Archive for Changing times

Autocomplete strikes again

I think I know how an unsuitable but immensely rich desert peninsula got chosen by FIFA (the international governing body for major soccer tournaments) to host the soccer World Cup in 2022.

First, a personal anecdote that triggered my hypothesis about the decision. I recently sent a text message from my smartphone and then carelessly slipped it into my pocket without making sure it had gone to sleep.

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Nathan Hopson spotted this gem in Bangkok while recruiting students this past weekend:

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Too close for comfort

Today's Zits:

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Peak peak apparently passed

"Peak peak reached", The Daily Mash 6/2/2014:

THE world is on the cusp of peak exhaustion after hitting peaks in every possible field.  

The simultaneous achievement of peak beard, peak box-set, peak 90s reunion nostalgia tour, peak gourmet burger and peak superhero film means that it is downhill from here.

See also: "Peak friend", 5/26/2014; "'Peak X' abides", 5/12/2014; "Peak X", 10/14/2008.


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The sparseness of linguistic data

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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Food logistics: a sign of the times

Dachser Food Logistics is what it said on the side of a van that just went by the window of my hotel in Leipzig. Do you see why I raised an eyebrow?

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Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)

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Reaching a crescendo?

There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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Is there an epidemic of plural abstract nouns?

Anthony Gardner, "Absurd Persons Plural", The Economist 12/12/2012:

Earlier this month I went to a lecture by the American novelist Richard Ford. Called "Why novels are smart", it was brilliant and thought-provoking. But my thoughts were also provoked by the British academic who introduced him, commending—among other things—his "prose styles".

Now, Richard Ford is without doubt a great stylist; but he only has one style. He has honed it over many years, and having brought it pretty much to perfection, he very sensibly sticks to it. So why this mysterious use of the plural?

The same question might have occurred to those listening that morning to BBC Radio 4’s "Start the Week". In the course of a discussion about Germany, one panelist referred to the country’s "pasts". I suppose you could argue that, since the country was divided for 40 years into East and West, it has two pasts—but that strikes me as sophistry. The sorry truth is that we are facing a new linguistic fad: the use of the plural where the singular has always been used before, and indeed would make much more sense.

Specifically, we’re talking about abstract nouns. I first noticed the shift a few months ago when another speaker on Radio 4 came out with "geographies". For a while I thought it might be confined to academia; then I realised that it was creeping into the high-faluting vocabulary beloved of arts organisations. One spoke proudly of its "artistic outputs" and what the public wanted "in terms of outcomes".

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Teen communication

Zits for 11/7/2012:

But it's not just land lines — "In Constant Digital Contact, We Feel Alone Together", Fresh Air 10/18/2012:

Terry Gross: You had said before a lot of parents complain that their children will accept the parents' text message and respond to that, but they won't pick up the phone, they won't answer the cell phone.

Sherry Turkle: Yes.

Terry Gross: I'm sure you've spoken to children and teenagers about that. What's the explanation?

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Pundits were confused and inaccurate

Also, the sky turns out to have been blue much of the time, and early returns are strongly suggesting that water is often wet. John Sides, "2012 Was the Moneyball Election", The Monkey Cage 11/7/2012:

Barack Obama’s victory tonight is also a victory for the Moneyball approach to politics.  It shows us that we can use systematic data—economic data, polling data—to separate momentum from no-mentum, to dispense with the gaseous emanations of pundits’ “guts,” and ultimately to forecast the winner.

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How The Times Has Changed

"President Strikes Blow for Finalize as English", NYT 11/30/1961:

In the course of his highly articulate new conference today, President Kennedy struck one grating note for lovers of the English language. He used that bureaucratic favorite "finalize."

"We have not finalized any plans," Mr. Kennedy said when asked about a possible trip overseas.

The new edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines finalize as "to put in final or finished form." It gives as an example the use of the word by former President Eisenhower.

A grieving linguist commented today that "Eisenhower began the process, and Kennedy is finalizing it."

And not satisfied with one little joke, the editors followed up with another — "Finalized?", 11/30/1961:

Mr. President, are you sure you gave the old place a thorough housecleaning after you moved in? It seems that your predecessor left a few loose words behind that you have inadvertently picked up. When you said yesterday, "We have not finalized any plans," it sounded for all the world like a previous occupant who once said, as quoted in Webster's Third (or Bolshevik) International: "Soon my conclusions will be finalized." In any case, please be careful where you walk, because there may be some loose syntax lying about. Meanwhile, let's invite the clearners in. They'll have the know-how to get the job finishized.

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