Posts tagged with "Lexicon"

Why some words are so darn funny

November 30, 2018

Upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball and jiggly: These are the top ten funniest words in the English language, according to a research results just released by Canada’s University of Alberta.

“Humor is, of course, still personal,” explained U of A psychologist Chris Westbury. “Here, we get at the elements of humor that aren’t personal—things that are universally funny.”

Westbury and his collaborator, U of A computing scientist Geoff Hollis, began their work based on results of a study at England’s University of Warwick that had participants rate the whimsy of nearly 5,000 English words. Westbury and Hollis then modeled these ratings statistically.

“Our model was good at predicting which words participants would judge as funny, and to what extent,” explained Westbury.

The findings show there are two types of predictors to gauge how funny a word is: form predictors and semantic predictors.

Form predictors have nothing to do with the meaning of the word, but rather measure elements such as length, letter and sound probabilities, and how similar the word is to other words in sound and writing.

For example, the researchers found that the letter K and the sound “oo” (as in “boot”) are significantly more likely to occur in funny words than in words that aren’t funny.

Semantic predictors—taken from a computational model of language—measure how related each word is to different emotions, as well as to six categories of funny words: sex, bodily functions, insults, swear words, partying and animals.

“We started out by identifying these six categories,” said Westbury. “It turns out that the best predictor of funniness is not distance from one of those six categories, but rather average distance from all six categories. This makes sense, because lots of words that people find funny fall into more than one category, like sex and bodily functions—like boobs.”

The study, “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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As good as their word(s)? How presidents have changed the American lexicon

September 6, 2018

When the U.S. president talks, most Americans listen. So it’s no surprise that our chiefs of state have had a huge impact on the English language Business Insider reported on September 5.

You’d be surprised at the words in common usage today that first were spoken by a U.S. president. Perhaps the most prolific were Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding, who came up with five and three, respectively.

The following words, which first were heard wafting from the White House, according to the business news outlet and, are now part of the American lexicon:

  • Administration – George Washington: Our first president set the standard for all US presidents to come—and was instrumental in establishing the language we use to describe our government. Although the word, “administration,” has been in use since the 14th century, it was Washington who first chose it to refer to a leader’s time in office. According to, Washington’s original use of the word came in his 1796 farewell address when he said, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.”
  • Belittle – Thomas Jefferson:  America’s third president introduced the word “belittle,” meaning to make someone or something seem unimportant. The earliest use of the word seems to be a 1781 note of Jefferson’s in which he said of the American people, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”
  • Squatter – James Madison: In a 1788 letter to Washington, James Madison delineated several factions who might be opposed to the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, including a group of representatives from Maine who occupied land owned by others and to which they had no legal title. “Many of them and their constituents are only squatters upon other people’s land, and they are afraid of being brought to account,” wrote Madison.
  • OK – Martin Van Buren: The word, “OK,” has a rich history, and eighth president Martin Van Buren played a major role in ensuring its lasting popularity. There are a few explanations of how “OK” came about, but the most popular one pegs it to an 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post. Van Buren then popularized the word during his 1840 election campaign, as a rallying cry. At that time, OK stood for “oll korrect,” as in, “all correct.” Apparently, it was a popular fad among educated elites to deliberately misspell their slang words. Other abbreviations of the era included NC for “nuff ced” and KG for “know go.”
  • First Lady – Zachary Taylor: During the first few administrations, the president’s wife was commonly referred to as the “presidentress”—quite a mouthful. Not until Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 did that begin to change. “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century,” the 12th president wrote of the widow of the fourth president.
  • Sugarcoat – Abraham Lincoln: Not only did Abraham Lincoln pioneer the use of “sugarcoat” in the sense of making something bad seem more attractive or pleasant, but he stirred up a minor controversy with the word, too. In 1861, four months after he was inaugurated, Lincoln wrote a letter to Congress as Southern states were threatening to secede from the Union. “With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than 30 years, until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government,” Lincoln wrote.
  • Lunatic fringe—Theodore Roosevelt : America’s 26th president—whose contributions to the popular lexicon included “bully pulpit,” “muckraker,” “loose cannon” and “pack rat”—was the most masterful president at coining new phrases. “Even beyond his presidency, Roosevelt added to his linguistic legacy when in his review of the avant-garde Armory Show in 1913 the unimpressed former president wrote, “The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.” The term soon crossed over from the art world to the political arena to characterize those with beliefs well outside the mainstream.
  • Bloviate – Warren G. Harding: Warren Harding also had a way with words. He popularized the terms, “Founding Fathers” and “Normalcy.” But, if you thought that the term, “Bloviator,” came from the TV shows, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” you would be wrong. To bloviate is to speak pompously and long-windedly—something Harding readily acknowledged that he did frequently. The president once described bloviation as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing.” His usage was sourced from the more common word, “blowhard.”
  • Iffy – Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR began using the word “iffy” early in his presidency, and by virtually all accounts, he was the first known person to have used it. That’s according to Paul Dickson, the author of the book, Words from the White House, which tracked the influence that U.S. presidents have wielded on the English language. When dismissing hypothetical questions from the press, FDR would say, “That’s an iffy question.”
  • Fake news – Donald Trump: While fake news traditionally refers to disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news, Trump’s repeated use of the term has given way to a new definition: “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.” Trump’s reimagining of fake news became so widespread in his first year as president that the American Dialect Society declared it the Word of the Year in 2017.

Research contact: @HISTORY

Say what? 14 words you ought to know now

August 16, 2018

Is your vocabulary keeping up with the latest in 21st century lexicon—or are your language skills still stuck in the past? At a time when the world is changing more quickly than ever before, Cameron Laux of the BBC has identified 14 words that we all should know how to use in a conversation.

  • Hyperobject: This term was coined by the academic Timothy Morton, who is a professor of English at Houston’s Rice University. It refers to phenomena that are so large and so far beyond the human frame of reference that they are not susceptible to reason. He gives as an example global warming (which he also calls ‘the end of the world’), a phenomenon instigated by humanity, but in the context of which we may now be insignificant.
  • Catfishing: This word describes people who construct false identities online in order to lure contacts into continued messaging or correspondence—thereby building false relationships with them, often in order to fleece them out of their life savings.
  • Woke: As in “roused to political self-awareness,” with the hopeful connotation that one won’t be going back to sleep anytime soon. The term originated during the US black civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, although the lyrics of the 2008 Erykah Badu song, Master Teacher, have been identified as the most important recent source. The term made a second-wave comeback in 2013, when the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the rage inflamed by the shooting death of 17-year-old hoodie-wearing, unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. From there, the term has been making the short jump to describe other second- (e.g., LGBT) and third- (e.g., #Me Too) phase civil rights movements. The goal is to go beyond feeling tolerated to being fully accepted and welcomed.
  • The new weird: An emerging wave of speculative, “post-human” writing that blurs genre boundaries and conventions, pushes humanity from the center to the margins, and generally poses questions that may not be answerable in any terms we can understand (hence, the ‘weird’). The approach is bleeding into television narratives (see Westworld Fargo, and Legion).
  • Deletion: This word is likely to be bandied about frequently, as social media users absorb the fact that the websites they are on are not just neutral “platforms for social interaction”—but have become an addiction that hooks them and all of their personal data. The only solution is to delete personal accounts.
  • Autofiction: Writing that merges autobiography and fiction; and freely transgresses other genre boundaries, as well. The term was coined in the avant-garde literary world of France in the 1970s, but it has come to be applied to contemporary fiction dominated by the author’s unreliable subjectivity. (The approach also strongly influenced Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO TV series, Girls, and has given rise to a genre of introspective, navel-gazing television.)
  • Coping, hoping, doping, and shopping: Everyone is picking on poor old capitalism these days, but, perhaps chief among its critics is Wolfgang Streeck, a German sociologist who is the director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. Streeck believes that capitalism is going to experience crashes of increasing severity within the next 100 years, leaving us all to survive with mounting anxiety amidst its wreckage. As a consequence, our life options are gradually being reduced to a regime of coping (getting by, “gigging”), hoping (because we’re human and alive, and have no choice), doping (drugs, alcohol, gaming, social media), and shopping (relentless consumption).
  • Gaslighting: In Director George Cukor’s 1944 film, Gaslight, a man attempts to convince his wife that she’s insane in order to get her committed to an asylum and swindle her out of her money. “Fake news” could be described as a direct descendent of gaslighting—which has become a byword for psychological manipulation.
  • Shadow banking: This term comprises any financial transactions carried out by institutions that don’t have a formal banking license—in other words, payments companies (e.g., credit card companies, insurance companies, PayPal) that are not directly regulated or overseen by the government. We can also add to this the vast dark-financial realm of over-the-counter (OTC) transactions (including derivatives that are almost too complex for anyone, inside or outside the business, to understand) that are technically between two parties and therefore off government radar.
  • Digital design ethics: Referring to the growing “attention crisis”’—the fact that no one can take their eyes off their smartphones—this term describes the integrity (or lack thereof) of marketers focused on engrossing users in platforms on which the main aim is to exploit vulnerabilities in our willpower and manipulate us into buying things. The idea that human rights, should be extended to cyberspace is gaining traction.
  • Post-human: Our identities now extend into cyberspace in many ways—and we no longer merely rely on our brain cells to store memories and information; but now store much of our knowledge in technological clouds that function as extensions of our minds. We live with the corresponding hardware in such intimacy (in the form of portable devicesthat it sometimes feels as oif we are only a few steps away from being “cyborgs” in the true sense of the term.
  • Masculinity: Until very recently, this has seemed to be a straightforward word, with a clear definition—not feminine and not LGBTQ. These days it is increasingly a good thing (and a politically correct thing) to place yourself in either of these categories. However, both are eating away at the old territory occupied by masculinity, and what remains is something of a void, (e.g., “the crisis of masculinity”). The challenge ahead for men is to formulate what they are and want to be, rather than what they aren’t.
  • Generation Why?: This pun used to refer to Millennials, but now applies to anyone born in the digital age.
  • Ghosting: In the 2017 film A Ghost Story, a happy man dies suddenly in a car accident and becomes a ghost. He returns to his family home to linger spectrally under a generic bed sheet with eyeholes cut in it, a ghost of a ghost, and watch helplessly life goes on without him. Hovering in his sheet, he is the essence of loneliness. He is trapped in a supernatural realm, with no human interaction. Maybe the stark truth is that he has been “ghosted.” Nobodyis returning his text messages and he is trapped in digital limbo.

Research contact: @BBC