I’m sure you’re all just like me and waiting anxiously to hear the results from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, whence this very day we will find out from Punxsy Phil whether spring will come early this year or we have to wait six more weeks (pro tip: In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s always going to fall on March 20th or 21st). As ridiculous as the holiday might seem to some of us, though, there are things about groundhogs and Groundhog Day that are pretty interesting.
Photo, Aaron Silvers, http://www.flickr.com/photos/silvers/24543841/ / CC BY-SA 2.0
Firstly, nobody seems capable of agreeing on what the rodent is called. The holiday would suggest that groundhog is the accepted term, but growing up, I always knew them as woodchucks. And there’s the well-known tongue twister (“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”), which lends credence to its status as the accepted term. But depending on where one resides, the critter is also known as land-beaver, land-squirrel, rock chuck, pasture pig, and my personal favorite: whistle-pig. Some also call it a marmot, but that’s really a broader classification of the genus to which the groundhog belongs (Latin name: Marmota monax). All groundhogs are marmots, but not all marmots are groundhogs, which is plain old Taxonomy 101.
While there are plenty of names for the animal writ large, there are also more celebrity groundhogs than you may be aware; although Punxsy Phil is the most prominent, plenty of states have them. Georgia boasts General Beauregard Lee; Ohio, Buckeye Lee; North Carolina celebrates Groundhog Day with Sir Walter Wally; and Alabama holds Smith Lake Jake to be the true authority on winter’s end. Montana has three: Warren Whitefish, Dayton Dennis, and Moose City Moses. Wiarton, Ontario has a whole festival surrounding the albino groundhog Wiarton Willie, which even features a hockey tournament.
There’s even a song about it, “Oh, Murmeltier” (sung to the tune of “Oh, Tannenbaum”) for which professor and marmot scholar K.B. Armitage of the University of Kansas has written English lyrics:
“Oh Whistlepig, oh Whistlepig,
We celebrate your famous day.
Oh Whistlepig, to you we pray
That winter soon will go away.
We like the sun and daffodils.
We’ve had too much of winter’s chills.
Oh, marmot friend, we’re warning you,
If winter stays, you’ll be rockchuck stew!”
…which is just plain weird.
Then, we have “Groundhog Day,” one of the most enduring comedy films of recent decades. In it, a meteorologist named Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) travels to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day event. While there, he gets stuck in a recursive feedback loop, in which February 2nd is replayed over and over, while he tries to break the loop and move on to February 3rd (and get the heck out of Punxsutawney).
All comedy hijinks aside, movies are ripe for classification. Genres, while easily arguable, are the broadest way by which we classify them. In the case of “Groundhog Day,” it’s a comedy, but we also have drama, horror, etc. Sometimes, such as in this case, the classification is fairly obvious, but some films rightly belong to multiple genres, such as horror-comedies, or dramedies (a term that I personally despise, but it’s out there in common use).
Then, for some movies, we sub-classify by the film’s content or style. Film noir, for instance, isn’t a genre of its own; they’re dramas, but they’re particular kinds of dramas with a specific tone and stylistic touch. If somebody wants to watch something of that nature, it’s much smarter to search for “film noir” than to try wading through the thousands of “dramas” that have been released in the century-plus of cinema—and would thereby be returned in an online search.
But we classify movies in ways other than genre, as well. The MPAA rating system is designed to tell consumers whether the movie is suitable for their age group or comfort level. Sometimes, we classify by their overarching plot, such as the biopic, the road movie, or the coming-of-age film, independent of genre. One can classify them by country of origin, or level of the movie’s budget, or really any way at all.
But let’s go back to “Groundhog Day” and the recursive feedback loop in which the main character gets stuck. It’s funny when it happens to Bill Murray, but it can be devastating to taxonomy. Say, for instance, you have a taxonomy with a top term of Business. A sensible narrower term under this could be Risk. That could be used for any number of kinds of risk, but in this case, the taxonomist adds a narrower term of Risk Management. Under that, one could place Insurance, which easily falls under Risk Management. So far, everything looks just right
Then, somebody comes along to screw around with the taxonomy, and looks at Insurance without looking at the broader terms first. It’s easily arguable that under Insurance, if one wasn’t paying attention, could go Risk Management—of which of course a primary topic is Risk.
When that happens, you get this:
Recursions of this kind are the taxonomic equivalent of what happens in “Groundhog Day,” and it’s not good, or even funny. You’ll go on forever in this loop, getting nowhere and draining system resources at an increasing pace.
So today, we can all have a laugh at a movie, watch some hockey, and gather around to see a groundhog (or whatever you want to call it) leave its burrow, all because of Groundhog Day. But stay warm, because (spoiler alert) there is absolutely six more weeks of winter to come.
Originally posted February 2, 2015.