Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for February 1st, 2023

Dense possumhaw fruit

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On January 22nd in the little town of Canyon City—in Texas any hamlet can get named a city—this densely fruited possumhaw tree (Ilex decidua) wouldn’t let me keep driving unless I made a portrait of it. I gave in.



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In a comment last week our New Zealand friend Amanda made me aware that groups like the World Health Organization have been using the term malnutrition in a non-traditional way. Here’s that group’s definition: “Malnutrition, in all its forms, includes undernutrition (wasting, stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity, and resulting diet-related noncommunicable diseases.”

Now, Latin mal- means ‘bad’ or ‘badly,’ so etymology could support the World Health Organization’s definition of malnutrition. However, my guess is that most English speakers, perhaps almost all, believe malnutrition refers exclusively to undernutrition or to the insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals. That’s how I’ve always interpreted the term. To see whether I’ve been out of line, I turned to a bunch of dictionaries. Merriam-Webster defines malnutrition as “faulty nutrition due to inadequate or unbalanced intake of nutrients or their impaired assimilation or utilization.” Here’s the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary: “a poor condition of health caused by a lack of food or a lack of the right type of food.” The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition is “Poor nutrition because of an insufficient or poorly balanced diet or faulty digestion or utilization of foods.” The Collins English Dictionary puts it this way: “If someone is suffering from malnutrition, they are physically weak and extremely thin because they have not eaten enough food.”

The closest that any of the dictionaries I consulted came to including obesity or being overweight was: “[Malnutrition] can be caused by not getting enough to eat, or it can be caused by not eating enough healthy foods.” Even so, there’s no mention of being overweight or obese.

I believe an organization that communicates with the public needs to do so clearly. It should not use a word in a way that many people will interpret differently from what the organization intends by the word. Are the World Health Organization and some other groups including obesity and being overweight in the category of malnutrition to increase the number of people the groups can label “malnourished”? In other words, are the groups defying the traditional definitions of malnutrition and malnourished for ideological purposes or to increase funding? I don’t know. I became aware of this only five days ago and I haven’t done any research on it. What I can say is that the conjecture is at least plausible, given how many recent instances I’ve seen of ideologues trying to redefine words away from their longstanding meanings, much as George Orwell presciently described in his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, and in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 1, 2023 at 4:30 AM

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