The World of Words – Cool News About Language

David Crystal book cover - Disappearing DictionaryThere’s lots of fascinating news about language this week, exploring the remarkable power of the spoken and written word. Here’s just some of it.

Software writes human-level press article

There’s been all sorts of talk about machines’ ability to write well enough to avoid detection. It’s been going on for years. But now there’s a major breakthrough.
The Asian tech firm Tencent’s automated reporter, software called Dreamwriter, has published its first news story on the Chinese social network QQ. And human reporters said they couldn’t tell it had been written by a tool. The article was 916 words long, took the software just a minute to write and reported on August’s Consumer Price Index. Scintillating stuff, indeed.

Keep your academic paper’s title short

If you’re tempted to write a long, complex title for your next academic research paper, hold your horses. Research by Royal Society Open Science proved that brief, witty titles make friends and influence people, gaining many more citations than arduously long ones.
This is no surprise to marketers who, unlike many academics, understand the power of clarity and brevity. Thanks to the excellent Trevor’s Bike Shed site for this gross example of an academic ego in full flow. Would you bother reading a paper with this title?

“A Comparative Study of Artificial Neural Networks Using Reinforcement Learning and
Multidimensional Bayesian Classification Using Parzen Density Estimation for Identification of
GC-EIMS Spectra of Partially Methylated Alditol Acetates on the World Wide Web.”

How come short paper titles win more readers? Simple. It’s because they hint that the information inside is relatively easy to understand. On the other hand outright funny or silly titles attract fewer citations than less obviously amusing, wittier titles.

Huh? The international word for bafflement

Baffle someone in the African Veldt and he’ll probably give you a long, beady look and reply “huh?”. Confuse a woman in deepest, darkest Peru, or France, or Indonesia and you get the self-same huh sound. You name it, when someone hasn’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about they’ll say, “Huh?”
It’s one of those words absolutely everyone on the planet understands. And apparently the sound of the word differs very little wherever you’re from on the planet, varying as little as the word ‘dog’ does when spoken in different British accents.

Dr David Crystal’s Disappearing Dictionary

Dr David Crystal is Britain’s best-loved English language expert. He’s written and edited more than 120 books and his latest, The Disappearing Dictionary, is packed with lost English words no longer in use. If, like me, you often think, “I wish there was a word for that”, you’ll love it.
Take flimp, a handy blend of flabby and limp. Or solemncholy, a great way to pin down exactly how you feel when you’re both solemn and melancholy.
Here are a few new ones I’ve come up with:

  • Fripping – when you shop for beautiful things you don’t need but desire (inspired by ‘frippery’)
  • Boored – the way you feel when cornered by a borderline-aggressive pub bore
  • Aloney – when you’re alone but not lonely, happy the way you are

And here are a few circumstances I wish there was a word for. Any ideas?

  • The emotional girding of loins reserved people like me have to engage in before attending a social occasion
  • The way you feel when revisiting a place that was once incredibly familiar and is now either exactly the same or totally different – both of which are equally disturbing!

The way we talk about our feelings influences the way we feel them

The nocebo effect can drive perfectly sane and reasonable people to die when diagnosed with cancer, even when the diagnosis is wrong and they’re perfectly healthy. The placebo effect makes people feel an awful lot better even when they’ve only taken harmless sugar pills. Others claim homeopathy does the trick even though it is 100% impossible according to the laws of physics. Now there’s more.
Scientists have discovered that the way we talk about our feelings affects the way we experience them. This means language is probably about much more than communicating emotion, it actually helps shape the way we feel. More interesting still, some cultures have words for feelings other cultures simply don’t seem to experience. Here are some of them:

  • The Japanese word amae describes the feeling you get when you temporarily surrender yourself, in perfect safety, to the arms of a loved one, to be soothed
  • The Inuit word iktsuarok describes the slightly edgy feeling you get while you’re waiting for visitors to arrive
  • The Thai phrase gren jai describes how you feel when you’re reluctant to accept help from someone because of the inconvenience it might cause them
  • Homefulness, an English word, means the way you feel when you arrive home after a journey, long or short. It’s a powerful blend of relief, satisfaction and belonging

New crayfish species named after Edward Snowden

A newly-discovered crayfish species has been christened Cherax Snowden by the researcher who noticed it actually differed from its close relative Cherax holthuisi. As he says: “The new species is named after the American freedom fighter Edward Joseph Snowden. He is honoured due to his extraordinary achievements in defence of justice and freedom.”
I should imagine Mr Snowden is chuffed, although he’d probably be much more chuffed if he was allowed to go home.

Beauty sector caught out in yet more obfuscation

The cosmetics industry is notorious for talking bollocks, using the most outrageous pseudo-science to sell their wares. One of the latest sinners is a brand that claims ‘micellar water’ has magical properties, being particularly good at removing make up and dirt with tiny, weeny balls of chemicals called micelles.
So far so good. But in reality, micellar water is merely water that contains a detergent. You use it to wash dishes, you use it to wash your clothes, now you can use detergent-based products to wash muck off your face. Remarkable… not. Especially at £50 a litre, the cheeky buggers.
I’ll be back soon with more gems from the wonderful world of words, digital marketing, comms, content and copywriting.

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