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Save the Words

December 6, 2010 in Language by snark

Each year hundreds of words are dropped from the English language. Old words, wise words, hard-working words. Words that once led meaningful lives but now lie unused, unloved and unwanted.

Today, 90% of everything we write is communicated by only 7,000 words. You can change all that. Help Save the Words!

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Great Recession stages of grief in songs of “can’t”

April 29, 2010 in Culture / History, Language by snark

The Great Recession of 2008-09 has so scarred us all, it seems fitting to process it culturally through the Stages of Grief. Inspired by this Wordlab Forum punnery that moved me from “quant” to “can’t”, I started thinking of songs whose titles include the word “can’t”, as in Can’t Buy Me Love, in terms of finance and the recent economic meltdown.

So to make all this cant even campier, let’s process our collective trauma over the Great Recession through the Sages of Grief in songs of “can’t”, leading off with an extra stage that sets-up our cultural addiction to the dream of spectacular profits:

1. Addiction — Show me the money!

You Can’t Resist It
Money Can’t Buy It
I Can’t Wait
I Can’t Decide
Can’t Say No
Can’t Stay Away
Can’t Take My Eyes Off You
Can’t Fight This Feeling
Can’t Slow Down
Just Can’t Get Enough
I Can’t Help Myself
I Can’t Quit You Baby
Can’t Live Without You
I Just Can’t Help Believing
I Just Can’t Wait to Be King

2. Shock and disbelief — Housing prices can’t go down!

I Can’t Be Bothered
Can’t Believe It
Can’t Take It In
Can’t Happen Here
I Can’t Tell You Why
I Can’t Explain

3. Denial — It’s just a blip on the way to greater market value.

It Can’t Rain All the Time
Can’t Stop Me
Can’t Tell Me Nothing
You Can’t Take Me
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
Rudie Can’t Fail
I Can’t Go For That
Can’t Give Up Now
You Can’t Catch Me
You Can’t Bring Me Down
They Can’t Take That Away From Me

4. Anger — Bernie Madoff did what with my pension?!!!

I Can’t Stand the Rain
Can’t Stand You
U Can’t Touch This
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
I Can’t Outrun You
You Can’t Win
Can’t Stand It
I Can’t Stand It No More

5. Bargaining — Mr. Banker, will you renegotiate my mortgage?

Why Can’t You See
I Can’t Do It Alone
Why Can’t I?

6. Depression — We’re fucked, and soon we’ll be living in mud huts again.

Can’t Get You out of My Head
Can’t Keep It In
Can’t Stand Losing You
Can’t Get Over You
Can’t Cry Anymore
Can’t Go Back
Can’t Go On
Can’t Get There From Here
Can’t Let Go
Can’t Shake It
Can’t Find the Words
Can’t Get It Out of My Head
Can’t Sleep At Night
Can’t Finish What You Started
Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into
I Can’t Do This
Can’t Stop This Thing We Started
Can’t Stop This
Can’t Go Back Now
Can’t Stop the World
Can’t Let Go
Can’t Get Away
A Fire I Can’t Put Out

7. Acceptance — I don’t really even need a house, now that I have an iPad!

This Can’t Be Healthy
Can’t Deny It
I Can’t Deny
Can’t Have It All
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
You Can’t Turn the Tide
You Can’t Stop the Rain
We Can’t Help You
Can’t Be A Cowboy Forever

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Monty Python — Rock Notes

April 5, 2010 in Art, Language, Names/Naming by snark

Monty Python, “Rock Notes”, from the album, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligations (1980). Performer/Writer: Eric Idle. Great inspiration for anybody faced with naming their band. Also inspiring is Wordlab’s Rock Band Names List and Band Name Generator. And if you sign up for a free membership to Wordlab, you can post your band naming project as a New Topic in the Band Names group Forum.

The clip below is a more recent performance by Eric Idle, with original the transcription below that:

Eric Idle performing Monty Python

Rex Stardust, lead electric triangle with Toad the Wet Sprocket has had to have an elbow removed following their recent successful worldwide tour of Finland. Flamboyant ambidextrous Rex apparently fell off the back of a motorcycle. “Fell off the back of a motorcyclist, most likely,” quipped ace drummer Jumbo McCluney upon hearing of the accident. Plans are already afoot for a major tour of Iceland.

Dead Monkeys are to split up again, according to their manager, Lefty Goldblatt. They’ve been in the business now ten years, nine as other groups. Originally the Dead Salmon, they became for a while, Trout. Then Fried Trout, then Poached Trout In A White Wine Sauce, and finally, Herring. Splitting up for nearly a month, they re-formed as Red Herring, which became Dead Herring for a while, and then Dead Loss, which reflected the current state of the group. Splitting up again to get their heads together, they reformed a fortnight later as Heads Together, a tight little name which lasted them through a difficult period when their drummer was suspected of suffering from death. It turned out to be only a rumor and they became Dead Together, then Dead Gear, which lead to Dead Donkeys, Lead Donkeys, and the inevitable split up. After nearly ten days, they reformed again as Sole Manier, then Dead Sole, Rock Cod, Turbot, Haddock, White Baith, the Places, Fish, Bream, Mackerel, Salmon, Poached Salmon, Poached Salmon In A White Wine Sauce, Salmon-monia, and Helen Shapiro. This last name, their favorite, had to be dropped following an injunction and they split up again. When they reformed after a recordbreaking two days, they ditched the fishy references and became Dead Monkeys, a name which they stuck with for the rest of their careers. Now, a fortnight later, they’ve finally split up.

[This paragraph is in the original, in between the other two paragraphs, but not in the YouTube clip version above.] [--Divorced after only eight minutes, popular television singing star, Charisma, changed her mind on the way out of the registry office, when she realized she had married one of the Donkeys by mistake. The evening before in LA's glittering nightspot, the Abitoir, she had proposed to drummer Reg Abbot of Blind Drunk, after a whirlwind romance and a knee-trembler. But when the hangover lifted, it was Keith Sly of the Donkeys who was on her arm in the registry office. Keith, who was too ill to notice, remained unsteady during thes thrt ceremony and when asked to exchange vows, began to recite names and addresses of people who also used the stuff. Charisma spotted the error as Keith was being carried into the wedding ambulance and became emotionally upset. However, the mistake was soon cleared up, and she stayed long enough to consummate their divorce.--]

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500 Worst Passwords

March 30, 2010 in Art, Language by snark

Kate Bingaman-Burt has created a nice poster featuring the “500 Worst Passwords“, gleaned from the book Perfect Password: Selection, Protection, Authentication by Mark Burnett:

500 Worst Passwords

500 Worst Passwords, by Kate Bingaman-Burt (click to enlarge)

Be sure to check out Kate’s blog, Obsessive Consumption.

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Mike Siwek and Audrey Fino demonstrate Google’s semantic genius

March 23, 2010 in Language by snark

Wired has an interesting article in its March, 2010 issue, How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web, that illuminates some of the reasons why Google’s search algorithm works so well and sets Google apart from other search engines.

“The algorithm is extremely important in search, but it’s not the only thing,” says Brian MacDonald, Microsoft’s VP of core search. “You buy a car for reasons beyond just the engine.”

Google’s response can be summed up in four words: mike siwek lawyer mi.

Amit Singhal types that koan into his company’s search box. Singhal, a gentle man in his forties, is a Google Fellow, an honorific bestowed upon him four years ago to reward his rewrite of the search engine in 2001. He jabs the Enter key. In a time span best measured in a hummingbird’s wing-flaps, a page of links appears. The top result connects to a listing for an attorney named Michael Siwek in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a fairly innocuous search — the kind that Google’s servers handle billions of times a day — but it is deceptively complicated. Type those same words into Bing, for instance, and the first result is a page about the NFL draft that includes safety Lawyer Milloy. Several pages into the results, there’s no direct referral to Siwek.

The comparison demonstrates the power, even intelligence, of Google’s algorithm, honed over countless iterations. It possesses the seemingly magical ability to interpret searchers’ requests — no matter how awkward or misspelled. Google refers to that ability as search quality, and for years the company has closely guarded the process by which it delivers such accurate results….

Of course, just by being written about and linked to from Wired, Lawyer Siwek’s search results have all been skewed. But no matter — that’s to be expected. What interests me is how Google is essentially playing with language, like we do here at Wordlab, in a continuous effort to break it up and recombine it to figure out contextual relationships and semantic meaning.

…Google has used its huge mass of collected data to bolster its algorithm with an amazingly deep knowledge base that helps interpret the complex intent of cryptic queries.

Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. “We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

…for the most part, the improvement process is a relentless slog, grinding through bad results to determine what isn’t working. One unsuccessful search became a legend: Sometime in 2001, Singhal learned of poor results when people typed the name “audrey fino” into the search box. Google kept returning Italian sites praising Audrey Hepburn. (Fino  means fine in Italian.) “We realized that this is actually a person’s name,” Singhal says. “But we didn’t have the smarts in the system.”

The Audrey Fino failure led Singhal on a multiyear quest to improve the way the system deals with names — which account for 8 percent of all searches. To crack it, he had to master the black art of “bi-gram breakage” — that is, separating multiple words into discrete units. For instance, “new york” represents two words that go together (a bi-gram). But so would the three words in “new york times,” which clearly indicate a different kind of search. And everything changes when the query is “new york times square.” Humans can make these distinctions instantly, but Google does not have a Brazil-like back room with hundreds of thousands of cubicle jockeys. It relies on algorithms.

The Mike Siwek query illustrates how Google accomplishes this. When Singhal types in a command to expose a layer of code underneath each search result, it’s clear which signals determine the selection of the top links: a bi-gram connection to figure it’s a name; a synonym; a geographic location. “Deconstruct this query from an engineer’s point of view,” Singhal explains. “We say, ‘Aha! We can break this here!’ We figure that lawyer is not a last name and Siwek is not a middle name. And by the way, lawyer is not a town in Michigan. A lawyer is an attorney.”

This is the hard-won realization from inside the Google search engine, culled from the data generated by billions of searches: a rock is a rock. It’s also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it “rokc” and it’s still a rock. But put “little” in front of it and it’s the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around. “The holy grail of search is to understand what the user wants,” Singhal says. “Then you are not matching words; you are actually trying to match meaning.”

Thanks to the Interweb, Mike Siwek and Audrey Fino (and, from the article, Garden Grove psychologist Cindy Louise Greenslade) are now cyberlebrities, endlessly spidered, SERPed, and iterated through the dreamtime that is not real, yet we think about it. Like conceptual art.

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Virus update: one million English words, and counting

June 10, 2009 in Language by snark

The English language received its official unofficial one millionth word this morning at 5:22 a.m. ET. And, just in time for the coming Web 3.0 phenomena, the one millionth word is…wait for it…

Web 2.0.

Of course, “Web 2.0″ being crowned the One Millionth English Word, and having the coronation at exactly 5:22 this morning, is just an estimate, made buy a website called the Global Language Monitor, “a Web site that uses a math formula to estimate how often words are created.” I like that: words used to describe a math formula used to estimate how many words there are that could be put to use to describe math formulas that estimate…well, you get the picture.

According to the article today on CNN.com:

[Global Language Monitor] estimates the millionth English word, “Web 2.0″ was added to the language Wednesday at 5:22 a.m. ET. The term refers to the second, more social generation of the Internet.

The site says more than 14 words are added to English every day, at the current rate.

The “Million Word March,” however, has made the man who runs this word-counting project somewhat of a pariah in the linguistic community. Some linguists say it’s impossible to count the number of words in a language because languages are always changing, and because defining what counts as a word is a fruitless endeavor.

Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor, says, however, that the million-word estimation isn’t as important as the idea behind his project, which is to show that English has become a complex, global language.

“It’s a people’s language,” he said.

Other languages, like French, Payack said, put big walls around their vocabularies. English brings others in.

“English has the tradition of swallowing new words whole,” he said. “Other languages translate.”

Certainly that’s what Wordlab has always been about: swallowing new words whole…and then regurgitating them in new combinations.

Still, Payack says he doesn’t include all new words in his count. Words must make sense in at least 60 percent of the world to be official, he said. And they must make sense to different communities of people. A new technology term that’s only understood in Silicon Valley wouldn’t count as a mainstream word, he said.

His computer models check a total of 5,000 dictionaries, scholarly publications and news articles, as well as billions of Web sites, to see how frequently words are used, he said. A word must make 25,000 appearances to be deemed legitimate.

Payack said news events have also fueled the rapid expansion of English, which he said has more words than any other language. Mandarin Chinese comes in second with about 450,000 words, he said.

English terms like “Obamamania,” “defriend,” “wardrobe malfunction,” “zombie banks,” “shovel ready” and “recessionista” all have grown out of recent news cycles about the presidential election, economic crash, online networking or a sports event, he said. Other languages might not have developed new terms to deal with such phenomena, he said.

That the true beauty and power of English, and its new global function: serving as a language laboratory for the entire world. An interesting corollary question would be how many English words die out every day, week or month? None of these new words get carved in stone, and even the Oxford English Dictionary is filled with many archaic words no longer in use.

Language experts who spoke with CNN said they disapprove of Payack’s count, but they agree that English generally has more words than most, if not all, languages.

“This is stuff that you just can’t count,” said Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “No one can count it, and to pretend that you can is totally disingenuous. It simply can’t be done.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has about 600,000 entries, Sheidlower said. But that by no means includes all words, he said.

… Part of what makes determining the number of words in a language so difficult is that there are so many root words and their variants, said Sarah Thomason, president of the Linguistic Society of America and a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan.

… Linguists and lexicographers run into further complications when trying to count words that are spelled one way but can have several meanings, said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, and an officer at the American Dialect Society.

“The word bear, b-e-a-r — is that two words or one, for example? You have a noun that’s a wild creature and then you have b-e-a-r, [which means] to bear left or to bear right, and there’s many other things,” he said. “So you really can’t be exact about a millionth word.”

Can any of these linguists or word-counters bear to get into pun territory? Absolutely each meaning of “bear” and every other word should count as a separate word — again, multiple meanings, puns, homonyms, all are part of what gives the English language so much flavor and customizability (not a word, BTW, according to the OED). Call it Language 2.0 if you must (but really, please don’t — I’m just planting a virus here).

[Payack] said the count is meant to be a celebration of English as a global language. And, while he says other languages are being stamped out by English’s expansion, it’s a powerful thing that so many people today are able to communicate with such a vast list of words.

Here here, brother. As William S. Burroughs famously said, “Language is a virus“. And English, with its metastasizing foam of wordbirth and worddeath, is the smallpox of languages.

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I’m a moofer?

November 11, 2008 in Language by snark

Hypermiling is the Oxford Universtiy Press “Word of the Year” and “moofer” is a runner-up amongst these finalists:

frugalista – person who leads a frugal lifestyle, but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying second-hand, growing own produce, etc.

moofer – a mobile out of office worker – ie. someone who works away from a fixed workplace, via Blackberry/laptop/wi-fi etc. (also verbal noun, moofing)

topless meeting – a meeting in which the participants are barred from using their laptops, Blackberries, cellphones, etc.

toxic debt – mainly sub-prime debts that are now proving so disastrous to banks. They were parceled up and sent around the global financial system like toxic waste, hence the allusion.

I prefer to think of myself as one of a new breed of digital nomads.

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Words that sound dirty but they’re not

June 17, 2008 in Language by snark

Here’s a discussion thread that should be of interest to the Wordlab community: Words that sound dirty, but they’re not. A sampling of the gems to be found here:

Aer Lingus
Ashram
assonance
buttress
cumin
cummerbund
Dick Butkus
diction
dongle
fluctuate
gherkin
kumquat
masticate
rectify
titmouse
vibrato
Wankel Rotary Engine

This looks like a natural thread to pick up here on Wordlab, if someone would like to start one.

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How language colors perception

April 22, 2008 in Language by snark

Can you tell which aliens are good and which are evil, the Smoothheads or the Bumpyheads, based on whether they are called “leebish” or “grecious”? If so, you’re a good candidate for testing at Carnegie Mellon, where researchers have shown that naming things with labels creates mental categories, helping people learn faster. So reports today’s New York Times, in the article, When Language Can Hold the Answer:

The finding may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups.

In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

The gist is that language “greases the wheels of perception.” However, after that initial greasing, it can then get in the way:

In another experiment, Dr. Lupyan showed subjects a series of chairs and tables using pictures from the Ikea catalog. Some subjects were asked to press a button indicating that the picture was of a table or a chair. Other subjects pressed a button to make a nonverbal judgment about the pictures, for example, to indicate whether they liked them or not. Dr. Lupyan found that the subjects who used words to label the objects had more trouble remembering whether they’d seen a specific chair before than subjects who had only pressed a button in a nonverbal task.

Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Dr. Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.

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Calling all prattling gabblers, lubberly louts, flouting milksops, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, and jobbernol goosecaps

March 26, 2008 in Language, Slang by snark

Looking for just the right invective to hurl at someone? Give old François Rabelais a go. Specifically, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 1653 translation of Rabelais’ classic satirical adventure, Gargantua and Pantagruel (written 1532-1542). Here’s a sample:

The bun-sellers or cake-makers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but, which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, called them prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubberly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant-varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggarts, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, flutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, turdy gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets; saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unranged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.

A shout out to World Wide Words for scratching at this slubberdegullion of the English language.