September 2012 Archives

There's been some interesting work lately in analyzing documents and speeches in terms of statistics and word clouds and such. The most recent piece I've come across in this area is Janet Harris's Huffington Post article “From Reagan to Romney: How Last Night's Speech Measured Up,” written shortly after Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It examines Republican nomination acceptance speeches over the past 32 years, looking at things like wordcounts and word clouds for each speech.

A phrase grows in Brooklyn

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Recently happened across a snowclone that I hadn't really noticed before: phrases of the form “an X grows in Brooklyn,” riffing on the title A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Headline writers in particular seem to find it irresistible. A quick Google for ["a * grows in Brooklyn"] and variants of that produced the following very incomplete list:

  • American family
  • arena
  • Bionic Garden
  • brie (bonus points for rhyming with the original)
  • 'Burgh sandwich
  • child
  • congestion [possibly not actually a reference; it was missing the initial “a,” and I can imagine someone saying it without intending to snowclone]
  • cook
  • Giant Sinkhole
  • gourd
  • Jew
  • me
  • natural-gas pipeline
  • Opera
  • scene
  • Sci Fi Bookstore/Publisher [somehow doesn't have the same ring to it]
  • shoe
  • tee
  • union
  • tour
  • Très

And so on.

Of course, the snowclone is actually more adaptable than that; it's really “a X grows in Y.” (Where Y is a place.)

  • A Tree Grows in Joplin
  • A cactus grows in Buffalo
  • A feud grows in Jersey
  • A Factory Grows in Haiti
  • A Green Home Grows in Bucktown

But as you get further from the original, it gets harder to tell whether the writer intended a reference or not. “A Flower Grows in Ireland”? Possibly. “A Flower Grows in Stone”? Probably not.

Arguably, the snowclone template is even more flexible: “a X Ys in Z.” For example, if a certain national laboratory were to develop phosphorescent insects, I'm sure that dozens of headlines would proclaim, “A Flea Glows in Brookhaven.” But when you get to this level of distance from the original phrase, you have to maintain strong ties (such as rhyming or other similarities) to make it look like a reference at all; a phrase like “a baby perambulates in San Francisco” probably doesn't retain enough of the original to be recognizable.

I imagine it would be possible to characterize/categorize the ways in which a snowclone can recognizably stretch, but that goes way beyond the scope of this entry, so I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Most disappointing spam of the day


Spam subject line:

Strange 11-Letter Word That Doubles Your Metabolism

Wow! A strange word, a long word, and a word that has an effect on the real world, all in one! Just my kind of thing!

Sadly, the message body didn't explicitly refer to words at all. Very disappointing.

(It did contain the word “biochemistry” in quotation marks, but as far as I can tell that's twelve letters long and not especially strange.)

So if any of you happen to know a strange 11-letter word that doubles your (or anyone else's) metabolism, could you post it in comments here? Thanks.

eucalyptus and hell are cognates


The other day, Jim and I were looking at a eucalyptus tree, and I realized that although the eu- part was obvious, I had no idea what the -calyptus part meant.

So I looked it up. It is awfully nice to have a dictionary on my cell phone.

MW11 says:

New Latin, genus name, from eu- + Greek kalyptos covered, from kalyptein to conceal; from the conical covering of the buds

Which is kind of interesting, and good to know, but that wasn't the part that caught my eye. The surprising part was this:

—more at HELL

Say what?

So I checked the etymology for hell, and sure enough:

akin to Old English helan to conceal, [. . .] Greek kalyptein

So there you have it: eucalyptus and hell are distantly related, by way of a Greek word for concealment.

I'm pretty sure this wins the most surprising-to-me etymology of the year award.

Secret Service code names

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TIME magazine provides a list of 11 Great Secret Service Code Names. I don't love their discussions and presentation of the names, but I like the names themselves, from Paul Ryan's “Bowhunter” to Barack Obama's “Renegade” to Cindy McCain's “Parasol.” And yes, the gender differences are especially interesting. has a better and longer list without the annoying annotations, though also presumably without the fact-checking. That list has a fair bit of overlap with a list from the NNDB, though I don't know whether either of those two lists used the other as a source. Some of the ones I like from those lists:

Todd Palin
Amy Carter
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Queen Elizabeth II
Frank Sinatra
Maureen Reagan
Dan Quayle
George H. W. Bush
John Anderson
Laura Bush
Prince Charles

For more code names, and more info, see Wikipedia.


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A couple weeks ago, I came across the phrase assortative mating in an article about autism:

Judith Warner explores a provocative theory about why rates of autism, particularly the mild form known as Asperger's, are on the rise: because people who have certain “autistic” traits are increasingly meeting and marrying each other and having offspring who are more likely to be on the spectrum.

The theory of “assortative mating” was first put forth by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher[. . . .]

I hadn't seen the word “assortative” before, but it didn't occur to me to post about it here until a week or so later, when I came across it again in various articles about research on social networks in mythology:

The three myths were shown to be similar to real-life networks as they had similar degree distributions, were assortative and vulnerable to targeted attack. Assortativity is the tendency of a character of a certain degree to interact with a character of similar popularity; being vulnerable to targeted attack means that if you remove one of the most popular characters, it leads to a breakdown of the whole network—neither of these appears to happen in fiction.

Wikipedia has more general info on assortative mixing in the network-theory context, also known as assortativity, or (when referring specifically to social networks) as homophily.

According to MW11, the word “assortative” in the mating context (“being nonrandom mating based on like or unlike characteristics”) dates back to 1897; they don't list the network-theory meaning per se, but I can see how the one could have derived from the other.

(Btw, thanks to Google Web History search for letting me find the first article quickly and easily when I went looking for it after encountering the term a second time.)

If the minstrel boy to the war had gone


A few weeks back, I re-listened to the Clancy Brothers' rendition of “The Minstrel Boy,” and it's been running through my head intermittently ever since. Stirring and patriotic in an enjoyably over-the-top kind of way. But one thing keeps bothering me about the lyrics.

The second half of the first verse goes like this, according to Wikipedia:

“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,

“Tho' all the world betray thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

What's the problem? Well, “betray thee” and “praise thee” don't rhyme.

No problem, you may be thinking; just change it to “betrays thee.” And indeed, that may be how the original version went; a copy of the sheet music from 1895 says “betrays,” and that's how the Clancy Brothers sing it, so Wikipedia's version of the lyrics may be wrong. (The song was originally written between 1798 and 1852, though, so I'm not sure whether the 1895 version reflects the original lyrics or not.)

But there's still a problem:

“Though all the world betrays thee” gets the subjunctive form of the verb wrong. [Updated this paragraph and the following one a few days after posting, to clarify my confusing original phrasing.]

I realize that few today care about the poor subjunctive. But every time the song has run through my head in the past few weeks—and that has been a great many times—I've been mildly annoyed by this. When forced to choose between correct rhyme and correct subjunctive, which should one choose?

I suppose that another option is to take the line out of the subjunctive entirely, and make it a prediction instead, perhaps something like “When all the world betrays thee.” But somehow the semi-archaic phrasing of “Though all the world” appeals to me and seems to me to fit the general tone of the song well.

At any rate, I don't have a good answer. But I'm hoping that if I write this up as a blog entry, it will stop nagging at me.

Rooftop kerning

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It struck me a while back that every time there's any text on any sign, someone had to choose a font and a size for it, among other design choices. (Some things may be mandated by law, but that just means the lawmakers had to make those choices.)

I'm reminded of that again when I see things like this: a set of photos of a bus station in Amsterdam that's currently under construction. The word AMSTERDAM is spelled out in huge letters on the roof, and they're starting from both ends and working in toward the middle. And so the blogger expresses concern that they may not have calculated the sizes of the letters correctly, especially since the evidence so far suggests that the people building the station aren't using consistent kerning.

. . . Speaking of kerning, I don't seem to have mentioned the word keming here. It's a joke word coined by David Friedman in 2008; it's defined as “The result of improper kerning.”

One more thing while I'm here: Google kerning, and look carefully at the letter-spacing of the word kerning in the search results. (May not work in all browsers, I'm not sure.)


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LPT, I recently learned, stands for Life Pro Tip: a tip about how to do something in real life (as opposed to on a computer). My understanding is that, as with other pro tips (a.k.a. protips), LPTs are often sarcastic, or refer to obvious things as if they were surprising or difficult.

MW11's definition 1b for free is:

enjoying civil and political liberty

Definition 1 for liberty is:

the quality or state of being free

Of course, there are other definitions for both words. Still, amusing. (Thanks for pointing this out, Kendra!)


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Mary Anne noted in passing recently that it was muggy in Chicago, and I realized that though I've known the word all my life, I didn't know where it came from.

Turns out (according to MW11) that it's from the dialect word mug, meaning “drizzle.” So I guess muggy originally meant drizzly rather than humid.

While I'm here, I like the phrasing of MW11's definition of muggy: “being warm, damp, and close.” There are relationships that could be described that way.

And it puts me in mind of other three-word sets, like “fast, cheap, and out of control,” but maybe that's a topic for another day.


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In May, I saw the following line in an article about bicycling, socializing, and social networks in Dublin:

“We just want to show how cycling is a social thing to do and that you don't need to be online to have the craic,” said Elst.

According to Wikipedia:

“Craic,” [. . .] or “crack,” is a term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland. It is often used with the definite article—“the craic.“ The word has an unusual history; the English crack was borrowed into Irish as craic in the mid-20th century and the Irish spelling was then reborrowed into English.

It appears to be pronounced just like “crack.”

The rest of the Wikipedia article is worth reading too; it gives the history of the word, and touches on the controversy over the spelling craic, which has been criticized as “fake Irish” and “pseudo-Gaelic.”


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Back in March, I watched an episode of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, which led me to look the show up on Wikipedia.

I was amused by the paragraph about vaguely Eastern-European-esque place names and words used in the series:

Although a Cold War subtext is present throughout the series, the actual Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is rarely mentioned over the course of the series. [. . .] However, in the early years, [. . .] many of the targets appear to be leaders of fictional Slavic countries. Major named enemy countries include the “European People's Republic” and the “Eastern European Republic.” Additionally, real languages spoken in Eastern Europe are used. In the Season One episode “The Carriers,” one of the villains reads a book whose title is the (incorrect) Russian Na Voina (About War); police vehicles are often labelled as such with words such as “polii├žia” and “poIiia”; and a gas line or tank would be labelled “Gaz,” which is a Romanian translation. This “language,” referred to by the production team as “Gellerese” [after series creator/producer Bruce Geller], was invented specifically to be readable by non-speakers of Slavic languages. Their generous use of it was actually intended as a source of comic relief.

laser sharp

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A few months ago, I encountered a news article that referred to “laser-sharp focus.” I was amused by what I thought was a recombinant idiom, but then when I Googled the phrase, I was surprised to discover that it's in very widespread use, including in plenty of established publications.

The original phrase, “razor-sharp focus,” makes more literal sense (though I know that's an odd thing to say about a metaphor): razors are literally sharp. But then again, when we say that focus is “sharp,” we don't actually mean sharp like a razor.

So I went to the OED for a history of “sharp.” Originally (going back to Old English), it had to do with having a good edge or point for cutting or piercing. Not too much later, it developed a metaphorical meaning: “Acute or penetrating in intellect or perception.” And then a while later it started to mean having acute vision or hearing. And then: “Keen-witted and alert in practical matters, businesslike.”

So by 1697 (the earliest cite listed for that last meaning, though I wouldn't be surprised if it had been used that way earlier), “sharp” has metaphorical connections to both vision and business. So I can imagine that could easily lead to the idea of someone's eyes having a sharp focus, literally and/or metaphorically.

Meanwhile, it also began to refer to an image or object having clearly delineated edges, and by 1883 there's a reference to a photographic image being sharp. So that's an image with a sharp focus.

And then somewhere along the way those uses of “sharp” relating to vision and/or images got combined with the metaphorical comparison to a razor (Thackeray referred to “Epigrams that were as sharp as razors” in Vanity Fair in 1848, though presumably that's not the first use of that phrase). Seems like a natural combination, a way of saying that the focus is not just sharp but very sharp—but still, it's a bit of a mixed metaphor.

And then along came lasers.

And lasers are sharply focused light.

Well, okay, lasers are actually coherent light. But it's easy to think of them—not in a scientific sense, just looking at them from a lay perspective—as being a very sharply focused beam of light.

Also, lasers can be used to cut, and an edge produced by a cutting laser seems (at least in the popular imagination) like it ought to be even sharper than the edge of a razor.

So it makes perfect sense to start with the idea of a “razor-sharp focus” and then update it to the modern world and an idea of even greater sharpness, to creat “laser-sharp focus.”

And it actually makes the metaphor more coherent (if you'll pardon the pun).

So although I initially thought the phrase was a little goofy, taking an already somewhat over-the-top metaphor and magnifying it, I'm now really pleased with it. It takes a longstanding phrase that consisted of two somewhat incompatible metaphors, and it intensifies (heh) the metaphor while also making it more consistent.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)

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