Monday, November 07, 2005

Ok, now they're just messing with me

In classification, such as the development of a taxonomy or an ontology and especially for computer systems, the problem of homonyms (the same term for two different things) is a big deal. An native speaker of English may understand that "bear" can refer to a large carnivore, the act of carrying, or the act of giving birth, but a non-native speaker learning the language for the first time may find such homonyms confusing, and a computer absolutely cannot navigate the different meanings of the string without further clarification.

One of the running gags on The Simpsons is the main characters' home town, Springfield. They always play it very coy about exactly what state it's in, and since so many states do have a city named Springfield, there's plenty of plausible deniability to go around. Springfield seems to be one of the most popular names for cities in the US, but whether it's Springfield, Illinois; Springfield, Oregon; or Springfield, Massachusetts, is hardly the issue--the fact that there are so many Springfields does not cause confusion, because the state makes it unique.

Except for Pennsylvania--Springfield, PA is a township in Huntingdon County. It's also a township in:

  • Bradford County
  • Bucks County
  • Delaware County
  • Erie County
  • Fayette County
  • Mercer County
  • Montgomery County
  • York County

Apparently, there is also a town in Fayette County that used to be called Springfield, but--perhaps perceiving that wasn't particularly special around here anymore--decided to change its name to Normalville, although from the looks of it, Modeville would have been more appropriate. (I'm punchy from writing about statistics all day; that joke probably isn't the least bit funny, except maybe to a stat geek, and maybe not even then :). So Springfield, Pennsylvania kind of shoots the whole "uniqueness" concept of classification to Hell with its homonymy.

My landlady (LL) and I went to see a folk singer Saturday night, and at the coffeehouse, they were selling apple dumplings the size of pot pies. I was quite impressed, and LL told me that they were influenced by the style of Amish cooking. Then, realizing I hadn't gotten around to seeing Amish country yet, she generously and spontaneously suggested we drive out there the next morning. It's an easy drive from the Philly area.

We set off the next morning, and LL was driving, I was navigating, when she told me that there's kind of an artists' community at Kimberton. I was looking for Kimberton on the map, when it was totally driven out of my short-term memory by a nearby town, right smack in the middle of Amish coutry, which caught my eye.

I found the name of the town Intercourse, Pennsylvania, most amusing, although LL was just looking pityingly at me like my sense of humor is totally childish. I was willing to cop to that--as an anatomy informaticist, it's probably true that all those bio classes have burned out my propriety receptors, so it might be just me. At least, I was considering that possibility, when I spotted the name of another nearby town on the map.

I wanted to show you on Google Maps, but neither its name nor Intercourse's is displayed on the map, as much as I zoom in or out:

Ok, fine, I'll go to Yahoo maps, where the name is indeed displayed, but covered decorously and coyly with a star, much like a tiny fig leaf:

My final hope was MapQuest, but once again, I was thwarted by homonymy:

That's right: Pennsylvania has two Blue Balls.


At 4:59 AM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

Hee, hee. When we were kids, we always used to make jokes about Intercourse and Blueballs, PA. I hope you enjoyed Amish country, and I hope you didn't get ripped off buying overpriced Amish crafts. The tourists always get ripped off;)

At 6:18 AM, Blogger Raven Travillian said...

very much enjoyed it, thanks! we went on a Sunday, so everything was closed--probably for the best, because I would have overspent on crafts otherwise. :)

did you grow up here, then?

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous MN said...

As I recall from my long ago college days in Lancaster, PA, the sequence of towns was something like: Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Blueballs, Intercourse, Paradise (I'm not making this up).

At 11:10 AM, Blogger Raven Travillian said...

heh--I had not thought of them in sequence, but you're right--that's pretty good!


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