Category Archives: Linguistics

We’re moving! Go to “The Life of Words”!

For the last two and more years, I’ve been posting here on topics related to poetry, dictionaries, computers, and so on. Over 100 posts later, it’s time for a new home. As of June 15, 2014, I’ll be posting at my new project site: The Life of Words I hope you’ll visit us there […]

Omit Needless Fossil Poetry

Chasing down a famous quotation today, I came across a volume in the College of Dentistry Library of the University of California, San Francisco, generously made available by Google Books. The publication is the 1896 yearly digest of Items of Interest, by The Dental Independent, which describes itself as “a monthly record of dental literature”. […]

Sandwich Police make Burrito Bust

In my first-year poetry class, when introducing the idea of poetic ambiguity (rich ambiguity), I like to begin with a few examples of every-day ambiguity, in the form of so-called “crash blossoms“, those newspaper headlines that can go in two often amusing directions (e.g.: “Friends help murder victim’s family“). This morning my #CapeCod Twitter stack […]

Seamus Heaney in Between

At last weekend’s Seamus Heaney conference and commemoration at Queen’s University, Belfast, I gave a paper in which I referred offhandedly to “a pretty conventional way, by now, of understanding his poetics” as in some way conditioned by a sense of being “in between”, which goes back to the first word of the first poem […]

“Making sense” in The Excursion

At the “Poetry and Happenstance” conference last Friday, there was a question from the floor about a line break in William Wordsworth’s long poem The Excursion. The lines are from Book IV: The light of love Not failing, perseverance from their steps Departing not, for them shall be confirmed The glorious habit by which sense […]

Is Empson responsible for “ambiguity” uptick?

A quick addendum to yesterday’s post on the increase of metpahor and ambiguity in the Google books corpus. A faithful correspondent writes that at the time Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor (La metaphore vive) came out in 1978 (1975), it seemed everyone was all of a sudden talking about metaphor. For once, the case-sensitivity […]

From “London” to “Potato”, Seamus Heaney in graphs

Yesterday I tested out a method of exploring poetic diction in poetic corpora, using Geoffrey Hill’s opus up to 2012 [“Measured Words“]. I left several issues hanging in that post, which I thought I would follow up on today. For one, I implied that there might be value in comparing the general picture or footprint […]

How different is poetic diction?

In “Measured Words” I made an assertion that “some words aren’t very common in speech but show up fairly frequently in poetry, and vice versa.” This is intuitive, but I’m going to demonstrate it anyway, to make good my other assertion that “seeing what you already know or think you know displayed in an unfamiliar […]

Sappho, not a poetess – THE Poetess

The poetry world is all a twitter with the news that two new poems by Sappho have been discovered. And the Twitter world is spreading the news, chiefly linking to this write up in The Daily Beast: Many tweeters simply reproduce the headline, with a link. But some are evidently annoyed by the term poetess […]

#WOTYOTY. Because many, many #WOTY

Another week, another WOTY. Because marketing. The most recent and the final additional winner is because, chosen by the American Dialect Society a few days ago. Because “because marketing” … I mean, because expressions such as “because marketing” broke into the mainstream in 2013. This represents “new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” says Ben […]

Netflix, Algorithms, and Hard Working Humans

There has been some press today and yesterday surrounding Alexis Madrigal’s article in The Atlantic [“How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood“] on the genres Netflix uses to classify films – not just its films, but all films and television programmes. It’s a great article, and a good example of the kinds of approaches that inform the […]

Prof. Balls-Upon a Floor discusses Metadata

With all the recent news talk about metadata, it’s worth remembering that so-called big data is useless without good algorithms to parse and analyse it, and rich metadata to guide us through it. In addition to various versions of OED [which has great metadata], the biggest datasets I access regularly are Google Books and Google […]

“Graduate” or “be graduated”? Graduation on the active/passive divide

On the radio tonight I heard a person use passive “graduate” in a sentence: She was graduated a year early, because she was a top student I’m aware of this usage, and vaguely aware that it can be cited as “correct” usage by mavens. But while I’ve heard the transitive active form (e.g. “the school […]

Advance Access: Method as Tautology in the Digital Humanities

My article, “Method as tautology in the digital humanities” has gone up on Literary and Linguistic Computing‘s advance online publication area. If you have an institutional affiliation that lets you access Oxford Journals, it can be found here: [It appears Oxford are now offering the article free: download PDF here] In the article I […]

Wood, a poem

Here is “Wood”, a kind of poem:

Unremarkable Poetic Neologisms

The word soulmate is by now at least verging on cliché, if not well in that category, which is why it was somewhat surprising and refreshing to learn that the OED lists Coleridge as the first user of the word. It was a reminder that common words can have uncommon origins–and that the coiner loses […]

Hanover, Hannover

In early December I’ll be in Germany, presenting a poster and short talk at “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age”. The whole trip is generously funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, which among its various activities supporting research in academia and beyond, puts on a series of conferences at the Herrenhausen […]

More Dispatches from Literalville

Today’s LLog [“What did Justice Scalia Mean“] brings us yet more news out of Literalville, where it seems Antonin Scalia has been giving interviews to New York Magazine: Jennifer Senior, “In Conversation: Antonin Scalia“, New York, 10/6/2013: Q: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy? A: I don’t know when I came to […]

Boehner’s Eking Along

Did John Boehner have John Clare’s 1829 ode on “Autumn” on the mind this afternoon when he said: At a time when the economy is barely eking along, wages aren’t increasing, new jobs aren’t available, and what are we doing? [source] The normal idiom in English is eking out, usually with “… a living” or […]

“Create”, “Creative”, “Creativity”

What have you created recently? Or, what have your various possessions let you create? In the comments to my post on the rise of “lets you”, it emerged that the third most common thing you can be let to do is “create.” And in fact, since “lets you know” is operating differently from the others, […]

Inter (and Intra-) necine?

You probably have used, or heard used, the word internecine. But what could the word intranecine mean? Either you have an intuition regarding this or you don’t (even if you’ve never encountered the word). If you do have an intuition about intranecine, take a minute to examine it–what basis can you come up with for […]

“Lets you”

If you’ve ever explained to someone how a gadget or app or website works, you’ve probably used a construction like “it lets me” or “it lets you”. You probably didn’t know you were on the cutting edge of language change. Language change isn’t immediately noticeable to those who are experiencing it–we notice when other groups […]

Word and Sense Creation in OED

Look up a common word in the OED, and chances are you’ll find it was first recorded in English over 700 years ago. Every word in the previous sentence is at least that old, with an average (mean) age of 1,022 years. So it stands to reason that, all other things being equal, the farther […]

“Chicken scratch”, coined by Shakespeare in 1909?

In “Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur” I conjectured that T. W. Higginson might have been riffing on the idiom chicken-scratch when he described Emily Dickinson’s handwriting as resembling the “famous fossil bird-tracks” of Amherst. Now I’m not so sure. Higginson published his essay in 1891. But chicken scratch  and variants aren’t in OED2 or OED3, nor  […]

How to get “D’oh!” and “Bullshit” into the OED

I’ve been writing about missing links in chains of quotation evidence in OED. In the first case [redress] I think it’s likely OED staff came across the word in The End of the Poem and didn’t think it necessary to chase down the full referential context (which would have been fairly evident from about one […]

Chains of OED Evidence

Derek Attridge writes, in a comment to my post on OED quotation loops [“Smithers, Redress the Hounds!” 5.6.13]: W. H. Auden boasted to me that he had got a word — “plain-sewing” in the sense of “mutual masturbation” — into the OED by using it in print for the first time; but the OED now […]

Quotation Economy in the OED

Almost all of OED2’s 2.36M evidence quotations are used only once. Less than 1% are reused: 14,916 occur twice, 553 three times, 29 four, 3 five, and two six times. These most recycled [5x +] quotations are: a 1400–50 Alexander 4335. Nouthire to toly ne to taunde transmitte we na vebbis, To vermylion ne violett ne […]

Ambivalent Toponyms

Today Facebook suggested I play a game called Cityville, where you can “build the city of your dreams.” Presumably you have to come up with a better name for the city of your dreams than “Cityville.” “City City” would be a terrible choice [although this guy is pretty happy with his Cityville creation, which he […]

“Man” Gender

Comments on today’s LL post have centred on gender neutral “dude” in certain contexts, prompted by this cartoon: A couple commentators report completely gender neutral “dude” in all contexts. Querying my own intuitions, I find I can use it neutrally in certain contexts but not in others. For instance, in the first case below (call […]

Incent, Incentivize: Authority Always Wins

In the course of a recent dinner conversation I cocked my ear (and my eyebrow) at the sound of a verb I had not heard before: “to incent.”  “Incentivize” I know well of course, having heard it many times in the wild and also in corporate-language peeving contexts [because, you know, verbing weirds language. See a […]

First they came for the verbs