Archive for April, 2012

Sharks and New Yorkers

Andrew Dowd, the intrepid and renowned hunter of syntactic rarities, has finally managed to find a "Russia sentence" captured on video. There are bound to be some of you out there who didn't fully believe that people walk around saying nonsensical things like More people have been to Russia than I have. You needed harder proof. Well, here it is, on YouTube, and what's more, the speaker is an experienced broadcaster confidently compering a TV panel game:

At around 30 seconds in, you can hear and watch Stephen Fry (he of the unbearably prissy recent BBC language program Fry's Planet Word) say: It so happens that more people in the world are bitten by New Yorkers every year than they are by sharks.

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A non-stigmatizing Chinese word for epilepsy

In an article entitled “A new symbol for epilepsy in Chinese", Mind Hacks asserts:

The Chinese character for epilepsy has been changed to avoid the inaccuracies and stigma associated with the previous label which suggested links to madness and, more unusually, animals.

The new name, which looks like this 腦癇症 just makes reference to the brain although the story of how the original name got its meaning is quite fascinating in itself.

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Neutral Xi_b^star, Xi(b)^{*0}, Ξb*0, whatever

Carl Franzen, "Big Bang Machine Discovers Brand New Particle", TPM IdeaLab 4/27/2012:

An entirely new type of particle has been discovered by scientists using the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), near Geneva, Switzerland.

The discovery of the new particle, called “neutral Xi_b^star baryon,” was made by the CMS experiment, one of six separate particle physics experiments running at the LHC. It was announced Friday by Symmetry Magazine.

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A thrill for those with logophilia

A real treat for rare word spotters in the UK press this week: the words claustrophilia and koumpounophobia both actually appeared today in news stories where the thus-named conditions figured centrally. Words ending in the Greek combining form -philia denote weird conditions of extreme delight, and those ending in -phobia concern pathological horror. In this case, the -philia story has a very sad ending and the -phobia story has a happy ending.

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Kudos to Shaun and #passivevoiceday

Let the record show that in the post advertising Passive Voice Day 2012 on Shaun's Blog (April 27), which was naturally crying out to be written entirely in the passive voice, the writer, shaunm, has not made a single slip. Every single transitive verb in his post is in the passive. (There is one intransitive subordinate clause in addition, "that April 27th will be passive voice day", but the main clause of that sentence is a passive, with the verb decide, so I'm giving that a pass.) In a world where hardly anyone knows what a passive clause is, and pontificating critics of other people's prose get it wildly wrong over and over again, this is truly amazing.

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Recycling "sticky wicket" for the uncricketed

Yesterday's Morning Edition took up the question of how "Bribery Accusations Hurt Wal-Mart's Stock Price". The segment takes the form of a conversation between NPR's Chris Arnold and Charles Elson, director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, in which a metaphorically sticky wicket plays an important role. Like many Americans who use that phrase, Chris Arnold re-interprets the metaphor in a way that makes sense to those who are innocent of cricket:

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ARNOLD: It's, of course, too early to say what will happen at Wal-Mart. There many of the payments appear to have been aimed at getting building permits more quickly. And actually there is a grey area there in U.S. law. Companies are permitted to make what are called facilitating payments, quote-unquote, to avoid getting something like a building permit stuck on a minor bureaucrat's desk. But Charles Elson says that can be a sticky wicket to try to go through.

ELSON: When you cross the line from the payment which is acceptable, to a bribe, that's where you have your problems.

ARNOLD: What is the difference, though, between a facilitating payment and a bribe? I mean a bribe is a payment that uh facilitates something, right?

ELSON: Well, that's- that's why ((as I said)) – that's why it's such a sticky wicket.

ARNOLD: Legal experts say lately the Justice Department has been making that wicket even stickier. That is, it's been showing less tolerance for companies to make under the table payments of any kind.

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The quality of quantity

The longer it is, the higher the rating:

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Scientific study of affirmative-response indicators

My Breakfast Experiments™ aren't quite as rigorous as Mark Liberman's. He has direct access via a high-speed line to the entire Linguistic Data Consortium collection of corpora at his breakfast table, and writes R scripts for statistical analysis as if R was his native language (it may well be, come to think of it). My breakfast table has just a digital radio, a cereal bowl, and a mug bearing the legend "Keep calm and drink tea." But I'll give you some hard quantitative data for two different ways of expressing an affirmative response to a yes/no question or agreeing with a presented statement in contemporary British English. The frequency of people (especially experts) speaking to Radio 4 news programs saying "That's correct" falls in the monstrogacious to huge range (as measured by my casual early-morning impressions), while the frequency of that mode of affirmative responding in ordinary real-life conversation is roughly zero (source: vague memories of hearing people chat to each other). I hope that's rigorous enough for present purposes.

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Possession and agency in editions of Barth

John Barth is visiting Penn, and so I took the opportunity to catch up on his most recent meta-fictions, specifically The Development and Every Third Thought.  I read the second one first, and will make no comment on it here, except to note that (while suitably Barthian) it lacked the feature that struck me so forcefully in reading the first one.

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Watson v. Watson

As Wikipedia explains,

Watson is an artificial intelligence computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language,[2] developed in IBM's DeepQA project by a research team led by principal investigator David Ferrucci. Watson was named after IBM's first president, Thomas J. Watson.

But as a page at AT&T Labs Research tells us,

AT&T WATSONSM is AT&T's speech and language engine that integrates a variety of speech technologies, including network-based, speaker-independent automatic speech recognition (ASR), AT&T Labs Natural Voices® text-to-speech conversion, natural language understanding (which includes machine learning), and dialog management tasks.

WATSON has been used within AT&T for IVR customers, including AT&T's VoiceTone® service, for over 20 years during which time the algorithms, tools, and plug-in architecture have been refined to increase accuracy, convenience, and integration. Besides customer care IVR, AT&T WATSONSM has been used for speech analytics, mobile voice search of multimedia data, video search, voice remote, voice mail to text, web search, and SMS.

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Poetical etymologies

Wondermark #829, 4/20, "In which pepper is explained":

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Coin change 'skin problem fear' hed noun pile puzzle

SC, a native reader of British headlinese, was baffled by the noun pile-up "Coin change 'skin problem fear'" on the BBC News web site, because he hadn't previously encountered the story.

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Rapper 50 Cent converted into Malaysian currency

Making the rounds today, from Andrew Bloch's Twitter feed:

Bloch's comment: "Reuters applies foreign exchange rate to 50 Cent. He is now known as RM1.50 in Malaysia."

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Ongoing lexical fascism

Over at Lingua Franca, where I do weekly blog posts for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I tried to refer to some ongoing research other day, and called it that, and I was slapped down by my editor (she knows the New York Times style manual prohibitions far too well), quoting a remark by the managing editor: "If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing."

Lexical fascism! They would fire me for using ongoing as an adjective? Thank goodness for Language Log, I thought, where lexical liberty survives. So I'm back over here today, choosing my own words, ruminating resentfully on this stylistic bullying.

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Ask a baboon

Sindya N. Bhanoo, "Real Words or Gibberish? Just Ask a Baboon", NYT 4/16/2012:

While baboons can’t read, they can tell the difference between real English words and nonsensical ones, a new study reports.

“They are using information about letters and the relation between letters to perform the task without any kind of linguistic training,” said Jonathan Grainger, a psychologist at the French Center for National Research and at Aix-Marseille University in France who was the study’s first author.

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