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Warren Clements: Word Play

Squaring the circle is not easy as pi Add to ...

One of life's great challenges is to distinguish between the difficult and the impossible. In the world of common phrases, sometimes the dividing line grows blurry.

NDP MP Charlie Angus appeared on a radio show the other day to discuss the federal government's proposed changes to Canada's copyright laws. How, he asked, do we reconcile current business models with future needs? "How do we square the circle?"

It was clear he felt the circle might be squared with enough thought and judicious action. He was not alone. Jeff Randall, addressing Britain's finances in The Daily Telegraph on June 11, wrote: "To square the circle and calm lenders, [former Labour finance minister]Alistair Darling was required to make ever more heroic assumptions about GDP growth." Darling might have been pushing his optimism to unsustainable levels, but there remained the implication that the circle could be squared. David Zetland said so baldly in Forbes magazine on April 12: "[T]ere is one way to square the circle: Give the poor the property rights in water they already own as citizens."

The trouble is that it can't be done. To square a circle would be, with the help of a compass and ruler, to create a square with precisely the same area as a given circle. All those who have tried it have run afoul of pi, the ratio between the circle's diameter and circumference. Pi is the annoying figure that begins with "3.14159" and continues until everyone has given up and gone home. It's no good suggesting that some practical master of Euclidean geometry just round off pi to "3.1416" and sweep the rest under the carpet. People would notice. Comedian Bob Newhart ran into the same problem decades ago when he toyed with pursuing a career as an accountant. He had a "strange theory of accounting," he explained in one of his comedy routines. His theory was that "as long as you got within two or three bucks of it," you were fine. "But this really never caught on."

Even before experts made the impossibility official in the 1880s, researchers had pretty much concluded that squaring the circle was a fool's errand. "You may as soon square the Circle, as reduce the several Branches ... under one single Head," Thomas Brown wrote in 1704 in Fresny's Amusements Serious and Comical. Metaphorically, trying to square the circle means attempting the impossible and, by extension, wasting one's time. The Miami Herald used the expression that way in a recent article about the prison at Guantanamo Bay. "Trying to make the Guantanamo process conform to the rule of law, as that phrase is commonly understood, is an effort to square the circle. Every attempt to go forward has been thwarted by valid legal and constitutional objections."

Easy as pie? No, difficult as pi.


Enough readers have pointed out an amusing dangling modifier that it would be a sin not to pass it along to those who missed it. A March advertisement for the CBC Radio show The Current promoted a series on Russia by Anna Maria Tremonti. "Accused of poisoning a former KGB agent, Anna Maria speaks to Andrei Lugovoi, now a member of Russian government." I'm pretty sure Tremonti is innocent of any such skulduggery, but maybe the CBC knows something the rest of us don't.

Elsewhere, as a Father's Day promotion for its DVD titles, Warner Bros. has issued a press release with offbeat facts about fatherhood. "Oldest first-time father on record: The oldest father is impressive for a lot of reasons. He was an Australian minor who entered into fatherhood for the last time when he was an amazing 93 years old! Les Colley died a few years later at age 100." If he managed to be both 93 years old and a minor, he was little short of miraculous.

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