Archive for June, 2010

Wait Till You Hear a Weak Pyridaben Carbazole Sound

Paul Bickart has called my attention to the latest issue (June 23, 2010) of New Scientist which has, in its "Feedback" column, a frustrated discussion of what seems to be a strange translation from Chinese:

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Applause, please, for a great headline

We post a lot of crash blossoms here on Language Log — appallingly worded headlines that slow down your parsing and (whether intendedly or not) have crazy extra meanings. But let's hand out some kudos occasionally for totally wonderful headlines: clever, appropriate, amusing, terse, eye-catching, and appropriate. There was one in The Scotsman today. Here in Britain all the newspapers are making front page stories out of the discovery that one of the members of the Russian spy ring just dicovered in the USA was a good-looking redhead with sultry boudoir portraits posted on her Facebook page. And The Scotsman's choice of a headline was absolutely wonderful…

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The Four Tones

In beginning Mandarin courses, teachers often use the four syllables 媽 ("mom"), 麻 ("hemp"), 馬 ("horse"), 罵 ("curse") to introduce the four tones.  Since the four syllables in sequence do not make any sense, a very clever wit has proposed that we now replace 媽 麻馬 罵 with 通 同 統 痛.  Here is his reasoning.

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Six nouns, six verbs, who knows

Whatever exactly we decide a crash blossom is, we are surely going to want to agree with James Martin, of the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, that this is one:

May axes Labour police beat pledge

James notes that every single one of these six words can serve as either a noun (sample possible senses: fifth month; woodcutting implements; opposition party; constabulary; musical timing unit; commitment) or a verb (will possibly; performs chopping; work hard; oversee; physically chastise; give a promise). So we start with 26 = 64 different assignments of noun or verb status, and start sifting about for a coherent parse that gives us a meaning that could make sense in some context.

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Hay foot straw foot

Here's something for our "Words for X" file, along with some historical fiction and a bit of relevant psychology.

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Oops: a listening guide

The latest installment of WNYC's show Radiolab is entitled "Oops," and it's about how we so often get tripped up by the unintended consequences of our actions. Hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad brought me in to the studio to share some classic word-processing Oops-es. I talk about various search-and-replace howlers, including the spellchecker-aided miscorrections known in these parts as "Cupertinos." Have a listen here.

Loyal Language Log readers will be familiar with many of my examples. They're sprinkled throughout the first half-hour of the show, so I've put together a listening guide with links to relevant posts.

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A treat for fans of eggcorns and crosswords

If you have even a passing interest in crosswords, you may know the legendary name of Merl Reagle, whose syndicated Sunday puzzle appears in many major newspapers (the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, etc.). In the 2006 documentary Wordplay, he gave a stunning demonstration of his pencil-and-paper method of constructing crosswords, and in 2008 he showed up in an episode of The Simpsons with New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

Reagle, it turns out, is an eggcorn enthusiast, and for this Sunday's puzzle he managed to squeeze ten twelve eggcorns into the grid. Though most are included in the Eggcorn Database, a couple of them have only appeared in the forum. All are clued with Reagle's signature wit.

You can solve the puzzle online here in its Java version, or print out the PDF here.

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Special than

Contamination can happen with any surface that touches meat, like a counter top, she says. "There's nothing special about these bags than anything else that can become contaminated," she says.

[from June 25, 2010 ]

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Fashionably many Icelandic words for snow

Spotted by Jonathan Lighter on a recent trip to Iceland: "A big ad for 66°North fashions, prominently displayed at Keflavik Airport, telling passengers everywhere that

There are over [a] 100 words for snow in Icelandic.
Only one for what to wear.

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A mechanical and slightly detestable operandum

The word operandum, featured in this morning's post about highbrow spam, is as yet unknown to the Oxford English Dictionary. But nearly 50 years ago, it was the title of a paper by none other than B.F. Skinner — "Operandum", J. Exp. Anal. Behav. 5(2), 1962 — which reads in its entirety:

An editor recently objected to manipulandum as "not in the dictionary." (A form, manipulare, of which it could conceivably be the gerundive, is only late medieval Latin and therefore lacking in status.) Tolman, who seems to have introduced the term, defines manipulanda as "the characters of objects which support motor activity." In current usage, they are the objects themselves. Strictly speaking, the term does not describe a device such as a foot-pedal or a voice-key which is not operated by hand, but manipulate has long since been generalized beyond that restriction.

A better and simpler word can be derived from operari. A piece of apparatus operated by an organism could appropriately be called an operatus, but this is dangerously close to a pun and would certainly be confusing. The gerundive operandum ought to be considered, however, as an alternative to manipulandum. It is close to operant, and its similarity to manipulandum and operate makes its meaning obvious.

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Controlled Access Lickometry

I've gotten a lot of strange spam over the years, but this one wins some sort of prize:

Now you can control when the subject will have the opportunity to respond on a nose poke with the new Controlled Access Nose Poke Response Operandum. Like the Controlled Access Lickometers, a guillotine door prevents entry into the Nose Poke when closed and provides access to the Nose Poke when opened.

The photocell response sensor is included with the Controlled Access Nose Poke. A 3-position switch on the back panel of the unit provides settings for selecting a continuous output signal for the duration of the beam break or a short pulse at the onset of the beam break as well as introducing a delay in the response report. A stimulus light, located on the back wall inside the nose poke hole, is included.

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Finger spoonerisms and conservation of caps

Jennifer Ouellette, "The Higgs Boson May Have Five Faces", Discovery News, 6/21/2010:

And now the team is back with even more intriguing results to announce from their subsequent analysis, published on arVix.

The link will take you to Dobrescu, Fox, and Martin,  "CP violation in B_s mixing from heavy Higgs exchange", arXiv:1006.4238. And the arXiv, as Wikipedia explains, is "pronounced 'archive', as if the 'X' were the Greek letter Chi, χ", and

was originally developed by Paul Ginsparg and started in 1991 as a repository for preprints in physics and later expanded to include astronomy, mathematics, computer science, nonlinear science, quantitative biology and, most recently, statistics. […]

It was originally hosted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (at, hence its former name, the LANL preprint archive) and is now hosted and operated by Cornell University, with mirrors around the world. […]

Its existence was one of the precipitating factors that led to the current revolution in scientific publishing, known as the open access movement, with the possibility of the eventual replacement of traditional scientific journals.

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Defining "crash blossom"

It's been suggested by some commenters that the headline discussed in this post of mine isn't really a crash blossom; see Boris, for example. What's the definition, then? Boris thinks crash blossoms must "have a possible reading with the intended meaning". But I think my case satisfies that criterion.

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