Podcasting, Phthiriasis, and Paraprosdokians

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June 20, 2019 by libroshombre


A plethora of “p” words has cropped up. Podcasting’s popular, but us old-school audio book fans were interested in a NYTimes.com opinion piece by Daniel Willingham titled, “Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?” The short answer’s “no”: different parts of the brain are needed. Audio books are often enjoyed while multitasking, like while driving or knitting, and comprehension of audio books is markedly lower than reading print, because “we’ll get gist, not subtleties.” Willingham also extolls “prosody,” “the pitch, tempo, and stress of spoken words,” and nothing lifts or kills an audio book like its narrator.

He cited research into how well students recalled facts from a 22-minute podcast compared with reading it. When quizzed two days later “the readers scored 81 percent and the listeners 59 percent. What happened? Note that the subject matter was difficult, and the goal wasn’t pleasure but learning. Both factors make us read differently. When we focus, we slow down. We reread the hard bits. We stop and think. Each is easier with print than with a podcast.”

A recent Booknet Canada study found that “Canadians who both buy and borrow books purchase more books, on average per month, than buyers who don’t use the library at all,” with the former group averaging 3 books purchased per month, while those visiting their libraries 10-14 times a month buy 6.1 books monthly. Americans are probably right there with them. Often enough, library books intrigue me enough to wind up purchasing them.

Case in point is Debra Hamel’s “Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of ‘The History’.” Hamel extracts the plenteous fun bits from Herodotus’ dusty tome into engaging chapters like “Sex and the City of Babylon,” “Earless Imposters and Randy Mounts,” and “Lettuce, Puppies, and Soroticide.” It was in “Severed Breasts and Wormy Deaths” that I encountered another odd “p” term for the aforementioned wormy death: “phthiriasis” which was contracted by a vengeful princess named Pheretime.

Pheretime’s son ruled Cyrene, a Greek colony in North Africa, but was run out of town and was killed in Barca, a neighboring colony. Pheretime convinced the Persian ruler of Egypt to invade Barca and she wrought nasty revenge, including severing breasts. However, she also “contracted a disease that made her body ‘swarm with worms.’ She died a horrible death that was, Herodotus suggests, a fitting punishment for her behavior: excessive vengeance.” Hamel adds that “the disease he seems to be describing – phthiriasis – is real, an infection caused by the infestation of mites.” The ancients called the mites lice, and so does the Oxford English Dictionary: “a morbid condition of the body in which lice multiply excessively, causing extreme irritation.”

That’s putting it mildly. “Of all the legendary and fantastic diseases of ancient times, phthiriasis, or the lousy disease, was the most intriguing and bizarre,” The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine tells us. “Lice were believed to develop by spontaneous generation, and tumors full of these insects rose on the skin. When such a louse tumor burst or was incised, a stream of insects swarmed out. The flesh of the sufferer was slowly eaten away and transubstantiated into lice.” When the Roman tyrant Sulla caught phthiriasis, his “corrupted flesh became one mass of lice, and although many men were employed to remove and wipe away the vermin, they still multiplied, and his clothes, bath, furniture, and food were full of them … the transformation of his body into lice was so rapid that all attempts at cleansing were frustrated.” The itching and smell were reportedly awful, but the last recorded case of phthiriasis was in 1870, and its disappearance remains a mystery.

Pheretime’s story came to mind when I encountered a paraprosdokian: “I didn’t say it was your fault; I said I’m blaming you.” Paraprosdokians are “figures of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax.” Paraprosdokians are popular among comedians, and like comedians, columnists sometimes utilize others’ thoughts. However, “To steal from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.”




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