I’ve posted about Jesse Sheidlower, Ben Zimmer, and Erin McKean before (and have links to projects by all three in the sidebar), but I didn’t realize they were all graduates of the University of Chicago, which has a nice online piece by Debra Kamin about them:

Getting people excited about the inner lives of words is the distinctive mission for a trio of University alumni who have become ambassadors of lexicography. Harnessing their Chicago educations in linguistics and English, the three “wordinistas” are putting a public face on modern language studies.[…] All of them are helping to shape perceptions about the importance of language, each with a slightly different bent.

I liked this quote from McKean: “I perverted all of the classes I took at the U. of C. to be about dictionaries in some way. I took feminist theory with Lauren Berlant, and I wrote my paper about the acceptance of ‘Ms.'” (Hat tip to Dave Wilton.)


  1. Helena Hope says

    Returning briefly to accents melted by stove proximity: I just remembered the presenter of an FM “Classical Music” station in Austin in the ’60s. You know those strings of plum-sized plastic spheres for ladies that are sold in sex shops ? I’ve always imagined that each one creates a sort of plop! noise when it is pulled out briskly. The way he said “Beeth(plop!) – oh – fffen(plop!)” was positively cringe-making.
    [N.b.: This is a spam comment retained for amusement value—LH.]

  2. Beethoven wrote plop music.

  3. No, I don’t mean that people listen to it in the loo.

  4. People probably listen to Mozart in the loo. Eine Kleine Plopmusik.
    Though one mustn’t overlook Beethoven’s Fur Loo Ease.

  5. Hat, the “Helena Hope” comment above is an imposture, a copy of my comment on another thread. But maybe you should leave it here, given the superior quality of dearie’s takes on it.
    Since I am so fond of high-class cornpone, I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable word for it. “Champone” is too recherché. Maybe “quailpone” ? That has nice associations with German quälen [torment, torture] and Greek pónos [hardship, exertion].

  6. I suppose there’s no particular reason to expect a lexicographer to express himself more clearly than most people do. I am encouraged in this supposition by the following sentence of Sheidlower’s, quoted by Kamin:

    “Everyone always believes, not only with language but with culture in general, that whatever time you’re talking about is the forefront of any change or advance”

    If everyone believes that any time he talks about is “the forefront”, then there would be no forefront – every time would be in front. I assume that Sheidlower means “everyone thinks his own times are in the forefront …”. But does everyone in fact believe that ? No – I don’t, for one. But the claim is implausible for other reasons.
    Perhaps some people who say they believe in “progress” would agree with Sheidlower, simply because the notion of progress seems to imply that the latest is necessarily the greatest. But of course “net progress” is a more reasonable thing to believe in, because there are always setbacks and deteriorations. In my experience most people speak as if they believed at least in “net progress”. This contradicts Sheidlower’s claim that everyone believes that the bestest and worstest things happen during their lifetimes.
    Sheidlower’s next sentence is:

    “But I think it’s pretty clear that … the changes that happened in the 19th century in the U.K. are vastly greater than what’s happening now.”

    Does anyone have an idea what changes he means ?

  7. Hat, the “Helena Hope” comment above is an imposture, a copy of my comment on another thread. But maybe you should leave it here, given the superior quality of dearie’s takes on it.
    I have removed the spam URL but left the comment; I agree about the quality of dearieme’s responses.
    As for Sheidlower, obviously one shouldn’t hold off-the-cuff spoken remarks to the standards of a polished essay. I don’t know what he means about “the changes that happened in the 19th century in the U.K.”

  8. off-the-cuff spoken remarks
    Practice makes perfecter. In olden times, speakers sometimes considered in advance what they wanted to say, and scribbled notes on their cuffs to help them remember it. That’s where the expression comes from – it implied a certain amount of thinking before improvisation. Nowadays it has deteriorated into meaning just “improvised” or “thoughtless”.

  9. the changes that happened in the 19th century in the U.K.
    I’m guessing: Railways. Compulsory primary education. Ten hour workdays. Greater life expectancy.
    Leading to an increasingly literate populace with fewer accents and more fixed ideas of registers.

  10. It should be obvious that these comments were from a much longer oral interview, edited down by someone else, and that the colloquialisms, lack of agreement, broad overgeneralizations, and unclear argument were the result of this.
    What I meant by “the changes that happened in the 19th century in the U.K.” was the shift whereby the U.K. went from being predominantly rural in 1800 to predominantly urban in 1900; I think that the societal upheaval caused by this shift was greater than what is currently being caused by, say, the Internet. I could be wrong, but that is what I meant.

  11. “Jesse Sheidlower” is a great name.

  12. “I’m guessing: Railways. Compulsory primary education. Ten hour workdays. Greater life expectancy.”
    Yes, I meant to include the variety of things that accompanied the urbanization too. When I make statements of this sort, in fact, I usually am being asked about it in a technological context, and I say specifically that the railway had a bigger influence in the 19th C. than the Internet does today.

  13. Delete my rubbish if you like; I was light-headed from being up into the early hours listening to the cricket from Adelaide. It was, you may say, satisfactory.

  14. Grumbly, I do not think that this quailpone of yours will fly: it is far too close to quail poon, which would suggest a different sort of product altogether. (This phrase has only one ghit at present, soon to be two ghits.) Apropos of that, I’ll just mention that the strings in question are as useful — or perhaps I should say half as useful — for gentlemen as for ladies.

  15. half as useful
    Dammit, I was hoping nobody would think of that. I really should have stuck with the original plum metaphor, instead of tangling myself in strings of ill repute.

  16. To this list can be added Steve Kleinedler and Orin Hargraves, two more Chicago folks who do a good job of being public faces of lexicography. Quite an impressive group, really.

  17. He put in his thumb / And pulled out a plum / And said “What a good boy am I!”

  18. Hat, can’t you make these bad boys stop? They’re ruining it for the rest of us.

  19. Jess: I say specifically that the railway had a bigger influence in the 19th C. than the Internet does today
    What you’d have to say to compare fairly is that the internet’s had less effect than the railway did between about 1830 and 1850, not the whole 19th century.

  20. I would think that it’s the telegraph that should be compared to the Internet. Suddenly the news from abroad in the newspaper was only a day old instead of several weeks old.
    There was a great deal of public celebration on the occasion of the completion of the first trans-Atlantic cable. There was enough interest to finance the laying of a second cable when the first one failed.
    Other important 19th inventions should include photography.

  21. What is the sense of trying to compare such disparate things as the internet and railways ? Or to compare all the new things which appeared in time period X to one or more things that appeared 150 years later ? I suppose the imaginary common unit for comparison is “novelty” – but is novelty any more suitable as a yardstick than the internet is suitable for transporting coals to Newcastle ?
    This exercise in explicit comparison seems to me to be an adult version of “my mudpie is better than your sand castle”. An equivalent exercise in implicit comparison is “X is the greatest writer of modern times”. The common element in both is invidious, mindless enthusiasm.
    One thing hasn’t changed: there is always a frowning bully around to spoil the sport.

  22. He put in his thumb / And pulled out a plum / And said “What a good boy am I!”
    The very first time I read that as a child, I wondered why Jack used his thumb instead of, say, thumb and index finger, or just the index finger – which is what I would have used to hook a plum in a Christmas pie. Even back then, I sensed that Jack must have been gormless and uncouth.
    Later, I learned that hands are used differently in different cultures. When using their fingers to count visually, most Germans start with the thumb, not the index finger as in America (where the thumb comes last). Does this mean I should revise my assessment of Jack’s manners and level of motoric development ?
    When I consider theoretically all the details that create atmosphere in a novel, it seems very unlikely that adequate translation should be possible. But this is an imaginary difficulty that occurs only to an observer who knows the original and target languages. Your average Jack just likes a book that he has read, or not – in blissful, unsurmountable ignorance of any “original” version that might be “better”.

  23. I am quite the American, but I count on my fingers starting with the thumb (making the ring finger the fourth finger, e.g.) It’s quite possible that this is the result of playing the piano as a child, and getting firmly in mind the international (but originally German) equation of thumb = 1. I learned “British fingering” as part of music theory, where the index = 1 and the thumb = X, but I never saw any actual scores that used it. And yet “Where is Thumbkin” begins with the thumb, not the index.
    I also start counting with the left hand and go on to the right.

  24. As a child I taught myself to count on my fingers in base 2. The right thumb stood for 32 and the left thumb for 64.

  25. Or rather, of course, 16 and 32 respectively. All five digits of the right hand extended was 31.

  26. Leaving 1,2,4 and 8 unaccounted for. Since eight fingers remain, I assume you used two fingers for each power of two ?! Of each pair, one finger must have signified 0, the other 1.
    A bit wasteful, but then you were a child. As an adult, you should now be able to count up to 2^10 – 1.

  27. Stu, I must have been very unclear. The method you describe is exactly what I was doing, with palms down. The right pinky extended was worth 1; the left pinky extended was worth 512.

  28. ØK, I see now. I was misled by your originally singling out 32 and 64 for special mention – instead of 512, as you just did. I thought that for some childlike, innocent reason you had set 64 as the highest power of 2 you wanted to deal with.

  29. Whereas 32 and 64 (corrected to 16 and 32) were merely getting a thumbs-up.

  30. My son and my wife both count on fingers by extending a thumb for 1, thumb and neighboring finger for 2, etc. Neither of them is from Texas.

  31. Clearly this thumb-is-one thing is not a genuwine Texan maneuver. Shoulda known, some kinda imported furrin thing from up East.

  32. marie-lucie says

    most Germans start with the thumb, not the index finger as in America (where the thumb comes last).
    I never heard that Americans counted in that strange way, and I have never seen anyone do it. I start with the thumb, starting from a fist, and I think that most Europeans do. On the other hand, Chinese people start from the extended hand and fold the thumb into the palm, followed by the index and other fingers, ending up with a fist. This is actually easier to do than the European way (it is hard to move the last two fingers up rather than down).

  33. marie-lucie says

    My son and my wife both count on fingers by extending a thumb for 1, thumb and neighboring finger for 2, etc.
    This is how I do it too.

  34. This is all rather strange. I had never seen that thumb-first counting method before I came to Germany, so I assumed that index-first was American. I hope it doesn’t turn out that I am the only person in the world who does it. Of course I don’t use my hands to count anyway, but still.
    I just checked with a few Germans here at work. All of them started thumb-first, and one even claimed that that was “the logical way to count”. Some started with the left hand, some with the right. There was no apparent correlation with their right- or lefthandedness.

  35. It turns out that my son and I have both independently invented a modified approach that allows one to count beyond five on one hand It could be said to combine the Chinese and European methods. With one hand, count from 1 to 5 by extending thumb, index, etc, then for 6 unextend the thumb, for 7 unextend the index finger, and so on. Similarly one can count to 20 on two hands.
    I have been known to keep track of the status of a baseball game while listening to it on the radio as follows: extend a finger of the right hand for each ball or strike — balls starting at thumb end and strikes starting at pinky end; indicate number of outs by angle of right elbow; indicate which bases are occupied by extending certain fingers of left hand.

  36. one even claimed that that was “the logical way to count”
    Did you ask him what is the logical way to pull a plum out of his … Christmas pie?

  37. How do you drink beer and eat popcorn when your hands are tied up with tracking the score ? More crucially, how do you take a pee without dropping a few balls?

  38. You could go much higher than twenty with your son’s & your system if you used your right hand to extend and lower the fingers (the units) while counting how many times you’d done it with the fingers of the left hand (the tens). If you go around twice, like with the right hand, and practise a little bit, you could use your toes on each foot for hundreds and thousands.

  39. marie-lucie says

    A teacher I knew had learned a very nice method which he used with primary school children. It involves hitting the fingers in turn on some surface (as in playing the piano): thumb, index, etc up to 5, then (keeping the little finger down) put down the fingers in the reverse order: ring finger first, etc down to the thumb at 9, then start 1 for 10 on the other hand and you can continue adding (single digits on the first hand, 10’s on the second hand).
    This method allows you to count up to 99, and also to do additions and substractions as long as the highest total does not exceed 99. It also fits in nicely with the placement of the 10’s when writing down the numbers. I think that it is like using the hands as an abacus (perhaps that’s where the abacus comes from?).

  40. marie-lucie says

    AJP, you are right that hundreds and thousands could be added by a person with nimble toes. Again, that seems to be the principle of the abacus.

  41. Nimble toes: on reflection, I’m not sure anyone has such nimble toes. Possibly some dancers do.

  42. Trond Engen says

    I would never count on a dancer.

  43. Trond Engen says

    I might dance on a counter, though.

  44. Thanks Languagehat!
    Marie-Lucie, that counting style is sometimes called chisanbop.

  45. As far as I know nobody does it, but it would be better to count to 1024 using Gray code rather than straight binary, since with Gray code you only have to move one finger at a time, as in the conventional count-to-10 method. No need to open one finger and close the other four fingers simultaneously when going from 15 to 16!
    Writing 0 for a closed finger and 1 for an open one, the count from 0 to 31 in Gray code is: 00000, 00001, 00011, 00010, 00110, 00111, 00101, 00100, 01100, 01101, 01111, 01110, 01010, 01011, 01001, 01000, 11000, 11001, 11011, 11010, 11110, 11111, 11101, 11100, 10100, 10101, 10111, 10110, 10010, 10011, 10001, 10000. The construction rule is to start with 0, then 1; then prepend 1 and go backwards, leading to 11, 10; then do the same again, leading to 110, 111, 101, 100; etc.
    Marie-Lucie: It’s my experience that playing the piano loosens the linkage between fingers 3-4 and fingers 4-5, making it easier to open, say, finger 4 by itself.

  46. Thanks, John. I wish I had invented that, or at least taught my fingers to do it when I was young.

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