Integration of knowledge

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The most recent xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Funding was quickly restored to the NHC and the APA was taken back off hurricane forecast duty."

This strip illustrates an important linguistic concept: acronyms and proper names are words too. At least, you need acronyms and proper names in your mental lexicon in order to appreciate this joke.

Specifically, you can't understand why this is strip is funny unless you know that Piaget was a psychologist who developed a theory of the stages of children's cognitive development, that the NHC is the National Hurricane Center, and that the APA is the American Psychological Association. (And yet, there are no acronyms or proper names in the word lists that people use in order to estimate passive vocabulary. More on this in a later post…)

I like the idea that budgetary exigencies might require new kinds of interdisciplinary cooperation. This would be a sort of grown-up version of Walker Percy's recipe for improving the teaching of literature and biology:

I wish to propose the following educational technique which should prove equally effective for Harvard and Shreveport High School. I propose that English poetry and biology should be taught as usual, but that at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desks and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting boards …

So sure, put those Piagetians to work tracking hurricanes, and let the out-of-work atmospheric scientists try to predict the behavior of toddlers.


  1. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    Percy is new to me (thanks for the reading tip!), but the following paragraph struck me as very Adornian: `The phrase specimen of expresses in the most succinct way imaginable the radical character of the loss of being which has occurred under his very nose. To refer to the dogfish, the unique concrete existent before him, as a "specimen of Squalus acanthias" reveals by its grammar the spoliation of the dogfish by the theoretical method. This phrase, specimen of, example of, instance of, indicates the ontological status of the individual creature in the eyes of the theorist. The dogfish itself is seen as a rather shabby expression of an ideal reality'.

    You rarely get this Hegelian vibe these days.

    [(myl) Well, it's a bit of stretch to call 1954 "these days". It's more "those days", wouldn't you say?]

  2. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    @myl: sorry I was unclear. I meant 'these days' as opposed to 1954. My own context of reception for Percy is quite definitely 2011-ish.

    [(my) In fact I was dense — I should have seen what you meant.]

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    myl, I took Alon to be mourning the loss of "this Hegelian vibe" rather than suggesting that Walker Percy is keeping it alive in the 21st century.

    I didn't actually know about Piaget, but "sustained interest in objects and their properties" sounded exactly like a scientist describing an aspect of human infant intellectual development so I Google'd the name. I did already know that "object permanence" is considered an important step along the baby's route to eventually becoming one of us and it makes sense that "sustained interest" in objects would precede this.

    [(myl) The Wikipedia article that I linked to give a detail account of Piaget's hypothesized stages, though mostly derived from secondary sources. Their description of the fifth sub-stage of the first (sensorimotor) stage is:

    "Infants become intrigued by the many properties of objects and by the many things they can make happen to objects; they experiment with new behavior." [4] This stage is associated primarily with the discovery of new means to meet goals. Piaget describes the child at this juncture as the "young scientist," conducting pseudo-experiments to discover new methods of meeting challenges.


  4. Chris said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 9:46 am

    The high school I used to work with celebrated Entropy Day each spring (on a variable date and announced only a few days in advance). On that day, depending on which teachers were participating that year, you might encounter poetry in math class, biology in French class, singing in chemistry class, physics in English class or just about any other combination. It was a stunt of course, but great fun, and did teach something about the interconnectedness of knowledge.

  5. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    To me, the primary sense of APA is 'American Philosophical Association', and the secondary sense is 'American Philological Association'. Although I was able to work out, from context, that the American Psychological Association was meant here, that sense isn't normally salient for me. I'm sure something follows from this, but I don't know what.

  6. Duncan said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    For me, being a "freedomware" enthusiast that followed the SCO vs. IBM and SCO vs. world court cases somewhat closely (not daily, but I definitely know of the groklaw site), APA refers first to the Novel/SCO Asset Purchase Agreement, with amendments.

    I know who Piaget and Kohlberg (whose stages happened to explain a whole lot of my own personal development when I learned of them, so I really find his theories more interesting) are as well, so made the connection even without being able to associate APA fully, and knew what the NHC was in context, so got the joke, but even after getting it and knowing I was reading APA wrong in contect, APA still read to me as Asset Purchase Agreement, and I ended up amusing myself trying to imagine what Piaget and company might have made of that whole legal saga in human development context.

  7. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    Duncan, the psychological APA is actually famous in the free software world: certain bibliographic styles used in TeX, or features of bibliographic styles, are named after it. Google for "apalike".

  8. pj said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    I'd imagine the proper names and acronyms(/initialisms*) in people's passive vocabulary tend to depend to a very much greater extent than the 'normal words' do on geographical accident, don't they? APA in the UK is the Advertising Producers Association, the Association of Publishing Agencies, the Association of Police Authorities (that's the only one I'd probably have come up with off the top of my head), the Animal Protection Agency, the Alliance for Permanent Access, the Ayurvedic Practioners Association, the Association of Personal Assistants…
    As a non-American non-psychologist, I'm almost certain I've heard of the American Psychological Association, but it wouldn't have come to mind, almost certain I haven't heard of the National Hurricane Centre, and had heard of but couldn't have placed Piaget. It's a little sad to fail at reading a comic.

    I look forward to the promised post.

    *sop to my own inner prescriptivist

    [(myl) There's a fair amount of locally-resolved ambiguity in other sorts of words as well — but yes, acronyms are especially likely to to be (re-)defined in geographical, cultural, or even textual niches. But still, most people these days know quite a few of them, probably on the order of a thousand. Maybe more — as far as I know, this has never been tested. I once started writing down all the acronyms and initialisms I could think of, and got tired of the process around a count of 500, without reaching the point where I was slowing down much.

    One way to do this would be to check a sample of randomly-generated 2, 3, 4, etc. letter strings. I just did this, and found that I "know" 8 out of 100 random 3-letter strings (some general, like RNA and PVC, and some more particular or limited, like LCS and SFU). This would project to .08*(26^3) = 1,406. Out of 100 random 2-letter strings, I "knew" 30 (XL, JP, GT, HD, IQ, etc.) which would project to .3*26^2 = 202. Those are obviously not stable estimates, but they suggest that 1,000 is a plausible order of magnitude. ]

  9. D.O. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    A joke form my undergraduate years in Russia: we should study Chemistry in English to combine unpleasant with useless (footnote: to combine pleasant with useful is a standard Russian saying).

  10. Janice Byer said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Same as for certain others above, despite knowing only two out of three, I found the comic funny rather than befuddling, which is heartening. A little learning is not always a dangerous thing.

  11. Faldone said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    @Janice Byer: xkcd defaults to being funny to a certain segment of the population even if you don't get all the references.

  12. Xmun said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    D.O: "footnote: to combine pleasant with useful is a standard Russian saying".

    But Horace said it first:

    Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci
    Lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.
    (Ars poetica, line 343)

  13. D.O. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Xmun, thank you! I didn't know that. And needless to say, Russian have not adopted the whole Classic writings as it's own.

  14. Keith said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    @Faldone: XKCD is always funny (for certain values of funny).

    I understood none of the allusions to the APA, to Piaget (I thought of the Swiss watches) or to child development.

    By "objects and their properties", XCKD sent me off down a path of C++, Java, properties and attributes, instances of objects, APIs, …

    Funny, in this XKCD, had a very small value.


  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    There are fewer Google hits for the phrase "Hegelian vibe" than I would have imagined. Maybe if an xkcd mouseover text used the phrase . . . (As to which of the many APA's makes sense in context, I think of childhood-development stuff as pretty marginal to the main thrust of what the psychology-industrial complex does these days, so the P could just have well had something to do with pediatricians, except their trade association turns out to be the AAP.)

  16. Dan T. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    APA makes me think of an Amateur Press Association, an arrangement popular a few decades ago where various self-publishers would send their pages of material to a central mailer who'd collate them to send to the subscribers. Various sorts of fanzines were published this way. While I think there are still a few of them around, it's kind of obsolescent these days when anybody can publish on the Web without the hassle of shipping paper around.

  17. Albert Vogler said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

    For me, APA primarily refers to the American _Psychiatric_ Association, compilers of that other initialism, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its 4th edition, the DSM-IV).

  18. ambrosen said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    Philosophical, psychological, philological, psychiatric…

    Are there any American P…… Associations where the P abbreviates a word which starts with a P sound?

    [(myl) LMGTFY.]

  19. David said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    I knew APA from the citation style…

  20. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    I assumed "Pediatric" which did the joke no harm at all; for my personal weird sense of humor it was one of the funnier xkcd's.

    I am often impressed by the contextual separation of "PC=player character" and "PC=personal computer" in my Dungeons and Dragons group, which has to deal constantly with both meanings, sometimes in the same sentence (the character sheet for my PC is on my PC) and never seems to confuse them. (This acronym has several additional meanings which are not salient for us, but those two certainly are.)

    To partly answer ambrosen's question, yes, there are American P* Associations where the P is sounded as P: Planning, Poolplayers, and Payroll at least in a Google search.

  21. Will said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    I assumed ambrosen's question was a rhetorical one, pointing out how those particular four words were brought up several times in the preceding comments, so it's kind of funny none of them start with a P sound.

    He was making a quantifier-scope joke, something LL has been covering much lately.

  22. D.O. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    Prof. Liberman, not to get inappropriately personal, that estimated 1000 initialisms are on top of what passive vocabulary?

    [(myl) The size of the estimate depends on the size of the list that you use to estimate with. See the previously-referenced forthcoming post for details…]

  23. Lawrence said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:18 pm

    David, like you, I knew APA from the citation style, but my mental definition was simply "the citation style I don't use." I also, separately, knew APA as "American Psychological Association" (allowing me to get the joke) but did not realise until this thread that APA is named for the APA. I have the curious sensation of having sort of, but not quite, learned a new word – like when I first discovered that 'orderves' were the same as hors d'ouvres.

    Incidentally, MLA (in the context of citation) stands for Modern Language Association. I am disappointed in my own lack of intellectual curiosity for never having looked it up before. I thought it had something to do with law.

  24. JMM said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:29 pm

    I did know the acronyms and who Piaget is, and even knew what stage 5 referred to (Randall can lose me with computer science things though, but he warns me at the bottom of the bottom of the comic so it's copacetic. ). However, having lived with several two-year-old hurricanes (two at once for a whole year), I didn't find this funny.

  25. richard said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    For some reason, I found the phrase "previously referenced forthcoming post" particularly pleasing. You know, you could get a pointer error if you never do pen that forthcoming post.

  26. Dan M. said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    I find I generally have the opposite experience as Faldone described. I usually get all the things that xkcd is referencing and then find the comic not at all funny. And this is a fine example.

    I wonder if there's some sort of interaction between quickly understanding how little sense his described world makes and missing the punch of the joke. (There's the obvious alternative that he's Just Not Funny, but I seem to be in a minority in thinking that.)

  27. jf said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    And don't forget the critical three letter acronym that is an essential part of anyone's inventory of three letter acronyms when it comes to describing these phenomena: TLA.

  28. Faldone said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    I did say "to a certain segment of the population".

  29. David Walker said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    There is probably an American Association for every possible , or at least one for almost every letter of the alphabet.

    From the American Automobile Association to the American Zoological Association (not to be confused with the Zoological Association of America or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums).

    And maybe a British Association.

  30. David Walker said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Ack… I forgot about html. I tried to say:

    … an American xyz Association for every possible xyz (but I unwisely put xyz in angle brackets).

  31. kuri said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    Like Albert, I thought of the American Psychiatric Association for "APA." I think Mary's "Pediatric" works just as well too. I find it interesting that there are at least three plausible (i.e., funny) readings for "APA" in the context of the strip, but apparently only one for "NHC."

  32. David said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    I think this XKCD falls more into his random surrealism vein than being rally humorous – but I certainly enjoyed it.

  33. David said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    I mean, "really" humorous…

  34. Janice Byer said,

    September 29, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    In sum, some understand XKCD and find it funny; some don't understand it, hence don't find it funny; some understand it, but don't find it funny; some don't understand it, yet find it funny. Funny.

  35. David Green said,

    September 30, 2011 @ 9:54 pm

    As a sidelight, in the late 1940s I was an avid kid magician and an avid reader of magical literature. The result was that well into the 1960s, when I saw "IBM" I always thought "International Brotherhood of Magicians".

  36. Tom V said,

    October 1, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    Atmospheric scientists might do quite well with toddlers, who frequently resemble small-scale hurricanes.

  37. David said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    26^3 = 17576 possible TLAs (three letter acronyms). I used to work for a company so addicted to TLAs that it used at least 25,000 (some had more than one meaning) in its daily business.

    [(myl) Theater of the Living Arts; Texas Library Association; Teller Airport; etc.]

  38. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

    Oddly enough, it turns out that "Theater of the Living Arts" was my default association for TLA when jf threw it out into the discourse. This is presumably because I grew up close enough to Philadelphia to have heard (many decades ago) radio references to forthcoming events there; I don't think I've ever been there in person.

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