Alex (yakshaver) wrote,

  • Mood:
  • Music:

utterly pointless language geeking

I generally try to resist the temptation to bring the full array of my mental armory to bear on a trivial target. The phrase killing a gnat with an elephant gun comes to mind.

Sometimes, if I'm a little tired or distracted, I can go off on a tear without noticing that I have, in a lovely British phrase, greatly exceeded my brief. That just happened — or rather, nearly did. I wrote the following in response to siderea's post An Anthropological Anatomy of Religion mdash; not in response to any of the substance of her argument, mind you, but in response to an entirely trivial mistake. The disproportionality of my response is comic. Which is why, rather than just flushing it when I realized I'd gone off the rails, I'm sharing it with you all here.

... there's a movement ... among atheists to go a step further and call themselves "naturalists", in opposition to "supernaturalists". (The problem with this is that "naturalist" also means "someone who likes to go around without clothing....")

Quoting the Cybernude Nudist/Naturist Terminology page (the fifth Google hit on naturalist nudist):

A naturalist is somebody who studies zoology or botany. Naturalism is often incorrectly confused with Naturism.

It is not all that widespread a confusion, I think. Consider:

Google searchhits
naturist nudist1,040,000
naturalist nudist1,110,000
naturist -nudist2,020,000
naturalist -nudist9,400,000
Before going further, I must point out the most obvious conclusion one can draw from this table: Google sucks at arithmetic. (How the fuck can the set of pages containing nudist AND naturist have more than 2x the members of the set of pages containing nudist?) At first blush this would appear to significantly weaken my argument. Nevertheless, these data make sense if we assume the are generally within an order of magnitude of being correct.

We see that naturalist is associated with nudist on roughly as many pages as naturist — but as naturalist occurs three times as frequently as naturist, it is only one third as likely to be associated with it. That is, approximately 35% of the people using naturist associate it with nudism, while only 12% of those using naturalist do so.

Further, of ten random* pages from the first 100 hits on naturalist nudist, two were using it as a synonym for nudist, three were explanations similar to the one quoted above, and five did not actually have the word in the body of the page (i.e., presumably it is in a meta tag, so people searching on the incorrect term will get the page in their results). For a similar random sample of hits on naturist nudist, nine had the word, used as a synonym for nudist, and one did not have the word in the page's body. So, roughly 20% of the people using naturalist on a page where nudist also occurs treat it as a synonym; 50% think they're not, but that there are people they want to their site who do think so; and 30% want to correct the error. 20% of 12% is 2.4%: at most one web site author in forty, when they use the word naturalist mean it as a synonym for nudist.

Even that number probably exaggerates the case significantly: several of the pages where it occurs are lists of nudist resources; on one of them, naturalist occurs once; naturist forty-two times. In short, there is very little evidence that many nudists actually call themselves naturalists. I suspect that to a first approximation, the people who use naturalist is a synonym for naturist are the same set of people who use flaunt as a synonym for flout.

* My randomization method: After loading the search, swirl my finger around on the trackpad while not looking, and then select the hit nearest the pointer, wait for it to load, and hit cmd-G to search on the page for the term. Then hit the 'back' button, hit the spacebar (i.e. page down), and swirl my finger for the next.

Hey, I told you it was pointless....

EDIT: And now the Oh. Duh. moment.

Yesterday's reminder of A Table Alphabeticall ... of hard usuall English wordes got me thinking about the kind of literary scholarship I was engaged in when I consulted a copy: word-frequency analysis. Which is essentially what I just did to poor naturalist.

The paper I was working on at the time was entitled "Shakespeare's use of 'truth' in King Lear". I essentially set out to argue that the first quarto text should be considered more authoritative than the folio text because the concept of truth was more consistently handled. My main motivation was a difference in the two texts' versions of Lear's great, mad speech, naked on the heath in a hurricane, railing against the gods (the "Is man no more than this?" speech). The folio version ends with what some scholars think is a transcription error: a stage direction tacked on to the end of the speech: it ends with Lear saying "Come, unbutton here". The quarto text ends it with "Come on, be true."

That was the last major paper I wrote before dropping out of college and, ultimately, abandoning literary scholarship as a career path. I actually ended up coming to the opposite conclusion of the thesis I had started out with, and essentially rewrote it from scratch with two weeks left in the term, arguing instead that while word-frequency analysis argument that the quarto was the superior text could be made, close reading of Shakespeare's use of truth in the two texts did not bear such a claim out — but did support the argument that the quarto's version of that one speech was superior. My adviser, a former Rhodes scholar, told me that the paper would be of publishable quality with a little more work, and suggested a couple of journals for me to submit a revised version to — not something an undergraduate English major expects to be told. He also told me that if I wanted to apply for the Rhodes scholarship, he would support my application. Which really put me for a loop. But that was a couple of months before my dad died suddenly and my life took what would turn out the be the first of many unexpected hairpin turns. And I haven't really thought about that kind of thinking since.

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded