November 2010 Archives


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Just came across a couple of terms I hadn't encountered before in an article about leaked US diplomatic memos: SIPDIS (applied to items for DIStribution on SIPRNet, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network) and NOFORN (indicating that no foreigners (except perhaps some British and Australian people) should see the item thus described).

The US State Department provides a PDF describing When and How to Use SIPDIS (see also a Guardian article on SIPRNet), and the Federation of American Scientists supplies a PDF of an interesting 2005 memo about correct use of NOFORN.

I know that governmental abbreviations and terminology can often be cryptic, and that there are thousands of such terms out there; I have no interest in posting all of the publicly known ones here. But I was mildly amused by these two, and I wouldn't be surprised to see SIPDIS show up in spy novels and such (if it hasn't already).

When spambots go awry

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Spambots that post comment spam in blogs apparently have a synonym system: they take a piece of text, and they substitute in synonyms for a bunch of the words and phrases in order to make it harder for automated spam defense systems to detect the spam.

But sometimes the automated synonym replacements are a little overzealous, and you end up with something kind of akin to a Secret Yet.

Case in point: today I noticed a spam comment that a bot had posted in my blog that referred to a certain major annual event as the “San Diego Comic minus.”


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Unintentionally funny bit from an article today. The article discusses the lack of delays today from passengers requesting a “pat-down” instead of going through backscatter machines. Then it switches topics to the more general issue of other kinds of airport delays today, and it notes:

Some travelers also faced technical glitches. Spirit Airlines was forced to handle its passengers manually at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after its computers experienced problems.

—“Fliers facing minimal airport delays, despite protest threats,” by Alan Levin, USA Today

To which I thought: Isn't handling passengers manually what the TSA pat-down fuss is all about?

The arguable fact

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I have some sympathy for this kind of construction, 'cause I've done it too:

There's no way to two-step around the fact that season 11 of Dancing with the Stars has arguably been the most controversial in the show's history

—“Why Bristol Palin May Win Dancing with the Stars,” by Monica Rizzo, 22 November 2010

But I try to rewrite it when I notice that I've done it. Because it's an absolute and undeniably certain unquestionable fact that I think maybe possibly this construction is a little bit kind of sort of contradictory and slightly somewhat self-undermining.

Is it a fact or isn't it? If it is, then don't qualify it with uncertainty indicators. And if it's uncertain, then don't call it a fact, and certainly don't emphasize that it's an indisputable fact.



Several years ago, I took a sideswipe at “literally” in an entry about something else. John S and Shmuel both gently pointed out that I was wrong to be fussy about it. I never responded to those comments, but I hereby belatedly thank both of you. You were right, though it makes me grumpy.

I managed somehow to avoid getting imprinted with a lot of the standard prescriptivist peeves. For example, I've never had a problem with using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.”

But “literally,” to my very literalist mind, has always felt blatantly and bizarrely wrong.

This morning, I saw an article in Fast Company that said: “Dreams of legalized marijuana in California literally went up in smoke this week[...]”

Which manages to combine my annoyance over cheap pot puns with my annoyance with “literally.”

I considered dropping a note to the people who run Literally, A Web Log, but then I saw it's been over a year since their last post. (They tweeted more recently, but still a month and a half ago.)

And then I found an excellent article about “literally” by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower from 2005, and I decided to just bite the bullet and confess that I'm wrong.

Sheidlower points out (as Shmuel had done) that use of “literally” as an all-purpose intensifier goes back over a century, used in a bunch of Canonical Literary Works by a bunch of Great Literary Authors. It's the same argument I use to support gender-neutral “they”: if people who are widely regarded as among the greatest writers in English can do it, who am I to say they're wrong?

The Sheidlower article traces the history of the word's usage, from its early use with the meaning you'd expect, through Dryden and Pope and Austen using it as an intensifier for true statements, through the newer use (but still dating back to the late 1700s!) as an intensifier for metaphorical statements. Apparently there were no objections to any of this until the early 1900s.

But the parts of the article that really finally made clear to me that I was being wrongheaded are the discussions of (a) “contranyms” (words that have two or more meanings that directly contradict each other) and (b) the word “really,” which also seems like it ought to be used only to affirm the truth of something but in fact is widely used (including by me) as an all-purpose intensifier.

So my head is now firmly convinced that there's nothing at all wrong with using “literally” that way.

But I am nonetheless likely to continue to have a gut negative reaction to it, alas.

Headlines to confuse time travelers

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Just saw this headline:

77 Percent of Android Devices Running Eclair, Froyo

And I wondered: if a time traveler from fifty or a hundred years ago saw that headline, what sort of picture of today's world would it give them? Assuming they could make any sense out of it at all?

The word “android” has been around for a while, so presumably they would think we had actual androids. They would know what an eclair was, of course, but not fro-yo; and even if they did, they would likely have a hard time figuring out what it would mean for an android—or an “android device,” whatever that is—to “run” desserts.

For that matter, probably a huge number of modern people have no idea what that last phrase means; Eclair and Froyo are the code names for the latest versions of the operating system that runs Android cell phones. So perhaps this isn't the best possible example of the kind of headline I'm talking about, since it might be nearly as confusing to most modern people as to our time traveler.

But now I'm intrigued by the general idea. Got any other examples of headlines that would leave time travelers with very misleading (and/or just plain confusing) ideas of what the modern world is like?

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