Category Archives: General

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 […]

“Does steak love lettuce?” Most human-like computer poems (and vice versa).

I have happened upon Botpoet, a site that runs “Bot or Not”, a sort of Turing test using poems. It’s mildly entertaining to guess whether a poem was written by a human or a computer program, but I find most of the cases pretty obviously one or the other. What’s more fun is the “Leaderboard“, […]

#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 […]

Headline: Pentagon Requires Poetry Expertise

I’ve come across an old piece on Guantánamo Bay censorship policy, via a new piece on the same. The recent piece is about poetry going into the US facility there; the earlier article is about poetry coming out. It quotes some fascinating rationale for the close monitoring of poetry written by inmates: But most of […]

“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, […]

“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 […]

Emily Dickinson was a Dinosaur

In a graduate student’s paper this morning I came across a description of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting by T. W. Higginson, who in 1891 remembered receiving a letter, almost thirty years earlier, postmarked Amherst, MA. The letter was the now famous one that begins “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” […]

Smithers, Redress the Hounds!

This post is about evidence loops in the OED. But let me begin at the end: In one of his Oxford lectures collected in The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon refers back to his predecessor’s famous discussion of the word redress. Muldoon writes: … in “The Redress of Poetry,” Seamus Heaney’s inaugural lecture as […]

From William Camden’s Proverbs

A Cat may look upon a king. A dog hath a day. Agree, for the Law is costly. A friend in Court is worth a penny in purse. A good jack maketh a good Gill. All is well that ends well. A little pot is soon hot. A man will be a man though 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 […]

First they came for the verbs

Fifty-Five English Words for Snow

Snowflake                   snow/single Frost                           snowflake/having formed flatly on surface Flurries                        snow/falling Precipitation              snow/and+or other/falling Snowfall                      snow/having fallen Accumulation             +quantity snow/having fallen Snow drift                   piled snow/by wind Snow bank                  piled snow/by man (with machine)

Hesitation, Naming, Poetry

This from one of these staged “conversations”, this time between Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Fiona Sampson, on the topic of “Language Under Stress” [audio here].  Sampson is trying to make vague point about hesitation as a “mark of authenticity” when Williams cuts in: “Hesitation” is a word that means quite a lot […]

Razor Tight

‘What part of “razor tight” don’t you understand?’ This was the question posed by Stephen Colbert to Nate Silver on election eve [clip 5.11.12], following a bit about some newscaster silliness leading up to the election [transcript from Daily Kos; clip here]: BILL HEMMER (11/5/2012): This race is absolutely razor tight. CHUCK TODD (11/5/2012): A […]

Geoffrey Hill, Modern Thamus?

In Odi Barbare (2012), Geoffrey Hill writes: Google my old blind of Platonics with Mc- Taggart’s mystic corpulence deemed endearing. Whatever that means. Scratching his head, blogger Bebrowed did the sensible thing (i.e., did what he was told) and more: I’ve now googled every single possible permutation on Hill, his response to McTaggart et al […]

Walking Wound

On NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, Stephen Colbert said of his television show character, also called Stephen Colbert: He wants to have a champion that he can champion and that just doesn’t exist in Mitt Romney right now. He’s just a walking wound. [link] As a figure of speech, to me this is both compelling and […]

OED Curiosity Rovers

As part of some computer housekeeping, I’ve made up a little inventory of the Python programs I’ve developed to have a peek inside the massive text file that is the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Here’s a list: 1. Field Comparison Tool – Look for Intertextuality in poems *I discussed some this program in the […]

Longest Etymologies

One of the most important improvements to the ongoing OED3 revision is occurring in the etymology sections, which are being greatly expanded. Yesterday’s Languagehat discusses two such expanded etymologies – those of ‘admiral’ and ‘to be’. The second is claimed by the current editors to be the longest etymology in OED3, coming in at 1,765 9,672* […]

‘What, Literally or Really’?

Overheard last night at the Cross Keys, in central Leeds, from a woman in her early twenties responding to an entertaining story told by a man about the same age, which contained a figurative (I guess) mention of having ‘lost my balls’: What, literally or really?

Geoffrey Hill Cant Count

Here are two excerpts from a work on Hill I’m finishing up, both of them basically usage counts. I’m hoping readers who have spent time with Hill’s work can point out any gap in these two lists. Actually I’m hoping they can’t, but still I would be grateful if they did. First, ‘cant’: Hill uses […]

Literally Etymologically

Etymologically, ‘literal’ means ‘Of, relating to, or of the nature of a letter, or the letters, of the alphabet’. To be precise about what I mean by ‘etymologically’ here, I’m referring to the earliest English use of word as recorded in OED3 (John Trevisa, a1398). I don’t mean the prior senses of Middle French literal, […]

Literally Metaphorically

Rush Limbaugh, modern Epimenides? Wikipedia tells me that Limbaugh lives in West Palm Beach, FL. Yet for years now he has been telling listeners something different: Now, look, folks, as I’ve told you countless times, I live in Literalville.    [Transcript, 10.9.2010] It’s an outright lie, and I know this because Rush doesn’t do metaphor. In […]


In 2011-13, I’m investigating questions about poetry, value, and accident, in the context of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, intended to ‘enable the development of new research questions, as well as experimentation with new methods, theoretical approaches and/or ideas’. The questions and methods I’m exploring all have something to do with why contingency, or accident, […]