Sunday, December 23, 2001

We Have a Word for It

Miles Kington of the British newpaper Independent has a bit of fun with plurals...
TechMall -- The Tech News And Information Resource Site

Sunday, December 02, 2001

Symbols and their Meanings

As a nation, we seem to have settled on the short-hand "9-11" to stand for the mind-numbing events in New York and Washington DC. Now that metaphor has generated a further metaphor (a meta-metaphor?): "9-10", as in "life as it was before the world changed".
We're changed now: National crisis should quash selfish behavior
Downtown Journal/by Monica Collins

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

They Have a Word for It

While visiting in Spain, Oregonian Dale Sloat entered a small store with the sign "Snack Bar" outside. Hoping to find out more about the various items in the display case, he pointed to one and asked, in his best tourist Spanish, "What is the name of that?" The reply from behind the counter: "Sandwich."

Friday, November 16, 2001

Fact or Inference?

This CNN poll asks readers "Is Osama Bin Ladin still in Afghanistan?" I asked myself "How would they know?" Perhaps they should have asked "Do you HOPE Osama Bin Ladin is still in Afghanistan?" At least then, people might see it as a measure of opinion (and perhaps groundless) versus some kind of estimate of knowledge or intelligence.
CNN - Content

Tuesday, November 13, 2001


Language is not neutral. It is not merely a vehicle which carries ideas. It is itself a shaper of ideas.
-Dale Spender, writer (1943- )

Monday, November 12, 2001

How We Use Language

We know how readily our language acquires new words and new meanings for old words. This article by Ken Ringle of the Washington Post enumerates a fresh batch of coinages spawned by the current "war" in which we find ourselves.

Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front (

As I read this, I recalled dealing as a parent with a youngster who has just discovered the pain of losing a friend to a sudden fatal illness. On the one hand, I wanted to acknowledge the distress this loss has caused him. On the other hand, I knew I had to help him put the loss into perspective, to place it accurately in the full range of possible losses.

The author of this article quotes a language authority as saying "No term has yet been coined to convey even the scope of what happened on Sept. 11, much less the horror." I wonder if people in Nagasaki or Bhopal or Rwanda would agree with that. Or do we as a nation need a loving parent or leader to remind us that, while our hearts will hurt for a long time over this loss, we have not suffered something outside the imaginable range of losses, that others in the world have suffered similar tragedies or even much greater.

In my view, perspective doesn't diminish the personal, it ratifies and normalizes it. A childish person may want to hear a justification for anger and revenge. An adult wants the information that makes it possible to replace such emotions with an improved sense of humanity.

Monday, November 05, 2001

The Word is not the Thing

From Alexander Bryan Johnson's prescient work A Treatise on Language published in 1832:

"As bank notes are the artificial representatives of specie, so words are the artificial representatives of natural phenomena.

"We employ words as though they possess, like specie, an intrinsick and natural value; rather than as though they possess, like bank notes, a merely conventional, artificial, and representative value. We must convert our words into the natural realities which the words represent, if we would understand accurately their value. Some banks, when you present their notes for redemption, will pay you in other bank notes; but we must not confound such a payment with an actual liquidation in specie. We shall still possess, in the new notes, nothing but the representatives of specie. In like manner, when you seek the meaning of a word, you may obtain its conversion into other words, or into some verbal thoughts; but you must not confound such a meaning with the phenomena of nature. You will still possess in the new words, nothing but the representatives of natural existences."

Sunday, November 04, 2001

Revealing the �Real Mechanism of Thought� ?

The Third Annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) convened November 1, with hundreds of writers and would-be writers participating. The objective--to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, regardless of quality. This sort of project has some philosophical roots in the study of "automatic writing". Ed LaFarge of the Village Voice reviews the history of automatic writing and the fascination it held for writers in the 19th century and in the surrealist movement of the 1920s. One proponent, Andre Breton, posited that autmatic writing "revealed the real mechanism of thought" and that if all writers embraced the habit, "all distinctions, as between perception and representation, subject and object, waking and sleep, sanity and madness, would collapse, and the subject would be freed from what the bourgeoisie, for their own nefarious ends, called 'reality.'�
NaNoWriMo !
Village Voice writer Ed LaFarge

Saturday, November 03, 2001


"The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best--and therefore never scrutinize or question."
-Stephen Jay Gould

Thursday, November 01, 2001

Confusing Fact with Inference!

A woman and a baby were in the doctor's examining room, waiting for the doctor to come in. The doctor arrived, examined the baby, checked his weight and asked if the baby was breast fed or bottle fed.

"Breast fed" she replied.

"Okay. I want you to strip down to your waist," the doctor ordered. She did as asked. He pressed, kneaded and pinched both breasts for quite a while in a detailed examination. Motioning to her to get dressed he said, "No wonder this baby is hungry. You don't have any milk."

"I know," she said, "I'm his Grandma, but I'm glad I came."

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Does "Patriotism" say it "All" for you?

From SF Gate, the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, comes this editorial by Mark Morford on the meaning of patriotism in these "evil" days.
Evil Evildoers Of Evil / How to feel calmly patriotic and yet not the slightest bit reassured by Bush & Co.

Monday, October 29, 2001

The Meaning of Dictionary

Microsoft seems to have confused the word and the thing in a recent revision of its Word 2002 thesaurus and dictionary. As the accompanying story suggests, it appears they decided "to remove offensive terms and even words such as cancer, in the belief that if the word is extinguished, the things themselves will be." - The Word according to Microsoft: no more idiots, or any other losers

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Breaking the Hobbit

Police get tough with the hobbit-lovers of Kazakhstan
From the UK Independent News, By Patrick Cockburn in Moscow, 29 July 2001:

People who dress up as hobbits have become the latest victims of a police crackdown on unconventional lifestyles in the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan.

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is very popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where thousands of fans dress up and re-enact scenes from the book. But this innocent if dotty pursuit is seen as subversive by the notoriously brutal police in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. It is part of a wider drive against those whom the police suspect of enjoying "bohemian" lifestyles.

"We are perfectly legal," said Vitaly, a so-called "Tolkienist". "In fact we spend most of our time in the mountains. We only hold conventions in the city twice a year. It's our lifestyle. The police don't like it, but we aren't going to stop. It's our entire life."

The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) says that, besides Tolkienists, people detained include buskers, "alternative artists", gays and lesbians, anarchists, hippies, punks and members of dissident religious sects, many of whom complain that they have been systematically tortured. Alexander, the leader of a punk-rock band in Almaty, said he was held for two days in a so-called "water tank". This is a method commonly used by the police to extract confessions. "They put the person arrested in a narrow cell about 4ft 6in high, and half fill it with cold water. You cannot stand up straight because the ceiling is too low, and you are unable to sit down because you will be under water so you have to crouch all the time."

Tolkien's writings have been widely read in the former Soviet Union ever since he was first translated in about 1988 during perestroika. They reached a peak of popularity in the mid-Nineties.

Several hundred Tolkienists gather in Moscow on Thursday evenings in summer in Neskuchny Park overlooking the Moskva river. One enthusiast, Askar Tuganbaev, a computer salesman, said: "In Yekaterinburg [in the Urals] they even built a fortress and fought a battle a couple of years ago with everybody dressed up."

Mr Tuganbaev says the police in Russia are tolerant of the Tolkienists and it is only in Kazakhstan that they are accused of "being Satanists and conducting dark rituals".

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

How People Use Signs and Symbols

This editorial from Stanley Fish of the NY Times affirms very eloquently the controlled and thoughtful use of language in an era of extreme statements and unexpected consequences.
Condemnation Without Absolutes

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Language Use in the News

This ABC News article discusses the question of word usage in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, noting that "loose usage" such as referring to a burned cake as a "culinary tragedy" feels different now. : How Attacks Are Redefining Language

Tuesday, October 09, 2001

RHIP (rank has its privilege)

In my family, we used this old army phrase to explain why my father could do with impunity the very same things he punished us for--like smoking or getting a speeding ticket. It didn't feel right then, and it doesn't feel right here. Has Mr. Watts confused his government position with his personal importance?
Rep. J.C. Watts lost temper over airport parking ticket, aide says

Thursday, October 04, 2001

All(1) is not All(2)

The All Species Project hopes to identify and catalog every living species on Earth in the next 25 years. Aside from the questions one might have about the cost of such a project, or whether they have any chance of success, what does such a project imply from a general semantics viewpoint?

Organizers Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly believe that this project should present no more of a challenge than the recently "completed" Human Genome Project. However, they do acknowledge a number of possible obstacles, such as the political and economic effects of using venture capital to enter some of the poorest countries in the world and identifying hundreds or thousands of medically important species.

But what about the inherent difficulty of identifying "a species"? The project home site states that "The All Species Inventory is not a census nor a complete geographical distribution map. It counts a species with a population of one the same as one with a population of one million. This is a roster, an elemental list of all life, an inventory of all the parts." Given the fine distinctions required to separate species in some families of fauna, such as beetles or flies, how much of the list will consist of species of one? And what information will this convey?

Finally, how will they know when they have completed the project? The Human Genome Project recently announced that they had achieved their goal of "mapping" the entire human genetic structure. However, closer reading reveals that while they have identified the location of "all" the genes on the 46 human chromosomes, they still have no idea what most of them do.

What does "all" mean in this case and will the definition of that word as used by the All Species Project end up anywhere near the traditional sense that most of us would recognize?

All Species Home Page

Thursday, September 27, 2001


In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.
-Robert Green Ingersoll, lawyer and orator (1833-1899)

Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Words in the News

You have seen a number of references in this blog to A Word A Day. Learn more about it in this editorial review in the Wall Street Journal. -- From the Archives

Friday, September 21, 2001

The Tyranny of Words

Taken from A.Word.A.Day Mail Issue 48
From: Roland Killick (
Subject: Words or Propaganda

,,,perhaps a more relevant use of AWAD would be to watch how words are used in the media to create certain feelings. Here are four examples, (my quotes):

(1) During the first couple of days TV coverage I saw here in Sydney, the subtitle couplet read:
"search" for survivors
"hunt" for terrorists

(2) Initially the innocents who died were victims of a "criminal attack". Later they became victims of a "war", presumably having the same status as the future "collateral damage" in Afghanistan or Iraq as a consequence of the retaliation / vengeance.

(3) I just saw a reporter who couldn't have been more that 30 years old comparing the WTC scene with "Dresden" and "WW2" rather than with "Kabul" or

(4) This crime is described as "sophisticated", when security personnel fear that it is frighteningly straightforward.

If we keep our eyes open, I'm sure we will find more interesting examples of words chosen for their reactive power. And perhaps this is necessary to align world citizens to a common political position. Or perhaps it is jingoism or propaganda. Or perhaps the choice of these words depends on the reaction one wishes to provoke in the reader.

Thursday, September 20, 2001

Quoted by Bill Moyer

Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. Alexa Young

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

The Word is Not the Thing

Does the country's intelligence community suffer from confusion of abstractions?

From the Associated Press: "Experts say a current emphasis on technology over human intelligence-gathering, a funding shortage and an information overload may help explain U.S. intelligence agencies' failure to forestall the worst terror attack on American soil."
Read the rest of the story...

Monday, September 17, 2001


If I understand what Gandhi is saying, nonviolence requires something far more difficult than merely turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears and other feelings that provide that impetus for people to attack us. Being aware of these feelings we have no desire to attack back because we can see the human ignorance leading others to attack us; instead, our goal becomes to provide the education for our attackers which will enable them to transcend their violence and engage in cooperative relationships with us.
- Marshall Rosenberg PhD, creator of Center for Nonviolent Communication

The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes.
-Max Beerbohm, writer, critic, and caricaturist (1872-1956)

Thursday, September 13, 2001

Decision Making

Here's the dilemma: A runaway train will kill five people unless you flip a switch sending it onto another track where it will kill only one. Most people say flipping the switch is moral.

But what if the only way to stop the train is to push a passer-by onto the track? You still save a net of four lives, but most people say that's not moral.

Why people have such different reactions to the same end has long puzzled philosophers. Now Princeton University researchers have scanned volunteers' brains while they pondered similar ethical dilemmas and found that a key to tough moral judgments is emotion, not logical or analytical reasoning.

Read the rest of this story from the Associated Press....
Brain scanning shows emotion key in how people make tough moral decisions

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

What people do with signs and symbols

Size Survey
Buttons popping, waistband binds? What size clothes do you really wear? Lots of people are going to find out in Britain, where major retailers are conducting a computer-assisted survey of the changing British form. Ten thousand volunteers of both sexes and every size will bare nearly all to create a blueprint of the changing form of the country. It's the first project of its kind since 1951. A project helper says what people think they are as a size is very different than what they really are. She says one woman thought she was a size 12, maybe a 14, but she was more of a size 16. (From ABC News in San Francisco)

More from ITN in Britain

Thursday, August 30, 2001

In My Opinion

If the WORD is not the thing, how about the thought? Does a thought constitute an act? Does thinking about doing something have the same effect as doing that thing? Consider this Arabic proverb:

"The willing contemplation of vice is vice."

I believe this proverb confuses two levels of abstraction in such a way as to result in confusion and needless difficulty in those who would try to act in accordance with it. The consequences of a thought that does not lead to action, in my mind, differs in meaningful ways from the consequences of taking the action, regardless of any evaluation of the morality of the action itself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Does this medium become the message?

Advertising delivered in a most unusual place. : Bathrooms Are Latest Spot for Interactive Advertising

What a lack of critical thinking skills can get you

Pregnant, in this case...
BBC News | HEALTH | Teenage myths about contraception

Thursday, August 23, 2001


A man is too apt to forget that in this world he cannot have everything. A choice is all that is left him.
--Harry Mathews, author and member of OuLiPo (1930-)

Words form the thread on which we string our experience.
--Aldous Huxley, writer and critic (1894-1963)

Friday, August 17, 2001

A case of an "Inconstant Constant"?

Most people "know" that physicists consider the speed of light a constant, the same for all time and for all areas of the universe. Recent research suggests that we might not completely understand the issue...

From the NY Times: Cosmic Laws Like Speed of Light Might Be Changing, a Study Finds

From Space.Com: Speed of Light, Other Constants May Change

Moving from higher abstractions to lower, from inference to observation

Some scientific measures develop from observation and some from theory. If we combine both methods of analysis and evaluation, we have a higher probability of closing the gap between what we think we know and what we can directly observe and measure. Do we ever nail down the "real" answer though?

Take a look at this story from the Boston Globe about a change in the meaning of the wind chill index. One might infer from the headline that the writer believes that the previous scale did not have any "real" basis.

However, according to this page at the National Weather Service (NWS) on the revision of the scale, they adjusted the parameters used in the wind chill calculation based on new technologies and the result of recent research that more accurately predict the actual experience of a human standing in the wind on a cold day.

In the meantime, an international commission has begun research and negotiations intended to develop a "Univeral Thermal Climate Index" that may go far beyond the NWS definition of wind chill, integrating activity, humidity, and other thermophysiological effects to pin down an even more accurate measurement of the human experience. Will their efforts, due out later this year, come up with the "real" answer? Stay tuned...

Hearing voices

What do I mean when I say "I am of two minds about that."? Perceiving that I have multiple viewpoints about a "single" issue really suggests to me that no "single" issue exists. Most experiences involve many layers of meaning and event. Perhaps listening to the many "voices" speaking about the experience in my head will give me the opportunity to increase my awareness of the those many layers. I find that the more I "know" about a issue or experience, the more appropriate my reaction to it.

On the other hand (or should I say, "another voice inside me says...") what does the author of the article below mean when he refers to a person's "true voice" as distinguished from all the other voices inside? He states "A few of my clients admitted they usually couldn't tell the true voice from the rest of the noise until after the fact. " Does this experience describe the existence of a "true" voice or does it suggest that once people discover how they "should" have acted, they perceive that they "knew it all along."? In a world with multitudinous layers of event and meaning, perceived by people with a myriad of experiences and desires creating meaning inside their heads, can we really designate a "true voice"?
Boston Globe Online / At Home / Your quiet inner voice has best advice

Brain cell (1949) "is not" Brain cell (2001)?

Does the process of aging unconditionally imply the slow loss of mental skills? Scientists have begun to doubt what they "knew" about the aging brain. From Judy Foreman of the Boston Globe:

The lesson of old geniuses: Scientists once thought brain cells did little but die as they aged. But new research raises the hope of intellectual growth to the very end.... The neuroscientists' gloom was based on their belief that aging causes a steady loss of neurons (brain cells) all over the brain. They ''knew'' the adult brain could not generate new neurons. Worst of all, scientists assumed that nothing could be done to boost the odds of having a healthy, aging brain.

Some mental skills decline with age...but wisdom and common sense may increase.

Read the rest of the story...

What People do with Signs and Symbols

What's in a name? Some people barely know the names of all their grandparents. Others trace their family trees back several generations to the founders of this country. Sometimes, the process uncovers a story that comes to signify a great deal in the minds of the descendants.

Giving five 'witches' their good names back


To be a real philosopher all that is necessary is to hate some one else's type of thinking.
--William James, psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

Tuesday, July 31, 2001

What People Do with Signs and Symbols

From Glimpse: September 1986
US Fashion Designer Ralph Lauren brought legal action for infringing on "his" corporate symbol against an organization that used a similar insignia: the figure of a man on a horse swinging a mallet. The object of his suit? The US Polo Association, founded in 1900.

Glimpse 2001 Update:Lauren not only won that suit, but more than 15 years later, he continues his pursuit of those who would profit from his well-known logo and product line.
Another Ralph Lauren lawsuit against the US Polo Association, and Another Win

Friday, July 27, 2001

Quoted Wisdom

What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.
-Leo Tolstoy, novelist and philosopher (1828-1910)

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs--jolted by every pebble in the road.
-Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and writer (1813-1887)

Monday, July 16, 2001

Science--a Human Activity

From the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll, July 16, 2001:
Science is not some monolithic body of knowledge; it's a mishmash of old beliefs, new beliefs, superstitions, guesses, counterarguments and disputes. It's not useless -- far from it -- but it has to be understood as a cultural artifact, a production of the flawed human mind....

The polygraph, the "many writings" machine, measures small changes in heart rate, respiration, perspiration and other bodily functions. The theory behind the polygraph is that people who lie get nervous when they lie, and the nervousness is reflected in the polygraph results....

The reasons that people get nervous are many and various; only some of them have to do with guilty knowledge of a crime. There are sociopaths who have guilty knowledge, but it does not make them nervous. And there are tricks -- you can bite your tongue at odd times, for instance, to confuse the "control" responses.

Indeed, one of the interesting things about polygraphs is that they are only as good as their operators. An experienced polygraph operator can tease info out of data that others cannot. It seems like science, but it's actually intuition....

A thermometer, for instance, does not require intuitive interpretation to be useful. The thermometer, we may say, is good science -- provided it is placed in the right location and calibrated correctly. The raw data of a polygraph may be as good as the raw data of a good thermometer, but the interpretation is just an art form, like Afro-Cuban dancing.

And yet, because we want to believe -- even though the legal system itself doesn't believe -- we keep using polygraphs. We keep attaching significance to their results, even though that's wrong.

Sunday, July 08, 2001

On the Topic of Language Misuse

Our misapprehension of the nature of language has occasioned a greater waste of time, and effort, and genius, than all the other mistakes and delusions with which humanity has been afflicted. It has retarded immeasurably our physical knowledge of every kind, and vitiated what it could not retard.
-- A. B. Johnson, Treatise on Language, or the Relation Which Words Bear to Things, 1836

Saturday, July 07, 2001

Words don't mean, people mean

"Now, the word "brand" has a variety of uses, but I find defining it at the outset isn't all that difficult, and is worthwhile in setting the stage. To me, brand simply means "a person's mental model of another entity." Brand happens. Nothing is not branded. An entity's brand might not be intentional, but it nonetheless exists. Brand is an emergent property, typically derived from a series of interactions a person has with that entity. This is why the practice of "branding" is foolish--it attempts to gloss over that series of interactions with meaningless messages. But the property of "brand" is worth paying attention to."
--Peter Merholz, Web designer, from an essay on the issue of "branding" on his web site

Saturday, June 23, 2001

The past, present and future of language

We accept that language grows, evolves and changes with the times. But sometimes we might feel that some changes result from a lack of concern over the intent of speech to convey meaning. Every era has its language crusaders and its issues of decadence. In Boston, England, John Richards wants to address the problem of errant and abused apostrophes and while he has not seen much local support, an article in the London Telegraph triggered a flurry of positive reaction.Boston Journal: Minder of Misplaced Apostrophes Scolds a Town

Monday, June 18, 2001

On Words...

Words are loaded pistols.
-Jean-Paul Sartre, writer and philosopher (1905-1980)

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Physician, essayist and poet (1809-1894)

Sunday, June 17, 2001

What's in a Name?

Apparently, quite a bit of inference and assumption...and potential confusion too, as this article about new names for "old" computer terms illustrates.
Binary vs. Decimal Measurements

Saturday, June 09, 2001


1. The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what should be, was or will be.
2. The freedom to say what one feels and thinks, instead of what one should.
3. The freedom to feel what one feels, instead of what one ought.
4. The freedom to ask for what one wants, instead of always waiting for permission.
5. The freedom to take risks on one's own behalf, instead of choosing to be only "secure" and not rocking the boat.

Virginia Satir

Friday, June 08, 2001

Know your Euphemisms

From a former manager at Taco Bell:
As director of communications, I was asked to prepare a memo reviewing our company's training programs and materials. In the body of the memo in one of the sentences I mentioned the "pedagogical approach" used by one of the training manuals. The day after I routed the memo to the executive committee, I was called into the HR director's office, and told that the executive vice president wanted me out of the building by lunch. When I asked why, I was told that she wouldn't stand for perverts (pedophiles?) working in her company. Finally, he showed me her copy of the memo, with her demand that I be fired and the word "pedagogical" circled in red. The HR manager was fairly reasonable, and once he looked the word up in his dictionary and made a copy of the definition to send back to her, he told me not to worry. He would take care of it. Two days later, a memo to the entire staff came out directing us that no words that could not be found in the local Sunday newspaper could be used in company memos. (!)

Thursday, June 07, 2001

Meaning as Subjective Event

From a cartoon in Hemispheres, the United Airlines magazine:

Man standing in front of a judge:
"If breaking the law is a crime, well then I must confess I'm guilty."

Saturday, May 26, 2001

Statistics, Words and Cohabitation

The census bureau causes a ruckus with a few choice numbers and words... "I've become very well acquainted with the number 72 this week," laughs Dorian Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project. "Suddenly one day, the phone starts ringing off the hook, but nothing had changed in the outside world. Someone had just stated a number."
The Dallas Morning News: Science

Friday, May 25, 2001

Quote for today

To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., poet, novelist, essayist, and physician (1809-1894)

Tuesday, May 22, 2001

What constitutes a "modest" vs. a "substantial" majority?

From an Interest!Alert Enews story: "...A more modest 56% to 28% majority believes that churches and religious organizations have too little power and influence. Also, a 51% to 30% plurality feels that racial minorities have too little influence. Conversely, a substantial (57% to 23%) majority believes that TV and radio talk shows have too much political clout. "

The full story:
Large Majorities Believe Big Companies PACs Media and Lobbyists Have too Much Power in Washington

Monday, May 21, 2001

More Quoted Wisdom

Talking is like playing the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop their vibrations as in twanging them to bring out their music.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., poet, novelist, essayist, and physician (1809-1894)

Men ever had, and ever will have leave, / To coin new words well suited to the age, / Words are like Leaves, some wither every year, / And every year a younger Race succeeds.
-Horace, poet and satirist (65-8 BCE) [Ars Poetica, Art of Poetry] translated by Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon (1633-1685)

True------1/2 True-----False?

What constitutes "true air"? With or without "odors"?
Hamilton Beach True Air� Air Cleaner

Thursday, May 17, 2001

A newspaper perspective on a well-known g-s idea

Jon Carroll from the SF Chronicle has some fun with symbols and the people who give them meaning.
Into the world, armed only with eyes

Hedy(1) is not Hedy(2)

Another example of how a popular perception may not tell the whole story...
TimeLab 2000: Stories (BEAUTIFUL BRAINS)

Thursday, May 10, 2001


When you read a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in yourself than there was before.
-Cliff Fadiman

In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, the fifth -- teaching others.
-Ibn Gabirol, poet and philosopher (c. 1022-1058)

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

Words don't mean, people mean...

Excerpted from A Word A Day Mail Issue 31:
From: Mary Brown (
Subject: anachronistic words

You were talking about words having different meanings depending upon the period of history. I remember reading that one of the first descriptions of the newly built St. Paul's cathedral in London in the early years of the eighteenth century called the new building 'amusing, awful and artificial'. Sir Christopher Wren was, however, really pleased as he knew this meant in today's terms that it was amazing, awe inspiring and artistic.

Check out the delightful A Word A Day email service for more on words and meanings.

Friday, April 27, 2001

A View on the Limits of Time-Binding

We can be knowledgeable with other men's knowledge
but we cannot be wise with other men's wisdom.
-Michel Montaigne, essayist (1533-1592)

Thursday, April 26, 2001

The Latest in Time-Binding--Information Use by the "N-Generation"

From a review of Don Tapscott's book Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation "To those of us born into the Baby-boomer generation, technology and the information age are seen as challenging obstacles for us to overcome in order to survive in today's world. To the net generation, technology is merely an extension of self and is used to explore one's world to the fullest. N-Geners are born into an age of interactive digital media. They have an active role in seeking information, making connections, forming opinions, and nurturing relationships."

Monday, April 23, 2001

The Multi-Ordinal Internet...

Weblogging the Web...From the WebVoice Weblog of Olivier Travers:
"Always updated lists... of layoffs
Isn't it ironic that publishers start using the capacity to keep web content always-up-to-date mostly to track... web start-up failures?
Hoover's - Dot-Com Deathwatch List and Business Boneyard
MSNBC - Layoff List
The Standard - Layoff Tracker, Flop Tracker
WSJ - Dot-Com Layoffs and Shutdowns"

A Quote

So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.

-John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

Who defines a word, anyway?

"When James Michener submitted his book `Hawaii' to Random House, the editor, Albert Erskine, objected to the word `squushy', saying it was not in the dictionary'. When Michener insisted that he would not change the word, the editor replied: `This is the third argument I've had this year about the same word. The first was with Robert Penn Warren; the second was with William Faulkner; and now you... And so we'll put `squushy' into our Random House Dictionary. He had overlooked the word in the Merriam-Webster of 1934, but even so a copy-editor had the arrogance to challenge outstanding writers like Warren, Faulkner, and Michener."
[Allan Walker Read, Approaches to Lexicography and Semantics, Current Trends in Linguistics, 1970, p. 149]

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

True-------1/2 True-----False?

How would a general semanticist answer the questions in this listening effectiveness test?
How effectively do you listen?

New look at an 'old' technology

From Glimpse Number 28 June 1984
"Attaching stickers with company trademarks to individual bananas, avocados and melons is not the ultimate method of marking fruit. Las fall in Momori prefecture, Japan apples carried company names while still ripening on the trees. Special transparent, adhesive films were attached to individual apples, stopping them from coloring in the sections printed to block sunlight. Year before last about 40,000 such apples were photoprinted.
Glimpse Update Marketing: Putting a logo on your lunch.(Brief Article)

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Some Fear National Languages are Threatened

NY Times, April 16, 2001
HALWIL, Switzerland � Throughout Europe, English is growing in use and acceptability. Beyond the schoolhouse here, European universities, particularly in northern Europe, are giving courses in science, philosophy and business in English. Even some companies, like the French telecommunications giant Alcatel � state owned until 1982 � now use English as their internal language. But the growing use of English is not going down easily everywhere. In one European Union survey, 70 percent of those surveyed agreed with the proposition that "everyone should speak English." But nearly as many said their own language needed to be protected...."If you start to eliminate the intellectual community and the economic community, you can eventually kill off a language." Traditionally Germans have been proud of their language's ability to absorb new words. But lately the tide seems to be turning. In one recent poll, 53 percent of those asked said they opposed the use of English words. Yet English marches on. It is now the most widely spoken second language in Europe. According to a European Union poll, released in February, more than 40 percent of Europeans surveyed say they "know" English as their second language. Add to that the 16 percent of European Union members who speak English as a first language, and already more than half of the union's citizens believe that they are conversant in English. Some experts say the language has become so prevalent that it is increasingly being thought of not as a foreign language, but as a basic skill like mathematics. Polls show that there is a sizable difference of opinion between Switzerland's majority German speakers and the smaller number of French speakers. In one survey by Le Matin, 62 percent of the French-speaking Swiss polled said teaching English should be a priority, while the proportion rose to 73 percent among German speakers. But the difference grew when people were asked whether English should be taught before a second national language. While just over half of German speakers supported the idea, 71 percent of French speakers opposed it.

Saturday, April 14, 2001

What People Do with Symbols and Signs

One side: Wall Street Journal Article About Canadian Cigarette Warning Labels
And the other:
Graphic new cigarette pack warnings are spawning a cottage industry Health Canada never intended. Some companies are manufacturing cardboard covers smokers can use to replace the colour images of rotting gums and teeth, lung cancer and heart disease now on certain brands. The mock covers, available in Nova Scotia for about a week, depict images far less grisly than the Health Canada images and warnings, which by law must take up 50 per cent of each pack. One mock cover - manufactured by a Quebec company called Cigarette Cover - shows a yellow smiley face with the caption It's Cool! Others by that company depict a flower below the caption Bla Bla Bla . . . Bla Bla!; a smiling sun with the words Wind, Fire, Earth, Water; a skull and crossbones with the caption Smoking Preserves Meat; and a picture of a marijuana plant with the warning Marijuana is not a Safe Alternative to Cigarettes. March 1, 2001 The Halifax Herald Limited

More Tobacco News--This Map "is not" the Territory
AT THE MOVIES: Rene Zellweger on Bridget Jones (From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Interviewer: Are you a smoker yourself?
Zellweger: No!
Interviewer: So what were you smoking in the movie?
Zellweger: I was smoking poopy-doody sticks. They were the worst-smelling, obnoxiously vile, revolting friend eliminators I've ever experienced. They were relationship killers. I don't know what they were, they were so noxious. In a room full of 200 extras at the Tate Modern (museum), no one blinked an eye until I lit up.

Thursday, April 12, 2001

The Future of Language?

The computer industry is famed for its overuse of acronyms, but now seems to be embracing haplology too. Two terms which are receiving a lot of attention at the moment are internationalization and localization. These relate to the authoring of software in foreign (i.e. non English) locales. It seems that these words are too much of a mouthful for everyday use in the computer industry. Internationalization is commonly written as �I18N� (pronounced �I eighteen N�), since there are 18 letters between the I and the N. Following a similar logic, localization is written as �L10N� (pronounced �L ten N�). Software that has been internationalized is even said to have been �I18N�d�. Who are the proponents of these terms? Look no further than the World Wide Web Consortium, who by following a slightly different logic, have even condensed their acronym to �W3C�!

I0f t2s t3d c7s, t2n w3e w2l w0e b0e? (If this trend continues, then where will we be?)

Bathroom Use (1) is not Bathroom Use(2)?

This report reminds us that a term like "bathroom" does not have a single or even a few definitions (and therefore uses)...
Two Weeks in the Bathroom?

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

What's in a Name?

The Dutch legislature voted April 11 to decriminalize euthanasia. How much of what we feel about this event results from the words used to discuss it? Some viewpoints:
Telegraph--Historic vote makes mercy killings legal
Netherlands Voluntary Euthanasia Society
Daily Telegraph Editorial--The Death of Reason
A Different View...

Tuesday, April 03, 2001

Trademark, Symbol and Rumor

From Glimpse Number 32, June 1985:
Procter & Gamble, the largest advertiser in the United States, is removing its moon-and-stars trademark from its products. After a five-year effort to dispel rumors that the trademark is a symbol of Satanism and Devil worship--an effort that included the hiring of two investigative agencies, the use of the company's mainframe computer to help track down the rumors, and the filing of libel suits--Procter & Gamble has decided to eliminate the trademark as the packages for its products are redesigned. A company spokesman said that defending Procter & Gamble from the rumors cost "in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." And while there is no way to measure the rumors' impact on the consumers, "we're sure it has affected sales." The spokesman added that the company "will continue to fight the situation on all fronts."
UPDATE: P&G didn't give up their trademark after all!
Check out these P&G Trademark Facts

Monday, April 02, 2001

What People Do with Signs and Symbols

The previous one having died of lung cancer, Marlboro casts about for a new symbol for the new millenium...
New Marlboro "Man"?!

A No Man Show

From Glimpse Number 29, September 1984:
Once accused of sending an inpersonator to fill one of his speaking engagements, artist Andy Warhol had this to say about the new, $350,000 computerized Andy Warhol robot: "It's just grea-a-a-a-t. We can send it around to talk shows. Iwon't have to go." The robot is slated to star in a production called "Andy Warhol's Overexposed: A No Man Show."
UPDATE: Still No Show

What People Do with Signs and Symbols

From Glimpse Number 29, Sept 1984:
"Ontario's Ornithological Symbol
A newsclipping furnished by Kurt Fuerst tells of a controversy in a recent meeting of Ontario, Canada's legislature in which the argument centered on the blue jay. The problem was choosing the province's official bird. Ross McClellan, a member of the provincial parliament representing the National Democratic Party, called the bird 'a misbegotten, thieving, poison-colored scavenger' and said it was chosen only because its plumage matches the official Tory color. But the general manager of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Mike Singleton, said the federation isn't opposed to the blue, jay, although it thinks the grey jay would have been a better choice because it's found widely throughout Ontario and the blue jay is limited to the south. Conservative Jim Pollock, who introduced the private member's bill, stuck by his guns, and the legislature passed in principle the Avian Emblem Act, making the blue jay the province's ornithological symbol. Pollock said the blue jay is an ideal provincial emblem becuase it's common, recognizable and colorful."
Glimpse Update: Emblems and Symbols - Common Loon