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Teasing out the truth about wool and data

A verb with ancient roots turns out to be surprisingly useful to refer to making sense of tangled masses of information.

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Words have their trends no less than do spring fashions. You may see Tangerine Tango (the Pantone Color of the Year for 2012) all over this season – well, on two or three people, anyway. And you may find you hear or see the same turn of phrase everywhere.

That's what an e-mail correspondent reports has happened to her. After not hearing it "for AGES" (the all caps are all hers) she keeps running into the idiom "to tease out."

A recent Monitor article noted, "Teasing out trends in extreme weather and identifying global warming's fingerprint are challenging...."

And in a blog post commenting on the work of Michael Pollan ("The Botany of Desire," inter al.), she ran across this: "Pollan, moreover, can be a masterful stylist when it comes to teasing out nature's more subtle interrelations."

I'll add a third example, from an essay that ran in a California newspaper: "How does an artist coax a multi-dimensional image from a bare canvas? How do hand and eye tease out the shades and the shadows, the light and dark that go into the mystery of art?"

In the beginning, teasing was part of the textile trade. The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that our verb comes from an Old English verb meaning to pull or to pluck apart. "The original sense is of running thorns through wool or flax to separate, shred, or card the fibers."

The phrasal verb is used transitively. It refers to a way of acting on some object. One "teases out" wool. One (gently) teases out the roots of a pot-bound plant one is transplanting into the ground.

A definition from Macmillan's dictionary takes us into the realm of the metaphorical: To is "to succeed in discovering something difficult, complicated, or secret."

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