English Teacher Article Small steps, quantum leaps

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A student contacted me about the phrase 'quantum leap', which she had seen in a text she was reading at work. Her sense told her it meant a big step, but her dictionary only told her that quantum was the smallest discrete quantity of a physical property. She had run into a dreaded contranym.

There is something dreadfully unfair about using a word in a way completely different from its dictionary definition, especially when it is primarily down to ignorance. I doubt that anyone who says wicked meaning great is unaware of the dictionary definition, but many have little idea about quantum mechanics and are unaware of the contradiction in the phrase. When she asked for an explanation, I could come up with little better than perfidious Albion. For a Japanese student, it must appear little short of insane that we use this phrase in such an underhand way.

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I always thought there was something more to the expression "quantum leap", perhaps having to do with the "intuitive jump" required to understand quantum physics, as compared to traditional physics.

Still, it shouldn't be so shocking for a Japanese student, as long as she is aware of similar strange expressions in her own language. For example, the word "taihen" means "very bad" in Japanese. However, many people today use it in a positive way, by saying things like "taihen oishii" (very bad delicious) or "taihen omoshiroi" (very bad interesting).

In my opinion, the expression "quantum leap" is used to describe an evolution of consciousness, such as that notoriously famous quote made by Neil armstrong "a small step for man, a big step for mankind". Maybe something like the discovery that the world is round!! Such events could be described as a quantum leap. yes, nowadays the word quantum is thrown around phrases without real knowledge of its definition, just as it occurs in many other situations, language vices, slangs, and direct associations of expressions to actions without emphasis on neither emphasis nor meaning. But, I would say that this isnt such a bad thing, on the contrary, language is a living thing logically! This is the core of the lexical approach, association of action and not meaning!

I would say that "quantum leap" as well as "quantum jump" are physics terms and in non-technical usage thse phrases mean "a great step" concerning some career or deed. So the problem is whether the student knows the first, direct, terminological meaning and how s/he can apply this semi-idiom in a non-terminological context. If anybody is interested in such semi-idioms. you are welcome: it is my cup of tea and I would like to have a chain reaction of questions.

Elena, can you give more examples of semi-idioms, please?
I need them for my course paper very much, but i cannot find any :(

Allwords.com offers the following definition:

quantum leap

1. (physics) The discontinuous change of the state of an electron in an atom or molecule from one energy level to another.
2. (metaphorical) An abrupt change.

Your student's dictionary told her that "quantum" was the smallest discrete quantity of a physical property, yet her sense told her that "quantum leap" meant a big step. The Allwords.com definition of "quantum leap" is about abrupt or discontinuous change rather than small or large change.

"Quantum Leap" in the quantum physics sense means that an electron jumps from one place to another, without any physical evidence that it passed through any of the places in between. (This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but trust me, you don't want to hear the detailed explanation.) In this sense a "quantum leap" is more amazing than an ordinary leap, because it has the look and feel of teleportation.

Having said that, I'm still convinced that most people use "quantum leap" the way they do because they think it means a really big jump.

I recently used the term during a discussion on trying to achieve a change in consciousness in relation to the soul.
The point being that we are not just the body made up of matter, senses, mind, intelligence and false ego but there is the higher self consisting of spiritual consciousness. That is our true nature. It seems like a quantum leap to actually realise this.
One of my collegues argued that the term 'Quantum leap' was inappropriate in this regard. He's probably right in the sense that it takes many years or lifetimes of practice and discipline to come to the level of our purified spiritual nature under all the layers of material conditioning. But to me it seems that at any given moment one may receive that revelation. A rare moment it may be. But then we may sink back to our old thought patterns quick enough, So maybe then its not considered a quantum leap as it's not a continuous change????
Yours Syamamayi dd.
Just incase your wondering, I am a memeber of ISKCON, better known as The Hare Krsna movement.

Quantum leap comes from the term "Quantum jump." It's literal meaning is to describe an electron to jump from one energy state to another (e.g. to a more excited state). The electron appears to jump from one state to the next, without traveling between the two states. Sort of a discontinuous jump, instead of a continuous path. So think of it as an instantaneous change in energy states.

Thus, a "quantum leap" is a sudden change - not really related to the size of the jump.

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