Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sinister name

In the following NASA image, the dense white horizontal bars that look like gigantic clouds indicate the shifting location of the Intertropical Convergence Zone [ITCZ], which is the equatorial region where winds of the northern hemisphere clash with those of the southern hemisphere.

Colossal storms rage constantly in these skies, and it's possible that lightning from one such violent eruption resulted in the loss of Air France Flight 447 a few days ago.

Seafarers have always dreaded this zone, where the friendly trade winds often cancel one another, meaning that vessels get stuck there, often in a blanket of dense fog. To designate the unfriendly ITCZ in the Atlantic, between West Africa and the New World, French mariners use the everyday term pot (recipient, as in chamber pot). The zone is referred to as the pot au noir, which might be translated as the black hole. [Click here to see my recent blog article entitled Loose language.] In fact, the origin of the adjective "black" is particularly sinister. During the terrible era of the slave trade, vessels leaving Africa with their human cargoes were often held up in this zone, because of a lack of winds. In such cases, the captain often gave the order to throw overboard any slaves who happened to be sick, because it was considered that the vessel would not have sufficient supplies to keep such individuals alive up until their arrival in America. So, the ITCZ "pot" was black in the sense that the murky depths received the bodies of black-skinned slaves.

Our planet has indeed been an ugly place at times. It's still ugly, today, when a plane full of people disappears without an adieu.

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