Tag: language

Book review: Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

nabokovNabakov’s Favourite word is Mauve by Ben Blatt is an exploration of language through numbers. To set the scene Blatt discusses the attribution of The Federalist Papers – a set of essays written, anonymously, by one or more of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in support of ratification of the new US constitution. The problem was solved in in 1963 by Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace in 1963 by looking at the frequency of different words in the essays and how they compared to the frequencies of words in writings known to be by the three authors. They found that Madison had written all of the essays. An example of their approach: Madison used the word “whilst” in many of his known works but never the word “while”. Hamilton, on the other hand, never used the word “whilst”. Combining the frequencies of a number of such words provides a fingerprint for the writing style of an author. What struck me was that the “fingerprint” words are not at all exceptional.

In the sixties this type of frequency analysis was exceedingly tedious – Mosteller and Wallace physically cut up the essays and made little piles of words in order to count them! This type of heroic manual analysis was not uncommon across many quantitative sciences prior to the widespread availability of computers. These days such analyses are straightforward. The full texts of many books are freely downloadable, and there are programming libraries such as the natural language toolkit (NLTK) in Python which provide functions for word counting and other more sophisticated analyses

Blatt takes the opportunity to extend word counting analysis to more topics and a much extended collection of texts. These include best selling novels, fan fiction, classic fiction and US and UK English corpora (large bodies of expertly selected text). The books are all in English but with some foreign translations, and they are biased to the US market.
The topics covered include: the overuse of adverbs, particularly those ending -ly; he vs she – how male authors sometimes write almost entirely without mentioning “she” whilst the most extreme female authors still write about 20% “he”; differences between US and UK writers – it comes down to blokes, blimey and brilliant; and how the reading age of popular fiction has dropped over the years. Here there is a diversion into Dr Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and it’s 220 word vocabulary, given to Dr Seuss by Rudolf Flesch who was interested in readability, in fact I’ve recently used The Flesch-Kincaid readability index which he helped develop.

The title of the book comes from an analysis of favourite words of authors, those words which they use significantly more frequently than other others. Nabakov is an interesting case since he uses all words about colour significantly more frequently than other authors. This is likely linked to his synaesthesia – of which he has written. Ray Bradbury, in the other hand, is a fan of “cinnamon”, whilst Michael Connelly likes “nodding” and its variants. The chapter on favourite words also covers repeated words and clichés. Blatt is not judgemental about these habits, sometimes they have a dramatic effect.

As almost an aside Blatt reveals some of the commercial side of the publishing industry. I was struck by the “Big Name Author with …” phenomenon where a big name author such as James Patterson or Tom Clancy publish with a lesser known or unknown author. Analysis along the lines of Mosteller and Wallace show that these co-authors write the books with the Big Name providing story outlines (Patterson is straightforward that this is the case). Another example is the Stratemeyer Syndicate who published The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series which I recall from my childhood in the seventies. These books purport to have a named author but actually the author is a fiction and the books are published to a formula by a variety of writers (spread over more years than a living author might achieve). Finally, there is the phenomenon of the gigantic author credit on the front cover – Stephen King suffered from this, his name covered only 3% of the front cover of his first book, towards the end of the eighties it approached 40%!

The book finishes with an analysis of first and last lines.

The emphasis of the book is very much on the numbers with fairly cursory examination of the reasons for the numbers found, that said the book is an easy and thought provoking read.

Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

The Etymologicon” by Mark Forsyth is a book of the origin of words, of their etymology. It’s based on the author’s blog, the Inky Fool, it reads very much as a sequence of blog posts strung together. This isn’t necessarily bad but does sometime make it feel like a a unrelenting, whirlwind tour of the origins of English words.

Although English was never my strongest subject at school this combination of history and language has always fascinated me. I thought I’d pluck out and summarise a few little gems that caught my eye:

Romany people have received a range of names, based on the mistaken assumptions of their origins. The term “gypsy” arises from those that thought they came from Egypt, most bizarrely the Spanish at one point seemed to believe they come from Flemish Belgium, hence the word “Flamenco”. The Roma ultimately come from India, their language having its roots in Hindi and Sanskrit.

Wamblecropt, meaning “afflicted by nausea” appeared in Cawdrey’s Table Alphabetical of 1604 which Forsyth cites as the first dictionary not directed to the aid of translators. He also highlights that the fame of Dr Johnson’s dictionary is not in its novelty as a type of book but in Johnson’s fame as a learned man. I feel there is a need to randomly reintroduce such words to the language, to see if their time has returned. “I am often wamblecropt on the train into work”.

I’d always assumed that Nazi was a a contraction of Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeitpartei, which it is but it was also a pre-existing term of abuse relating to Bavarian peasants who were the butt of jokes in Germany in the early 20th century. Nazi is a contraction of Ignatius, a common Bavarian name.

“Terrorism”, it seems was coined in English after the French Revolution to describe a system of government based on terror.

Rather romantically, the ring finger is so-named because early medicine held that the ring finger was directly connected to the heart and could be treated as a proxy for the treatment of heart problems, and so when we marry we put a ring on our ring finger. My wedding ring is the only jewellery I wear. Somewhat insensitively, when choosing a ring for Mrs SomeBeans at which point the issue of a ring for me was first raised, I exclaimed that I wasn’t particularly interested if it cost as much as hers did. I relented fairly soon afterwards, having saved on an engagement ring which Mrs SomeBeans wouldn’t have been able to wear as at the time she worked in the food industry.

You’ll be pleased to know that there was a “gorm” to go with “gormless”, gorm was a 12th century Scandinavian word meaning sense or understanding. Similarly, there were once also “feck” and “reck”, now only found in “feckless” and “reckless”. Happily there was also a “gruntle”, which is now only found in “disgruntled”. To gruntle is to grunt often, as pigs might do, in this instance dis- prefix is an intensifier.

Obviously I could go on, but it would be repetitive.

It’s difficult to know with a book like this the level of referencing which is desirable, it is light on references but the author acknowledges this at the end of the book, providing a brief bibliography and some more detailed references as an example.

Books similar to this include, Lynne Truss’s “Eats, shoots and leaves” and David Crystal’s “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language“. The most useful part of my library membership is online access to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is also a goldmine for etymologists.

All in all an entertaining read, and compatible with the stresses of new parenthood.