Monthly Archives: May 2013


Machine Translation Without the Translation

I have been ruminating this month on why natural language processing (NLP) still hasn’t arrived, and I have pointed to three developments elsewhere that seem to be discouraging its development. First, enhanced keyword search via Google’s influentiality-ranking of results. Second, the dramatic enhancement in applicability of speech recognition that dialog design facilitates. I now turn to a third, which has to do with the sheer power of number-crunching.

Machine translation is the unclimbed Evere…


Redefining the Dictionary

Last week at the University of Georgia, down in Athens, some 60 odd people came together for a meeting. They shared a Rare, but not Obsolete, interest: dictionaries.

“We are strange people,” said Ilan Kernerman, head of K Dictionaries, in Israel. “Most people do not like dictionaries.” Indeed, he wondered whether there will be dictionaries at all in the future. The answer seemed to be, Yes there will, but the dictionary of the future will require a new definition. It won’t be a book.

It was the …


The Battle[']s Joined

ApostropheLiving, as I do, near Bishops Corner, not far from Corbins Corner, in easy reach of a Walgreens and a Marshalls, not to mention Lyons Gulf service station, I wasn[’]t completely surprised to learn that the United States Board on Geographic Names has clamped down on the efforts of citizens in Thurman, N.Y., to name a nearby mountain Jimmy’s Peak. They[’]ve been removing (in what, misheard, might sound like a different form of mutilation) “the genitive apostrophe and the ‘s’” since 1890,…


Get Smart People

Political meme

Political meme

I’ve proven I’m not too good at touting the Word of the Year. A couple of years ago, I was all on about curate, and it didn’t even get a mention in the end-of-year tally.

Nevertheless, I am giving it another try. The word I have in mind is smart. Mind you, I don’t mean smart in the sense of smart phone or smart card or smart bomb: the “smart” in those formulations seems to signify merely that the device or object purports to mimic the reactions of a human with rather limited intel…


Playing the ‘The’ Card

In 2011, I wrote a Lingua Franca article called “Article Article,” about how the word the had mysteriously disappeared from such names and expressions as the prom, the CIA, the Potus, the Yukon, (Yale’s) the Old Campus, and (Amazon’s) the Kindle. I also mentioned a counter-trend,

that is, adding an unexpected definite article. This is often done for ironic effect, as in nicknames like The Donald or The Dude (in The Big Lebowski), the TV show The O.C., and Stephen Colbert’s frequent references …


Speech Recognition vs. Language Processing

I have stressed that we are still waiting for natural language processing (NLP). One thing that might lead you to believe otherwise is that some companies run systems that enable you to hold a conversation with a machine. But that doesn’t involve NLP, i.e. syntactic and semantic analysis of sentences. It involves automatic speech recognition (ASR), which is very different.

ASR systems deal with words and phrases rather as the song “Rawhide” recommends for cattle: “Don’t try to understand ’em; …


More Important(ly)

important_pictureAn author publishes a book containing a sentence beginning with “Even more strikingly, …” His mother points this out to him as “a glaring error,” feeling strongly that the sentence’s main clause should not be introduced with the adverb strikingly but rather with the adjective striking. The son disagrees. The question lands in my e-mail box for arbitration.

The mother is far from alone in her objection, but the objectors’ case is not a strong one.

As I wrote to the mother, it is fine to use eithe…


Prospecting for Antedates

jb_reform_fortyniners_1_eRemember 1849? Those were the great days of the California Gold Rush. Hundreds of thousands dropped everything to grab gold from the foothills near Sutter’s Fort. In that heady time, you didn’t need lots of equipment—perhaps just a pan to sift riverbed gravel for nuggets.

Well, it’s 1849 all over again. Not in gold mining, which now generally requires sophisticated technology, but in etymology, the study of word origins. Vast new fields of data have been opened and made accessible, so it’s e…


Dueling Titles

conradfrontHundreds of readers opened their New York chekhovfrontTimes Book Review recently to see a review of a novel that had already been reviewed in April . . . no, wait. That earlier book was Life After Life by the terrific British novelist Kate Atkinson. This book is Life After Life by the terrific American novelist Jill McCorkle. A galumphing typo by the compiler of the table of contents at NYTBR? Nope. There’s the review, glowing about McCorkle’s book much as the reviewer of Atkinson’s book had glowed a …


Hot Dog!

News flash in the etymological world: Two new antedatings of hot dog!

In the etymological world, prospecting for earlier instances of a word is like prospecting for gold in the geological world. You look in the online Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest known date of a word and then go data mining in the archives of old publications for something earlier.

One of the leading prospectors is Fred Shapiro of the Yale University Library. He announced his findings in the first instance earlier …