July 2009 Archives


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No word has any right to that many vowels.

It means pregnancy fetishism.

Marmoset there'd be days like this


I don't seem to have ever linked to the brilliant O Fortuna misheard lyrics video, which plays "O Fortuna" while showing what the lyrics might be. Plus visual interpretations of those lyrics. Not knowing the actual Latin lyrics, it's very easy to be pretty sure that the lyrics they're showing are in fact what's being sung. Remarkable how suggestible I can be if shown printed words.

Anyway, what brought that to mind was that Alastair linked to a video of The Marmoset Song, a.k.a. "Marmoset there'd be days like this." It's only one phrase that they're mishearing/changing, but it makes for a great running joke, especially combined with the marmoset photos. Well done and very entertaining.

It appears that there's a whole genre of misheard-songs videos. For example, here's "Take on Me"—but the audio track has been removed as a copyright violation, so you'll have to play your own copy of the music while watching the video. It's a little hard to get them to sync up; I recommend waiting 'til the first frame of the video that shows words, then clicking pause on the video and waiting for the music to catch up. Some of the "mishearings" in this one are pretty far-fetched (that is, I can't imagine actually mishearing some of the words in that particular way), but some others are very funny.

Sadly, some of the other videos in this genre seem to be about making up lyrics that sound vaguely like the originals. For this joke to work best, the lyrics shown on the screen should plausibly sound like the ones being sung. Imo, anyway.

Wreck an icing's beach again

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Back in the late '90s, I wrote a column on computer speech recognition.

The state of the art has progressed somewhat since then. One of the new uses for the technology is Google Voice, which (among other things) automatically transcribes phone messages.

Unfortunately, it's not perfect at doing so yet. On the upside, though, that fact provides us with some entertaining mis-transcriptions. David F. Gallagher of the New York Times asked readers to call his Google Voice number and leave him a message to be transcribed, and he's posted both the original audio messages and the transcriptions, along with notes on some of his favorite mistakes. For example, in one snippet "fascinating and hilarious" became "fascinating pencil areas."

First occurrence of "Ms."

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Ben Zimmer may have tracked down the first use of the word "Ms."

Believe it or not, the word was suggested in 1901 in the Springfield, Massachusetts Sunday Republican. The previous earliest known print citation was 1949, so this is a pretty cool discovery.

Special English

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I had previously heard of Basic English, a proposed simplified English with an 850-word core vocabulary. (In case you're curious, a Basic English website has some examples.)

But I hadn't previously known that Basic English is just one example of a controlled natural language, a subset of a natural language "obtained by restricting the grammar and vocabulary in order to reduce or eliminate ambiguity and complexity."

And I also hadn't known about Special English, used by some Voice of America radio broadcasts to make them easier to understand by non-native English speakers. VOA has been broadcasting in Special English for almost forty years now.

Special English has a 1500-word core vocabulary. To quote the VOA site:

Special English writers use short, simple sentences that contain only one idea. They use active voice. They do not use idioms.

Special English broadcasters read at a slower pace, about two-thirds the speed of standard English. This helps people learning English hear each word clearly. It also helps people who are fluent English speakers understand complex subjects.

I think it's a neat idea, especially because these days VOA also posts corresponding written versions of the Special English broadcasts on their website, so listeners can compare the spoken and written versions, which a couple of listener letters on the abovelinked About page indicate can be helpful to people learning English.

protein name

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There's a drug called rapamycin, which is showing promising results in anti-aging studies.

But that's not why I'm mentioning it here. I'm mentioning it because of this sentence from the abovelinked article:

A review committee decided to test this agent because rapamycin blocks a protein called "target of rapamycin," or TOR.

For all I know, that's a completely standard way to name proteins, but I'm nonetheless tickled. It's like naming a plant "FOD," for "food of deer." Or changing the term "President" to "GOP," for "goal of politicians."


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I've been meaning for a while to collect in one place all the quotes from my sardonic pal Jack Mantis.

Recently discovered the "pages" publishing system in Movable Type—sort of like blog entries without dates attached, which are outside of the regular flow of entries. Seems like a good place to put material that's going to be updated over time.

So now I have two pages in the Mantis Files section of this blog: Mantis Speaks and Mantis at the Movies. Most of the material in both pages has previously appeared elsewhere on my site at one time or another.


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Ever wanted to send someone an online message spelled out in Scrabble tiles?

Use Scrabble-izer!

After you've Scrabble-ized your message, you can email or post the URL. For example, Bill (the author of Scrabble-izer, I think) once posted an idea about mashing up Scrabble-izer with Twitter.

(Btw, I'm guessing that Bill doesn't save or read the messages that people create, but I haven't asked him so I don't know for sure, and the messages could probably be reconstructed from a log somewhere; so I don't recommend using this for anything illegal.)


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You know how the Union Jack has those thin white borders on either side of each of the red stripes?

Turns out there's a word for that: fimbriation, adding thin stripes of color around an element of a flag or heraldic device, usually either to set off the element more clearly from its background or to satisfy a heraldic rule about not putting certain kinds of colors next to each other.

The flag of Trinidad and Tobago is a particularly dramatic example of fimbriation. Note that the white stripes here have a specific symbolic meaning ("The white stands for the sea by which the land is bound," says Wikipedia), so they're not just there for visual-design reasons.

When I was a kid, I was briefly big into heraldry; in retrospect, I think a lot of that was being fascinated by the formality and unusual words of heraldic language. (But I don't think I ever encountered the term "fimbriation" during that period.) That Trinidad and Tobago flag, for example, can be described as "Gules, a bend Sable fimbriated Argent." Which translates (more or less) to "On a red background, a diagonal black stripe (running from upper left to lower right if you're facing the flag) with thin white stripes on either side." As with any technical jargon, it can be pretty compact.

It occurs to me that what I ought to have done is written an entry on heraldic language and used "fimbriation" as an example. But that would've taken more time and research than I have time for right now, so I'll leave it at this.


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Three times in the past two or three days, I've heard people say "deets" for "details." And what they tell you three times is true, so I guess it must be a widespread usage. Surprises me, though, 'cause I don't think I've ever heard it before.

Oh noes! I may not be up on the latest hip Internet slang you kids are using!

Get off my lawn, yo!

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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