that no one can quite decipher. 

 

And this week, we’re heading back down the library with 10 Words Coined By Writers:

 

 

One word that could have made this list (and would have done, had we not already addressed it in our video on little-known opposites) is eucatastrophe, a term coined by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien as the opposite of a catastrophe: namely, a sudden event of sheer good fortune—in particular in the plot of a story—that typically hastens its conclusion.

Lewis Carroll’s chortle could also have made our top 10, had we not already explained its origins in our video on portmanteaux. But one word that didn’t make the final cut here, and yet still deserves an explanation, is the story behind James Joyce’s little known contribution to particle physics: the quark.

 

A quark, for those of you not too well versed in this subject (a minority, surely…) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

 

Each of a group of subatomic particles regarded, with leptons, as basic constituents of matter, and postulated never to occur in the free state but to be combined in pairs to form mesons and in triplets to form baryons, and to have fractional electric charges, +2/3 and −1/3 that of the proton.

 

Well, that clears that up. But without going too deeply into the science behind the likes of leptons and quarks, all that concerns us here is that quarks were first postulated by American physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Murray Gell-Mann in 1964.

 

Although originally theoretical, Gell-Mann’s model of what he termed the subatomic “particle zoo” has since been validated, and the terminology he used in his original explanation has since become the standard across all physics. But why did he call them quarks in the first place? Well, why not let the man himself explain... 

 

In 1978, Gell-Mann wrote to the editor of the OED Supplement to explain the thinking behind his word:

 

I employed the sound “quork” for several weeks in 1963 before noticing “quark” in Finnegans Wake, which I had perused from time to time since it appeared in 1939 ... I needed an excuse for retaining the pronunciation “quork” despite the occurrence of “Mark”, “bark”, “mark”, and so forth in Finnegans Wake. I found that excuse by supposing that one ingredient of the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark” was a cry of “Three quarts for Mister…” heard in H. C. Earwicker’s pub.

 

In other words, as Gell-Mann later expounded in his book, The Quark and the Jaguar (1995), he knew the sound of the word he wanted to use before he decided how it should be spelled; at one time, he explained, quark might even have been spelled “kwork”. Then purely by chance, he stumbled across the word quark in James Joyce’s enigmatic writing, and the Q spelling stuck. 


One question remains, however—what was James Joyce’s quark in the first place? Well, it’s presumed that the quark Joyce used in Finnegans Wake is meant to represent the squawking sound of a seagull, and is used in the novel as a call to buy a round of drinks. Any excuse…

 

 

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