Monday, June 3, 2013

Finding the right word (or not)

Mark Twain once said something like:

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Finding exactly the right word is wonderful. (Lightning bug is American slang for firefly). Not being able to find the right word can be frustrating. The right word might not even exist.

Two decades ago I had a phone conversation with an exasperated property insurance claims adjuster in northern Ohio. A house had flooded under what he thought were suspicious circumstances. There wasn’t an English word for what the he suspected - that the owner somehow had figured out a way to do the equivalent of arson, but with water instead of fire.

We might call that offense committing waterson. (That’s appealing, since it is just one letter away from Watterson, the last name of the cartoonist  whose comic strip Calvin and Hobbes featured lots of destruction produced by the namesake  little boy). 

The house was owned by a musician who played polka music on the accordion in lounges and bars. His alibi was that he had been away for a week. A neighbor called the water company after seeing water pouring out the house.  

When the adjuster and a plumber inspected the house, they found that plastic fill control valves in two different toilet tanks both had broken. Then those tanks overflowed and flooded the house. The musician’s expensive collection of sheet music was stored in the basement, and it had been damaged.

The adjuster sent me the broken valves, which were the same brand and model. Both originally had been tan, but the submerged areas were white and smelled like chlorine bleach. It looked like bowl cleaner products had been used in the tanks. They are plastic tubs containing calcium hypochlorite pellets that gradually dissolve in the water to increase the chlorine content, but are meant for toilets that are flushed once a day or more.

Those valves were made from polyoxymethylene, a plastic that can fail by environmental cracking when exposed to chlorine. Installation instructions for the valves had a warning not to use them in tanks containing high concentrations of chlorine. But, there was no warning right on the valve.
So, the combination of a product originally designed for use in tap water, and another later product that changed that environment had combined to produce failure. If a plumber had installed both valves at the same time (and not warned the owner), and they had seen the same heavily chlorinated environment, then it was not surprising that they had failed in the same week. There was no way to prove the owner had tried to commit waterson.  

Wikimedia Commons images of lightning and a firefly were combined as shown.

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