Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Predicting The Climate Where You Grew Up Based On Your Descriptions of Heat

Here's something I've noticed. Typically without realizing it, people use different adjectives to describe when they're feeling hot based on the humidity.

Where I grew up, it was a quite dry Mediterranean climate. On really hot days, everyone described it as 'like an oven' or 'like a furnace'. They themselves were always 'burning' or 'roasting' or 'baking' or 'scorching'. I just assumed that this was how everyone described it.

I found it interesting when I was in Chicago (which has very humid heat in the summer) that on hot days there, people always described themselves as 'melting', but never 'burning'. (Melting was the overwhelming description, and there were fewer variants - sometimes you got 'frying', which can go either way as it connotes a kind of oily heat). The air was 'like a sauna'.

And that's how it actually felt. It didn't feel like you were roasting.

Here's a prediction I can make with perhaps 70% accuracy. People are slow to update these adjectives, and generally go with what they were used to. Anyone who instinctively says 'melting' grew up in a humid climate. If they say they're 'melting' when it's a dry heat, I'd raise the estimate to 95%. 

I remember hearing about a linguistics professor who could identify where in the US you were from based on how you referred to the interstate highways - '94', 'I-94', 'Highway 94', 'Route 94' etc. I know in Australia, there's a variation between the east coast and west coast based on whether highways have a definite article or not - on the east coast, everything is 'The Pacific Highway', whereas on the west it's just 'Stirling Highway'. I've known of east coast people who instinctively added the definite article to west coast highways.

The inferences I'm happiest with are those that use the minimum of data to draw reliable conclusions about broad and apparently unrelated phenomena.

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