Not ossification, the process by which bones are formed, but classification, an ancient science practiced by humans which involves the creation of arbitrary dividing lines and thinking up names for ease of identification of things.
Take, as a pertinent case study, ‘The Smallest House in Great Britain’, located in Conwy, North Wales. Children and adults alike have been having their photo taken in front of this house for as long as there has been a sign on the house declaring it as such. Proud faces look up in wonder and think to themselves:
“How blessed am I to be in the presence of such extreme housing. The Smallest House in Great Britain. Wow.”
The first thing we notice is the sign. If you can go one step above naming something, then throw a physical label on it. Like the man with branded skin who stepped across the line from ‘decent citizen’ to ‘criminal’, the house is immediately recognisable even without an intimate knowledge of the relative sizes of the rest of Great Britain’s housing stock. Because there is a big sign with writing on it above the window (there isn’t room above the door).
But what does it all mean?
That it is the smallest house is of significant meaning, in that there are no houses smaller. We are not really in a position to question this, and for the purposes of this article I will assume that it is a true statement. I’m happy we are straying from the arbitrary, with such deliciously absolute statements.
But what we don’t know in all this is how they choose to classify a ‘house’. Dictionary.com gives a simple definition as “A building in which people live; residence for human beings.” This leaves the sign open to challenge immediately. Their ‘House’ is the one of Children’s sketchbooks – with red bricks, a chimney and maybe a little yellow flower out front. The house of a rational man could be a bus shelter, underneath a park bench or even the shed at the bottom of a garden where a disillusioned husband sleeps. My mind starts to ache at the confusion that is beginning to creep in here.
Of course the lines of Great Britain are equally blurred, with some no doubt even questioning the existence of this as a political entity. It would be nice if this refers to the geographical land mass including Scotland, England and Wales located above the normal sea level. This is reasonably absolute – although over geographical time also relatively meaningless. I would argue the use of the word ‘in’ Great Britain associates itself more with the political meaning. Which is a shame, ‘on’ would have potentially been a better word.
So it might not actually be what we think it is, as there are no doubt smaller residence buildings within the confines of the bit of land poking above the sea where England, Scotland and Wales are currently politically defined. We also probably have to consider the top corner of the Irish land mass as well. But this is the point where we take a step back, and we take a considered view on classification. We are happy to accept it as the ‘smallest house’ because it is a harmless bit of fun, and the house is really cute, to boot.
So what’s the point of all this rambling?
Classification is entirely necessary in any sort of functional, usable language, and understanding how to convey maximum meaning in minimum words, with minimal explanation, is a tremendous skill and not to be undervalued.
I’ll leave arguments about taxonomic classification for other fora, but here are a few examples of easy ways to classify members of Homo sapiens by their recent cultural / political / national heritage:
Jew, Muslim, American, Indian.
It’s in interpreting that information that we must not take short cuts.