Category Archives: Uncategorized

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 […]

OED Recontextualizer

I’ve written a little program that annotates texts according to how much the Oxford English Dictionary cites them. This lets you see how different parts of a work have factored in the compiling of the dictionary – as if you were looking at the text through the collective eyes of all the OED readers, lexicographers, […]

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 […]

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 […]

Measured Words

Paul Batchelor’s 2012 review essay in the TLS of recent work by Geoffrey Hill and his critics was called “Geoffrey Hill’s measured words”. As many who write on Hill do, Batchelor keyed in to a series of resonant words in Hill’s work, drawing connections between Hill’s poetry and prose via shared terms such as uncouth, […]

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 […]

Top Eleven Most Common Words Invented in Verse

Poetry and lexicography, buzzfeed style. Having recently ranked the neologisms of prolific poetic word-coiners, I decided to look at all verse-coined words in OED [*caveat], and rank them according to their frequency in British National Corpus. Only words first attested after 1500 are included, on the basis that a large proportion of the lexicographical record […]

Of Wingnuts and Moonbats

It appears that the radical fringe in American politics has self-differentiated into wingnuts and moonbats. That is, these are the epithets being used to describe them, usually by them, along ideological lines. In case you don’t know, wingnuts are conservative and moobats are liberal, but each is crazy, if the other is to be believed. […]

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 […]

“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, […]

At the MSA – Levinas, Poetry, and Criticism

This past weekend I was in Brighton, UK, attending the Modernist Studies Association annual conference. I was there mainly to participate in a round-table discussion on “Modernist Poetry Criticism and the New Ethics”. The abstract said, in part: …in the wake of the interdisciplinary debate between literature and/as moral philosophy, and the critical reception of […]

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 […]

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

This morning brought the news that Seamus Heaney has died. Heaney is the first living poet that I remember reading, and certainly the poet who more than any other turned me to a life of reading poetry. It will be difficult to begin speaking of him in the past tense.

“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  […]

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 […]

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?” […]

“OED’s Poetic Acquaintances” – Slides

Here are my slides from the very good Poetry and the Dictionary symposium last weekend at St Peter’s College, Oxford. Slides: “OED’s Poetic Acquaintances” For anyone not at the conference, the slides may be difficult to interpret. I’d be happy to provide context over email, and provide higher quality images [depending on your version of […]

Robert Greene’s Vision

Written at the instant of his death Containing a penitent passion for the folly of his pen Sero sed serio To the gentlemen readers, health. Gentlemen,  in  a  vision  before  my  death  I  foresee  that  I  am  like  to  sustain  the  shame  of many  follies  of  my  youth  when  I  am  shrouded  in  my  winding-sheet. […]

Pejorative Eponyms – “Quétaine”

As often happens, today I was looking at something on the internet when my running internal commentary snarked, quétaine! People from Quebec grow up knowing this very useful word, which describes a thing, style or behaviour which is simultaneously lame, camp, kitschy, corny, and contemptible. Here is a site devoted to photographic evidence of it. […]

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 […]


An XKCD from some time back:

“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 […]

Domokun and Symbolism

In my poetry classes I often find myself going on about symbolic conventions and symbolic systems, especially in the context of broader discussions of figurative language, and often to point out some distinctions between symbol and metaphor, or to show why a certain set of symbolic equivalences are irrelevant to the poem at hand (colour […]

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 […]

The Reality we Face

From today’s transcript of the Rush Limbaugh show, the game-changing words of the Mayor of Realville, the Mayor of Literalville himself: That’s the reality we face. The reality we face is that what’s real isn’t, and what isn’t real is. […] I really meant to get a phone call in here. But when you make […]

Bronco Bama

This is rapidly spreading over the interwebs, with headlines such as “Colorado 4-Year-Old Is Tired Of ‘Bronco Bama’ And Mitt Romney” (HuffPo): It’s not surprising that the video is “going viral.” But I was a little surprised that I hadn’t heard “Bronco Bama” anywhere before in other contexts. It’s one of those turns of phrase […]