[Milton-L] Culturomics? Genome?

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at yale.edu
Sat Dec 18 12:18:34 EST 2010

William Safire died in Sept. 2009.  His eulogizing four lexicographers who died during this past year is quite a feat.

Fred Shapiro

From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Sara van den Berg [vandens at slu.edu]
Sent: Friday, December 17, 2010 11:21 AM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Culturomics? Genome?

Our colleagues who are professional lexicographers (at G.C. Merriam and other companies, as well as the professional scholarly society of lexicographers-) spend a great deal of time gathering new words and new usages that enter written English.  The late Fred Mish, who was the editor at G.C. Merriam, subscribed to the "descriptive" concept of such work.  That means he and his group wanted to include whatever is actually used, regardless of "rules" of grammar, etc.  I read elsewhere about the Harvard researchers, and there was no mention of the ongoing work by lexicographers other than the dismissive comment that "most of these words do not appear in dictionaries."  The Harvard researchers do not make clear the basis of their "estimate."  In a recent issue of the New York Times, William Safire eulogized four major lexicographers (including Fred Mish) who died during this past year.

I agree with Tom that the uncritical reliance on "Google data" is very problematic.

Sara van den Berg

On Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 9:53 AM, Thomas H. Luxon <Thomas.H.Luxon at dartmouth.edu<mailto:Thomas.H.Luxon at dartmouth.edu>> wrote:
Fellow scholars,

I read this in today's Guardian about two "culturomics" researchers at Harvard who are using Google data and $ to study the English language "genome":

"In their initial analysis of the database, the team found that around 8,500 new words enter the English language every year and the lexicon grew by 70% between 1950 and 2000. But most of these words do not appear in dictionaries. "We estimated that 52% of the English lexicon – the majority of words used in English books – consist of lexical 'dark matter' undocumented in standard references," they wrote in the journal Science (the full paper is available with free online registration)."

Let's talk a bit about terms like "culturomics" and "genome" and the apparent need to sound like a scientist (a wacky scientist at that) in order to be taken seriously by the media and govt grant dispensers these days.

But first, let me try to cast some doubt on the notion that 52 % of the English lexicon (as represented by 4 % of the books ever published in English) the majority of words used in English books do not appear in any dictionaries or other reference books.  This claim falls so far outside my experience as a reader and dictionary user that I want say. Are you kidding?  Maybe their computer algorithm is good at searching a word database and very very poor at using a dictionary. I suspect that their search algorithm (Harvard's, not Google's) fails to allow for any sort of conjugation and inflection, so, for example, the word, "indirectly" comes up as "dark matter."  Is this the future of high-funded digital humanities?  What can we do about this?

Tom Luxon
Cheheyl professor and Director
Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning
Professor of English
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