World's fastest linguist?

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If you're watching track and field events in the coming Olympics, keep an eye out for British runner Christine Ohuruogu, competing in the women's 400m race (she's currently the World Champion in the event). In 2005, Ohuruogu graduated with a degree in linguistics from University College London, and her thesis was all about taboo vocabulary, a popular topic on Language Log.

Today's (UK) Times uses a bit of taboo avoidance to tie her thesis topic to the difficulties she's encountered as a runner (including being banned for a year for missing three drugs tests):

Christine Ohuruogu knows that there are all kinds of sh*t. She even did her university thesis on it, exploring the origins and usage of swear words. “I began looking at why they get certain connotations, why some are considered bad,” she said. …

Ohuruogu believes she is in good shape but does not like to over-analyse matters. "In my thesis I looked at what swear words mean because you can get nouns, verbs, expletives, but really it was just a whole lot of garbage thrown together." She is banking on the pieces coming together when she starts her Olympics on Saturday week.

When the Guardian/Observer interviewed Ohuruogu in June, they didn't bother asterisking shit:

When you finish competing, would you like a masters degree to go with your linguistics BA?

Definitely. I enjoy studying, I know it's boring, but I'd love to go back and maybe teach.

Your BA thesis certainly sounds colourful.

[laughter] Oh, you can't ask me about that.

Why not?

Don't let my mum see this, but it's on swear words. I don't swear, but I was trying to analyse exactly what they mean. Take the word 'shit'. Does it mean a pile of faeces, or something is rubbish?

A more recent Guardian interview gives additional detail on Ohuruogu's studies in linguistics:

Ohuruogu wears her religious faith lightly and even as a good Christian girl she wrote a thesis on the semantic roots of certain swearwords in the final year of her linguistics degree at University College London. "Where did you get that from?" she yelps. "Where did you get that from?"

The answer is simple. More than a year of waiting for this interview, only to see it cancelled four times by a bruised athlete, allowed ample scope to learn more. In between all her diligent reading of Chomsky, I knew Ohuruogu had written a thesis on profanity. "Yeah," she says, amazed by her linguistic adventure. "I don't swear in my everyday language but I just thought it was interesting to know why these words are marginal because we still use them. Why are they excluded? Why are they bad? I was going down that route."

Ohuruogu sounds dreamily vague and I recognise the athlete who suffered because of her inability regularly to text her whereabouts to the testers. "The thesis wasn't actually focused on that as such but it was born out of the idea of wanting to know why these words are on the cusp of language. That's where I was coming from but I didn't look too much at it. I had loads of ideas but my thesis was a bit disjointed." She ducks her head shyly. "I was pushed for time but it helped me understand language. You have to realise language is alive – it's constantly developing. New words are born, old words die. I wanted to appreciate that about language." Ohuruogu pauses dramatically when asked how many languages she can speak. "One," she whispers. "But I'm learning German. I can't hear it very well but it's my goal to speak fluent German."

The Guardian calls her "dreamily vague" and the Times calls her a "scatterbrain." Here's hoping Ohuruogu gets her sh*t together in Beijing.


  1. James said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

    "In between all her diligent reading of Chomsky"

    When people mention "Chomsky" in relation to linguistics, I'm reminded of creationists who insist on mentioning Darwin everytime they talk about evolution. They have no real idea of what they're talking about, so they just pick a well-known name.

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Well, in this case the Chomsky reference was evidently on target. From yet another Guardian article about her (from Nov. 2007):

    Growing up within a Christian family, Christine was always told to put her academic work first and was an excellent student, achieving 10 GCSEs, four A-levels and a good degree in linguistics – 'Chomsky,' she giggles, 'a lot of Chomsky' – from University College London.

  3. James said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Ah, well then in this case, I take it back.

  4. Scott said,

    August 7, 2008 @ 8:31 am

    "her inability regularly to text"? That's one infinitive I'd love to split.

  5. Tom said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    …aaaaand she just won the gold. World's fastest linguist indeed. (Assuming that Usain Bolt doesn't have hidden academic talents we're unaware of.)

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