Archives for category: Writing

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hapax legomenon as “a word or word form which is recorded only once in a text, in the work of a particular author, or in a body of literature.” It comes from the work of Biblical scholars, perhaps unsurprisingly: obviously the smaller the corpus of a particular language, the more likely a hapax legomenon is to appear. The significance of a hapax legomenon is probably greater at the level of the individual author’s output, be it book or total corpus (though I find it hard to grant it much significance at any level). At the level of the whole language, while it might seem initially more exciting, it ends up being much ado about nothing: but of course that’s the level that commentators prefer to focus on, because superficially it looks like it ought to be meaningful.

Atlas Obscura has a piece looking mainly at classical literature, primarily Petronius’ Satyricon, hiding place apparently for several hapax legomena.

I guess scholars love to count stuff. We even have terms for two, three and four-time occurring words, dis legomenon, tris legomenon, and tetrakis legomenon. Who knew? It would of course be neat if tetrakis legomenon only occurred four times in English, but I think the internet has killed any chance of that.

The existence of hapax legomena is apparently mandated by Zipf’s law.* To me, cynically, they would also seem to be mandated by human fallibility — many a unique usage resulting no doubt from copying errors, typos, and inadvertent misspellings. Certainly we didn’t wait to start making transcription errors till after the development of print.

To suggest that James Joyce liked to sprinkle his work with hapax legomena seems rather trivial to me: and highly unlikely. Avant la lettre you can’t ever be sure a hapax legonenon will remain a hapax legomenon. If the nature of your enterprise is to twist orthography and phonology into new and suggestive vocabulary, à la Finnegans Wake, it would seem that originating hapax legomena would be the last thing on your mind. Make up your own words and it’ll not be amazing that nobody else ever uses them again: the amazing bit would be when people actually do pick up one of your neologisms.

Does Dr Johnson’s foupe count as a hapax legomenon (or actually a dis legomenon I suppose), or is it just an error? The OED does in fact contain the word, defining it as “Error for soupe (see swoop 2b) through misprint of f for ſ. Swoop in sense 2b, though now obsolete, means to utter forcibly. Although curlers (is that what people who engage in the sport of curling are called?) may utter it forcibly, when they shout “Soop, soop” they are in fact encouraging their colleagues to sweep the ice; soop being Scottish for to sweep.


* To go to the other extreme Yule-Simon distribution is apparently in part a realization of Zipf’s law. It looks like this:

{\displaystyle f(k;\rho )\approx {\frac {\rho \Gamma (\rho +1)}{k^{\rho +1}}}\propto {\frac {1}{k^{\rho +1}}}.}

Solving this will apparently display to you k, the probability that any two words selected at random in any body of text will be identical. Such matters are the domain of stylostatistics.

Wikipedia will tell you more, if more you need.


Herman Melville (1819-91) wrote Moby-Dick here at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA. He purchased the 160 acre farm and house in 1850 with money borrowed from his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston. He and his family lived there for the next 13 years and there he also wrote Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Israel Potter, and stories later collected as The Piazza Tales. The window of his work-room, which is upstairs, is concealed in this picture by the tree. The old bearded guy is just that, a guy — in the British sense of a stuffed effigy (named after Guy Fawkes); though this one’s not destined for burning on the 5th of November I suspect. He’s sitting on the piazza (veranda or porch to non-New-Englanders) from which Melville took the name of the story collection. The great thing about the work-room (and the piazza) is their unobstructed view of Mount Greylock.

In the first story of The Piazza Tales, Melville recounts how his neighbors mocked the craziness of building a piazza on the northern side of the house, but of course this view is what he was after. As he describes it, it “is my box-royal; and this amphitheatre, my theatre of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical — the illusion so complete. And Madam Meadow Lark, my prima donna, plays her grand engagement here . . .”

You can just make out Mount Greylock behind that same birch tree in the photo below. Melville would lock himself in the study and write furiously, with his table right against the window so he always had Greylock before him. The fanciful have suggested the mountain put him in mind of the great white whale; in “The Piazza” he refers to it as Charlemagne though. Pierre is dedicated to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty”.

It is supposed that Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville met in 1850 on a group climb up Monument Mountain, had an influence in encouraging Melville to widen the scope of Moby-Dick* from a straight-forward narrative to the sort of encyclopedic meditation on life and whaling that now qualifies it as the great American novel. The book is dedicated to Hawthorne. While engaged on Moby-Dick Melville wrote about his writing routine: “I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.” He was at this time a contented and moderately successful writer, rejoicing in a rather traditional life. He always wrote with a quill pen and was still using one when Mark Twain was already using a typewriter.

That his efforts may often have seemed in vain is evidenced by this Literary Hub post about the early reviews of Moby Dick.  These were by and large not calculated to encourage. “Who is this madman?” asked the New York Christian Intelligencer, though the Philadelphia Saturday Courier did allow that “No one can tire of this volume”. Melville himself wrote that a “book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism”.

When Melville, unable any longer to afford the life of a gentleman farmer-writer, left Arrowhead and returned to New York City and a job, his brother took the place over from him. Herman would often visit Arrowhead, his last trip north being in 1885. The house stayed in the Melville family till 1927, and was acquired by the Berkshire Historical Society in 1975.


* Paradoxically Moby Dick only seems to get his hyphen in the book’s title. His original appears to have been Mocha Dick “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength, . . . white as wool” reported in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839.

“I call ‘commercial’ every work, not only in literature but in music and painting and sculpture — any art — which is done for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection. Of course, in commercial writing, there are different grades. You may have things which are very cheap and some very good. The books of the month, for example, are commercial writing; but some of them are almost perfectly done, almost works of art. Not completely, but almost. And the same with certain magazine pieces; some of them are wonderful. But very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers.”

Thus Georges Simenon in interview with Carvel Collins in The Paris Review, Summer 1955.

Is this reasonable? I’m almost tempted to put my hesitations down to a problem in translation — not that I’ve any idea what the original was. Surely almost all writers write with some kind of audience in mind, which might be described as “such-and-such a public”. Good writing almost always takes the form of an argument between the writer and the ideal reader. The real point Simenon is making is perhaps to be found in the last sentence: “a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers”. Certain groups of readers can love a work of art, but a work of art cannot be created in order to make them love it.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Maybe Dr Johnson didn’t actually say this: after all we only have Boswell’s word for it. It always struck me as a silly thing to say: it’s obviously not true, unless we count love-struck poets as blockheads, which maybe he did. Of course not everything one says over a pint of bitter has to make total sense, even if you are Dr J. — thank goodness we don’t all have acolytes following us around recording our every pronouncement. (Naturally I consider most of his jibes at the Scots as falling into the same category; probably directed at getting a rise out of poor Boswell.)

But getting a reasonable return on your labor is obviously a rational aim, while writing in order to make money might be considered a potential drag on quality. It’s the old Edwin/Jasper debate. Just because Dickens made a bundle off his writings, are they disqualified from being works of art? Because George Eliot made £7,000 for Romola, does this mean that the book is trash? Simenon, who clearly knew a bit of commercial fiction when he saw it, “wanting to rescind an agreement that had proved disadvantageous to him . . . achieved his aim by putting to good use his intuitive knowledge of the human heart. The novelist assessed how much it would be worth for him to redeem his original contract; then filled a briefcase with banknotes and won his negotiation simply by emptying the briefcase over the publisher’s desk.” (From Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, NYRB, 2013.)

However dismissive we may like to be about trade publishing, it has to be admitted that the occasional trade book will aspire to and achieve the status of “art”. I suppose one could posit a work of literature, written with extreme art, whose aim was to show us our true nature by being written to appeal (and sell to) the highest possible number of people. But until that genius of public mood comes along, we will, I guess, have to go with the working assumption that a novel written in order to get onto the bestseller list cannot achieve the status of “literature”, while literature can occasionally, almost by accident, sell in huge numbers.




The Digital Reader brought us an account last year of The Oxford English Dictionary‘s adding some Singapore-ian and Hong Kong-ese words to the dictionary. The dictionary editors are really burnishing their inclusivity chops: an emoji recently became word of the year.

Of course adding loan-words to English is nothing new. A loan-word is probably just a word which we borrowed recently enough to be able to remember the connection. Few of us think of beef and pork as loan-words. If you lived in Scotland you wouldn’t think a gigot was a loan-word — it’s what you’d call a leg of lamb. Scotland probably has more French loan-words than English: the auld alliance! Did English borrow the word book from German? Did we even borrow borrow from them? Not to mention loan, and word too? And let’s not even think about Latin. Any language, but perhaps especially a world language like English will contain thousands of words lifted from other tongues. Food is a ripe source of loan-word formation, as exotics get imported and have to be called something. Eggplant is called aubergine in Britain (and of course France). Brits also talk about a courgette, while we Americans go slightly further south and call it zucchini (though Italians would refer to one of them as zucchino). A recent arrival is quinoa — the best feature of which seems to be that it’s pronounced keen-wah. The earliest reference to quinoa in the OED dates from 1598 though. If a purist wanted to be rid of all loan-words, he’d have to sit there in silence.

And now here comes news (via A.V. Club and The Passive Voice) of a new etymology tool, Time Traveller, from Merriam-Webster. You can now check the adoption dates of all those loan-words. Just enter a date, or in earlier times a century, and find the words introduced then.

The OxfordWords blog asks for your help in providing earlier sources than they have on hand for a couple of Singaporean words. If you find any print usage of a word earlier than the oldest reference in the OED they will always be happy to hear from you.

This link takes you to an OED Editor’s answers to some recent questions. They do welcome suggestions and queries.  is their Twitter hashtag.

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

Writing about the marginal surrealist Leonora Carrington in The New York Times Book Review of 4 June, Parul Sehgal introduces us (me anyway) to the concept of exophonic writers: writers who wrote in languages other than their native tongue. Wikipedia has, inevitably, a list. Ms Sehgal alludes to the following:

  • Leonora Carrington: incomprehension brings liberation. “I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words  . . . This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.”
  • Vladimir Nabokov: was kind of forced into it. “My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom.”
  • Joseph Conrad: did it to gain a larger audience (?)*
  • Yuko Otomo: English is more democratic than Japanese. “I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun ‘you’.”
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: a sort of rebirth: She finds writing in Italian makes her “a tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way”. (Which seems to have involved the rediscovery of the comma!)
  • Emil Cioran: purging the past. “When I changed my language, I annihilated my past, I changed my entire life.”
  • Samuel Beckett: a desire for self-exposure. “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.”

Quite interesting. I often say that I have found myself able to say things in a foreign language which I’d never say in English. So I’d add a category of de-inhibitor to Ms Sehgal’s list.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s switch has attracted some comment. The Economist examines the move, while Tim Parks, in The New York Review of Books provides a devastating review of the result. Success in writing confronts the writer with the burden of expectations. People liked your first book; lots of them bought it; and they are now waiting for more of the same. Maybe switching to a different language provides a bit of cover?

Arthur Koestler is another who changed language in mid-career. The New York Review of Books has a piece by Michael Scammell. Darkness at Noon was originally published in English. It was translated as it was being written (from German to English) by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy. In the chaos of wartime they were scrambling to get the book done before the Germans authorities caught up with them. They did get rough translation off to England, and sent the original German manuscript to Swiss publisher Emil Opprecht. Everyone assumed that the original was lost, hence the need to publish from the English translation. When a German edition was published it had to be freshly translated by Koestler into German from the “original” reworked English version. As it turns out the manuscript sent to Opprecht did arrive, and has recently been unearthed. The publisher of the German edition “Ullstein noted that Koestler was using ‘a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions’ in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal.”

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement of 26 May 2017 raises yet more complications. “A Moscow-born assimilated Jew, I left the Soviet Union forty years ago for Israel where, for a year, I ran a student theatre in Jerusalem; the, while staying in Paris (my first novel [which was written in Russian] had just been translated into French), I was invited by the BBC World Service to cross the Channel and settle down in Britain. Ten years later I became a British citizen. Like many of my contemporaries I think, speak and write in two, if not three, languages. What unites these foreign personae is my foreign accent.” He points out that Conrad liked to visit Paris at least in part because there nobody detected his accent; they all thought he spoke perfect English. (But Conrad spoke excellent French, so I’m not sure why he’d need to be speaking in English.) My stepfather, also a Pole, never lost his heavy accent, and although not a writer, would I imagine have written in Polish where his vocabulary remained much larger. In the mill buttons were always referred to as guziki (goozh-eekee). Many’s the time I’ve run upstairs for him to “get that . . . you know what . . . that thingummy”; one would just bring objects downstairs until inspiration lit on the right one.

Zinik mentions Adalbert Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemiel, a classic of 19th century German literature, who was born of French émigré parents who were fleeing the revolution and was bi-lingual all his life. There have always been lots of people like that. Surely now the pace of population movement has accelerated to such a pitch that one can no longer rely on an inhabitant of say Edinburgh speaking English (in so far as one ever could; many would claim that lowland Scots is incomprehensible to a “real” English speaker. It is however an English dialect, whatever they say, unlike Gaelic.) So the expectation that a native citizen of any country should think, dream, speak, write in the language of that country becomes less and less tenable. And I refrain from a discussion here of Jewish identity; it just gets too complicated. Yiddish is in a similar position now to Scots Gaelic: very few speak it; many wish they did.

Green mwold on zummer bars do show
That they’ve a-dripp’d in winter wet;
The hoof-worn ring o’ groun’ below
The tree, do tell o’ storms or het;
The trees in rank along a ledge
Do show where woonce did bloom a hedge;
An’ where the vurrow-marks do stripe
The down, the wheat woonce rustled ripe.
Each mark ov things a-gone vrom view—
To eyezight’s woone, to soulzight two.
The grass ageän the mwoldrèn door
’S a tóken sad o’ vo’k a-gone,
An’ where the house, bwoth wall an’ vloor,
’S a-lost, the well mid linger on.
What tokens, then, could Meäry gi’e
That she’d a-liv’d, an’ liv’d vor me,
But things a-done vor thought an’ view?
Good things that nwone ageän can do,
An’ every work her love ha’ wrought
To eyezight’s woone, but two to thought.

Is this written in English? Of course it is, but William Barnes wrote in the dialect of his native Dorset. It’s his poem “Token”. How about Burns? A dialect speaker writing in the nation’s formal language shares much with the exophonic writer. Many a folk critic would want them just to pull up their socks and write proper English. Some of us seem to find it hard to believe that people can really communicate in ways which we don’t readily understand. The demand that everyone write like “we” do is a bit like shouting English words slowly at a Spaniard, and concluding that his failure to comprehend betokens idiocy. The funniest thing I’ve read recently is this from a review in the same issue of the TLS “When de Waal asked colleagues why primate face recognition tests used human faces as the target data, he was told it was thought to be an easier test for primates to pass, since human faces differ so much.” The review does not go on to mention all these chimpanzee ethologists who are scratching their heads despairing of their human subjects’ inability to distinguish between ape faces which of course “differ so much”. (De Waal himself writes in English though he was born in the Netherlands and only moved to the USA in his early thirties. You wouldn’t know he wasn’t writing in his native language. Of how many academics must this be true?)


* But his father was a translator of English into Polish, and Conrad did spend 16 years in the British merchant marine, became a British citizen in 1886 at the age of 28, and lived in England for the rest of his life. He claimed to enjoy the “plastic” freedoms the English language provided him. All of which might seem more explanatory, or at least relevant.


We’ve never really managed to get a grip on signaling irony or sarcasm in written communication. Notoriously conveying tone of voice in an email, text message, or before that in a business memo, is almost impossible. If your readers can misunderstand you it seems almost certain that they will. Apparently we have formalized this problem as Poe’s law.

Obviously we’d benefit from some punctuation mark that said “I’m making a joke here”, “This is ironic”. One might have hoped the universe of emojis might have thrown up a contender, but these two attempts seem to fall short.




Apple’s version, the wry cat, doesn’t seem to convey “irony”: more like “I just eat something that disagreed with me”. I don’t really know why the upside-down face should be ironic rather than upsetting. Still I guess if Apple were to offer the cat every time you typed “irony” enough texters might adopt it, so that everyone might begin to think that that’s what the cat means. Thus far it doesn’t though. Perhaps those fluent in emoji-speak will be able to provide a more viable example. I suspect what we really need is software that detects when we are trying to be ironic and offers us the appropriate sign. But of course if people can’t detect irony, why would software do any better?

So the search continues. Here, courtesy of Shady Characters are a few of our attempts to fill this gap in our communications repertoire.

⸮ — the reversed question mark, called the percontation point, from the the six­teenth cen­tury

¡ — the in­ver­ted ex­clam­a­tion mark from the seventeenth century. Apparently this mark is in current use in this sense in some Ethiopic languages

‽ — the interrobang from 1962 by Martin K. Speck­ter. Remington even made a typewriter with an interrobang key. The name is a combination of its constituent elements, the interrogation mark, and the bang, which is a printer’s term for the exclamation mark.

~ — the tilde, pro­posed in the early 2000s

* — the asterisk, denoting sarcasm, a more re­cent entrant

   — reverse italic, invented by H. L. Mencken and pushed by Bernard Levin and Tom Driberg. Apparently Brooke Crutchley, former Printer to the University of Cambridge, once misattributed the original idea to Driberg in a letter to The Independent.


And then there is my per­sonal fa­vour­ite, the ironi­eteken as de­signed by Bas Jac­obs


Another recent applicant for the job, designed for indicating mild irony, is the jè (pronounced yeah) as here illustrated on a subtle T-shirt. Don’t know if the shirt can catch on though: The Beatles certainly weren’t dealing in irony. “And you know that can’t be bad” jumps into reverse with all that irony larded on. 

In an earlier post Mr Houston brings us this page from Hervé Bazin’s Plumons l’oiseau, di­ver­tisse­ment © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967.

Lots of ideas, no progress. I guess it’s hard to get agreement on this sort of thing. Nobody thinks you’re serious.

Maybe the opening today of a Dallas bookstore called Interabang Books, will boost public acceptance of the need for an irony marker in our lives. Clearly we’re going to have to sort out the spelling once we adopt the concept.

Photo from Shelf Awareness

There can’t be many left working in the business who remember the typing pool. In the nineteen sixties Bentley House’s typing pool was next door to Keith Corrin’s filing room (yes, we didn’t have to do our own filing either). It was staffed by about half a dozen ladies led by Margaret Yayawi, and they’d raise a deafening clatter as they typed away at the majority of the letters and memos which the business generated. They’d rattle off three copies of everything, letterhead, carbon paper*, onion skin paper, carbon paper, onion skin. Later, when I started writing most of my letters by hand, I suggested jokily that I deserved a pay raise for economizing on typing resources — if the typing pool had still existed perhaps I should have been reprimanded by my union shop steward (that would be me) for putting comrades’ jobs at risk. In the work environment it was the typing pool that was first revolutionized by word processing. They still got to type everyone’s letters; they just typed them more efficiently. It wasn’t till the personal computer came along and we all became typists that the pool was terminally drained.

Word processing represented a revolution in authorship. New Republic brings us a review of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016). We are told in the article that by 1984 40% to 50% of American authors were writing their books on word processors. The first book to have been delivered on disk is said to have been Len Deighton’s Bomber in 1970. The word processor certainly made editing easier: the New Republic article tells how Isaac Asimov was transformed from a notoriously messy and inaccurate typist into a neat-freak model of accuracy after he moved onto a word processor. The Atlantic also has an interview with Professor Kirschenbaum.

Nietzsche observed “Our writing instruments are also working on our thoughts”. As The Digital Reader informs us he wrote those words on the Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, illustrated here.  One might imagine having rather frightening thoughts about what such a monster might do to you. The guest post by Mr Kirschenbaum originates at The Conversation and is entitled Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style. The author appears to prove not so much that new technologies affect style, as that we find it difficult to figure out exactly how to define and analyze the effect.

Ian Bogost, also at The Atlantic, says in his review of Freewrite, a  sort of attempt to escape the Internet incubus and get back to the original stand-alone word processor experience, “Writing today feels terrible not because writing has changed (surely writing always felt terrible), but because today one can never write alone. The writer always feels watched by the voyeur army of real and imagined critics that later will post or tweet inflammatory comments after publication.” Really? Choose your phobia, I guess.

But not every writer rages against the machine. Kenneth Goldsmith, perhaps self-described “Professor of Uncreative Writing” at the University of Pennsylvania, describes himself as a word processor in his piece I look to theory only when I realize that somebody has dedicated their entire life to a  question I have only fleetingly considered, and of course processing words in indeed what writers do.

The big advance pre-word-processor, was the typewriter. Here from Mental Floss is a serious discussion of the model of typewriter used by 20 authors. (Link via The Digital Reader.) I can also recommend the blog Wrong Way, Write Way for typewriter aficionados. One of this ilk, Tom Hanks, has a book of stories coming this fall, each of which apparently has something or other to do with the typewriter.

No doubt the typewriter changed the relationship of the writer to his text, and naturally the word processor did too. I always used to maintain that the invention of the word processor increased the length of manuscripts by 25% as authors no longer needed to retype if they added material early (or late). Just add it in, and watch the job reflow. I suspect that some of the change must indeed be stylistic. Writing by hand has had time to evolve into a process running at the speed of thought: you have time not only to think the thought but to consider how best to express it. Does changing to any machine upset that relationship? You are probably still thinking at the same pace, but the reflection time has been curtailed. Would Proust’s style have been different if he’d had a laptop? I guess style analysis could be conducted on Len Deighton or Isaac Asimov pre- and post word processor. I rather think something would show up. After all if stylistic analysis can be claimed to tell that Marlowe wrote many bits of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, this should be a breeze.

And what comes next? The Textio Word Nerd tells us it’s going to be augmented writing. He assures us “The core tech now exists to be able to quantitatively predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a document or email you’re writing will get the outcome you want.” If you don’t write it right, they’ll redirect you onto the right path. The Textio system is demonstrated in a video linked to at the foot of The Nerd’s essay. Well, go for it if you like, but this future’s not for me. I even hate the jaunty non-copyrightable music that plays along with what’s basically a commercial for their product, which seems to be directed at people who don’t know what they want to say. No doubt there are plenty of those, and I dare say the product deserves to be successful. But augmented writing? I expected a little more from that title.


* What the abandonment of carbon paper means for our culture was brought home recently by the discovery of two new poems by Sylvia Plath. These were found, in negative image, on carbon paper folded into the back of a notebook. As people would reuse carbon paper several times, deciphering the poems took some skill; apparently the contents list for Ted Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain had also been typed with this sheet, along with a couple of other Plath poems and a possible fifth one. Here’s the Guardian account.

We are all aware, aren’t we, that the mind is capable of making sense of a partial view of a line of type? Apparently it’s the bottom half we can do without.

I had never considered the question of whether this trick works in scripts other than our Roman/Italic versions. Israeli designer Liron Levi Turkenich did, and found that with Hebrew letters this works when we can see the bottom half of a word, while in Arabic the opposite is true. So she’s worked up a combo which one might hope would be readable by readers of either script. WNYC’s Shumita Basu had a story about this on 31 May. There’s a subtitled video at that link too.

I wonder about other scripts. What about Cyrillic? To be certain I’d need to be a more fluent reader than my couple of years in night school fifty years ago have left me, but I doubt it. Greek? Probably not. Certainly not Hangul. With Chinese, would a comparable test involve covering up the left half or the right half, rather than top or bottom? Either way I can’t imagine it would work.

Maybe this is a way forward for translations though? Ms Turkenich does suggest using the 638 new characters of her “Aravrit” combo typeface on road signs and government buildings.

Apparently this isn’t the only trick our minds can pull on us:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

From the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.

A pendant to my post on black letter.

The key to this 1901 map, in case you can’t make it out in the German, is:

  • Blue: German alphabet (Fraktur)
  • Pink: Latin alphabet (Antiqua)
  • Pink with blue spots: Limited use of Fraktur alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Pink with yellow spots: Irish script alongside dominant Antiqua
  • Green: Cyrillic alphabet
  • Brown: Greek alphabet
  • Yellow: Arabic alphabet
  • White/grey: Kalmyk-Mongolian script

I’m not sure just where, if at all, that last one is to be found, but you’d expect it in the east and in the north Caucasus; but Turkey and North Africa are white too.

You can click on the map to enlarge it. It comes from Wikimedia Commons, via Backchannel, via The Digital Reader.