‘Islands of mental complexity in a sea of invertebrate animals’ … Inky the octopus at the New Zealand National Aquarium. Photograph: New Zealand National Aquarium
‘Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.” Coleridge’s lines evoke those Precambrian depths where sensate life first stirred, and which remain lodged atavistically in our collective imaginations.
Perhaps that’s why we look on the octopus as an eldritch (strange) other, with its more-than-the usual complement of limbs, bulbous eyes, seeking suckers and keratinous beaks voraciously devouring anything in its slippery path.
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s brilliant book entirely overturns those preconceptions. Cephalopods – octopuses, squids and nautiluses – “are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals”, he writes, having developed on a different path from us, “an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour”.
This is why they present themselves as a fascinating case study to Godfrey-Smith, who is a philosopher of science – because of what can be learned from them about the minds of animals, including our own.
His book stands alongside such recent works as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins as evidence of new and unconstrained thinking about the species with which we share our watery planet.
Unlike cetaceans – whose sentience it is possible to imagine, partly because they demonstrate our mammalian connections so vividly and physically – cephalopods are entirely unlike us. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” says Godfrey-Smith.
“This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” The fact that they have eight legs, three hearts, and blue-green blood allies them more with The Simpsons’ gloopy extra-terrestrials than anything earthly.‘
Have a look to see which of these commonly confused words throw you off.
Accept vs. Except:
These two words sound similar but have very different meanings. Accept means to receive something willingly: “His mom accepted his explanation” or “She accepted the gift graciously.” Except signifies exclusion: “I can attend every meeting except the one next week.” To help you remember, note that both except and exclusion begin with ex.
Affect vs. Effect:
To make these words even more confusing than they already are, both can be used as either a noun or a verb. Let’s start with the verbs. Affect means to influence something or someone; effect means to accomplish something. “Your job was affected by the organizational restructuring” but “These changes will be effected on Monday.” As a noun, an effect is the result of something: “The sunny weather had a huge effect on sales.” It’s almost always the right choice because the noun affect refers to an emotional state and is rarely used outside of psychological circles: “The patient’s affect was flat.”
Lie vs. Lay:
We’re all pretty clear on the lie that means an untruth. It’s the other usage that trips us up. Lie also means to recline: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay. It’s more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is—you guessed it—lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.”
Bring vs. Take:
Bring and take both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another, but the correct usage depends on the speaker’s point of view. Somebody brings something to you, but you take it to somewhere else: “Bring me the mail, then take your shoes to your room.” Just remember, if the movement is toward you, use bring; if the movement is away from you, use take.
Ironic vs. Coincidental:
A lot of people get this wrong. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s not ironic—it’s coincidental (and bad luck). Ironic has several meanings, all of which include some type of reversal of what was expected. Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but clearly means another. Situational irony is when a result is the opposite of what was expected. O. Henry was a master of situational irony.
In his famous short story The Gift of the Magi, Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each character sold something precious to buy a gift for the other, but those gifts were intended for what the other person sold. That is true irony. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s coincidental.If you drive up to the mountains to ski, and there was more snow back at your house, that’s ironic.
Imply vs. Infer:To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. As a general rule, the speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.
Nauseous vs. Nauseated:
Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles. Still, it’s important to note the difference. Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea. So, if your circle includes ultra-particular grammar sticklers, never say “I’m nauseous” unless you want them to be snickering behind your back.
Comprise vs. Compose:
These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language.Comprise means to include; compose means to make up. It all comes down to parts versus the whole. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: “A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves.” When you use compose, you put the pieces first: “Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.”
Farther vs. Further:
Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther,” but “I have nothing further to say.” If you can substitute “more” or “additional,” use further.
Fewer vs. Less:
Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted; use less when referring to a whole: “You have fewer dollars, but less money.”
In 1904, Roland D. Sawyer launched a crusade against obscenity.
No one ever heard my grandmother, in all her eighty-three years, utter a bad word. I can only once remember her even raising her voice. “It’s all fouled up!” she cried then, shaking a broken TV set.
She said it with such frustration and despair that it expressed at least as much as any curse word might have. In fact, besides the time I heard a four-year-old in my brother’s playgroup call his sister Mary-Ellen a “fuckindamnshit,” it was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard.
Her husband, my grandfather, was considered foul-mouthed in the family; his language was a constant cause of distress to her. But in fact, he didn’t use real swear words either—certainly not compared to that little boy.
It was usually a savage Goddammit! Or Hell’s Bell’s! His worst outbursts were reserved for his weekly gin game. It was then that he’d reach for the worst epithet of all: “I’ll be dipped.”
“I’ll be dipped”—said with a vehement emphasis on the last word that hinted at incipient violence, and with an Arkansas accent—was all the scarier because we weren’t sure what it meant. Sheep dip? Boiling oil? As a grown-up, I’ve heard it since in the South (or in its cruder form, “I’ll be dipped in shit!”) but it’s always a benign expression of surprise. Never does it convey the menace that my grandfather’s version did.
It’s true that curse words tend to be ugly—guttural, coarse, basic—but then, any word can be made ugly.
There just needs to be enough rage behind it, the way something innocent can be turned into a weapon.