The “Un-Word”

Every year since 1991, a panel of German linguists has identified a term that violates human rights or infringes democratic principles:

1991: ausländerfrei (“free of foreigners”)
1992: ethnische Säuberung (“ethnic cleansing”)
1996: Rentnerschwemme (“flood of senior/retired citizens”)
1999: Kollateralschaden (“collateral damage”)
2005: Entlassungsproduktivität (“layoff productivity,” a surge in productivity induced by laying off workers)
2008: notleidende Banken (“suffering/needy banks”)
2014: Lügenpresse (“lying press”)
2019: Klimahysterie (“climate hysteria”)

The terms are usually German, but not always. In 1994 the word was peanuts, after Deutsche Bank’s chairman used that term to refer to 50 million Deutsche Marks.

Wikipedia has the whole list.

What Needs More Words?

Ecologists often have to estimate the number of unseen species in an ecosystem: If I count x species of butterfly during my time on an island, how many species probably live there that I did not see? In 1975, Stanford statisticians Bradley Efron and Ronald Thisted applied the same question to the works of William Shakespeare: If we take the Bard’s existing works as a sample, what can we infer about the size of his total vocabulary?

Shakespeare’s known works comprise 884,647 words, which fall into 31,534 “types,” or distinguishable arrangements of letters. Efron and Thisted applied two approaches and found that they produced the same estimate: If a new cache of the playwright’s works were discovered today, equal in size to the old, it would likely contain about 11,460 new word types, with an expected error of less than 150.

So how many word types altogether did Shakespeare know? No upper bound is possible, but they established a lower bound of 35,000 beyond the 31,534 already used — in other words, to write the works that we know of, he likely used less than half his total vocabulary.

(Bradley Efron and Ronald Thisted, “Estimating the Number of Unseen Species: How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know?”, Biometrika 63:3 [1976], 435-447.) (Thanks, Brent.)

Cross Words
Image: Flickr

Binghamton University English professor Michael Sharp has been blogging about the New York Times crossword puzzle every day since 2006 under the name Rex Parker. He downloads each puzzle when it becomes available at 10 p.m. and typically solves it in 3-10 minutes.

His blog, Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, has become so popular that there’s now a metric website that analyzes his opinions:

  • “Rex doesn’t like Sundays”
  • “Rex doesn’t like April”
  • “Rex doesn’t like the year 2017”

“It’s like a little present,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. “You have no idea what’s in there. And if you’re lucky, something weird or strange or funny is in there. And you get to unwrap this little present every day that will make your brain light up in weird ways if it’s done right.”

(Thanks, Laura.)

Words to Remember

Designed by a multidisciplinary team at Melbourne’s RMIT University, Sans Forgetica is a typeface that’s intended to reduce legibility, on the theory that the “desirable difficulty” of reading it will result in deeper processing and, ultimately, better retention.

The back-slanted, incomplete letters form a “simple puzzle” for the reader, RMIT lecturer Stephen Banham told the Washington Post last October. “It should be difficult to read but not too difficult. In demanding this additional act, memory is more likely to be triggered.”

The team say they’ve tested the font on university students and found that “Sans Forgetica broke just enough design principles without becoming too illegible and aided memory retention.” You can try it yourself — they’re offering a free download and a Chrome extension.

500 Entertaining Words

The 12th edition of The Chambers Dictionary, published in 2011, highlighted about 500 words that the editors considered especially entertaining. For the 13th edition, in 2014, they chose to remove the highlighting but inadvertently removed the entries entirely.

The missing entries have since been reinstated, but in the interval the publishers supplied a list of the missing words. Here it is.

(Thanks, Chris.)

Words Without Language
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In contemporary secretary schools, training emphasizes the inhibition of reading for meaning while typing, on the assumption that such reading will hinder high-speed performance. Some support for this assumption derives from the introspections of champion speed typists, who report that they seldom recall the meaning from the source material incidentally.

— William E. Cooper, Cognitive Aspects of Skilled Typewriting, 2012

We don’t even know the keyboard. A 2013 study at Vanderbilt asked 100 subjects to take a short typing test; they were then shown a blank QWERTY keyboard and given 80 seconds to label the keys. On average they typed at 72 words per minute with 94 percent accuracy but could correctly label only 15 letters on a blank keyboard.

“This demonstrates that we’re capable of doing extremely complicated things without knowing explicitly what we are doing,” said graduate student Kristy Snyder.

It had formerly been believed that typing starts as a conscious process that becomes unconscious with repetition. But it appears that typists never memorize the key locations in the first place.

“It appears that not only don’t we know much about what we are doing, but we can’t know it because we don’t consciously learn how to do it in the first place,” said psychologist Gordon Logan.

(Kristy M. Snyder et al., “What Skilled Typists Don’t Know About the QWERTY Keyboard,” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 76:1 [January 2014], 162-171.)

Ellison Words
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison typed more than 1,700 works using a single finger of each hand. In 1999 Mike Keith set out to learn which words would be easiest for him to type. “Easy” means that successive letters are typed by alternate hands and that the hands travel as little as possible. (See the article for some other technicalities.)

Here are the easiest words of 4 to 13 letters; the score in parenthesis is the total linear distance traveled by the fingers, normalized by dividing by the length of the word (lower is better):

BANANA (0.17)
AUSTERE (0.77)

Ellison could easily have used most of these in a story about an infectious disease outbreak in India. But I guess that might have looked lazy.

(Michael Keith, “Typewriter Words,” Word Ways 32:4 [November 1999], 270-277.)

Words and Music

In 2004, Canadian musician Andrew Huang wrote a song that encodes the first 101 digits of π.

Also: A “piku” is a haiku whose word lengths reflect the digits of π:

How I love a verse
Contrived to unhusk dryly
One image nutshell

In Other Words

University of Arizona anthropologist Keith Basso found that when the automobile was introduced into the reservation of the Western Apache of Arizona, they described it by applying their words for the human body:

Anatomical Term Extended Meaning
“shoulder” “front fender(s)”
“hand+arm” “front wheel(s), tire(s)”
“chin+jaw” “front bumper”
“foot,” “feet” “rear wheel(s), tire(s)”
“face” “area extending from top of windshield to bumper”
“forehead” “front portion of cab, or automobile top”
“nose” “hood”
“back” “bed of truck”
“hip+buttock” “rear fender(s)”
“mouth” “opening of pipe leading to gas-tank”
“eye(s)” “headlight(s)”
“vein(s)” “electrical wiring”
“entrails,” “guts” “all machinery under hood”
“liver” “battery”
“stomach” “gas-tank”
“heart” “distributor”
“lung” “radiator”
“intestine(s)” “radiator hose(s)”
“fat” “grease”

“When the automobile was introduced into Apache culture, it was perceived to possess a crucial defining attribute — the ability to move itself — which prompted its inclusion in the category labeled hinda [phenomena that are capable of generating and sustaining locomotive movement by themselves, such as man, quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and some machines]. The traditional practice of describing the other members of this category with anatomical terms was then applied to automobiles, to produce the extended set described above.”

(Keith H. Basso, “Semantic Aspects of Linguistic Acculturation,” American Anthropologist, New Series 69:5 [October 1967], 471-477.)

Late Word

In 1967, Ian Stevenson closed a combination lock and placed it in a filing cabinet in the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia. He had set the combination using a word or phrase known only to himself. He told his colleagues that he would try to communicate the code to them after his death, as potential evidence that his awareness had survived.

The combination “is extremely meaningful to me,” he said. “I have no fear whatever of forgetting it on this side of the grave and, if I remember anything on the other side, I shall surely remember it.”

His colleague Emily Williams Kelly told the New York Times, “Presumably, if someone had a vivid dream about him, in which there seemed to be a word or a phrase that kept being repeated — I don’t quite know how it would work — if it seemed promising enough, we would try to open it using the combination suggested.”

Stevenson died in 2007. As of October 2014, the lock remained unopened.