Mind your language

Posted on

‘It’s a rainy Sunday morning in downtown Jayanagar, but inside the three year old Bouyancee Centre, the mood is sunny.’

Those were my opening lines in the very first full-length story I wrote as part of this publishing house. “I love it,” said my editor. “It’s the kind of writing I see in The New York Times.”

And I was on a roll: learning and unlearning much about words and phrases that made sense and that didn’t. For example, a sub-editor (a woman) would add ‘painful’ to my word ‘shyness’ in a sentence and the editor (a man) would object to the use of ‘painful’ because that would make my writing ‘feminine’.

A month ago, a new computer programme detected the sex of an author by looking at subtle differences in the words men and women prefer to use. For example, female writers tend to choose grammatical terms that apply to personal relationships, such as ‘for’ and ‘with’ more frequently than men do. The survey concluded that women have a more interactive style and are trying to create a relationship between the writer and the reader all the time. Men, however, use numbers more, adjectives and determiners – words such as ‘the’, ‘this’ and that’, because they care more than women do about conveying specific information. According to the research, the intent of male writers was often to say, ‘Here’s something I want to tell you about… and here are some things about it.’ Women, however, write the pronoun ‘she’ more often than men do, though both sexes use ‘he’ about equally.

The program was successful in 80 per cent of the works it analysed. One it missed was AS Byatt’s best-selling novel, ‘Possession’. The computer said it was written by a man when Byatt is a woman. Contrastingly, Michael Frayn’s science fiction tale, ‘A Landing on the Sun’ was misidentified as the work of a woman.

Not that human analysis hasn’t come in handy. Donald Foster, a professor of literature at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, unmasked political columnist Joe Klein as the anonymous author of the popular Clinton-era novel ‘Primary Colors.’ Without using a computer, Foster laboriously compared the style of the book with Klein’s other writings.

Essentially, there are 128 significant contrasts. According to another survey, the words favoured most heavily by men were what grammarians call determinative words such as ‘the,’ ‘a,’ ‘as,’ ‘that’ and ‘one.’ Female writers favoured ‘she’ and relationship words such as ‘for,’ ‘with,’ ‘in,’ ‘and’ and ‘not.’

Welcome to the world of wordsmiths.

Subscribe to wordsmith.org and you will realise it’s quite a romp through some of the most unusual and intriguing words in English. Subscribers get a word a day with its full meaning once every day for free, and there are about 500,000 of them at last count.

What’s even more interesting is how people from different corners of the globe contribute to the words in question. The other day, the word in enquiry was ‘Zombie’.

Zombie refers to a Trojan or worm application on a host machine that sits quietly while connected to the Internet (usually through an IRC server), said Jason Norwood-Young, adding that when the zombie master sends a command to the IRC server, all the Trojans (or zombies) perform a certain action, like pinging a target server. This results in a denial of service attack.

In the world of venture capital, wrote another reader Markham Robinson, a zombie is an investment that breaks even, but makes no profit, and hence has little prospect of yielding a return on investment.

‘Silver bullet’ was the next word up for analysis.

“Reminds me of The Lone Ranger, the longest running children’s show on radio (1933-1954) and then on television during the fifties and sixties,” wrote reader David Morgenstern. “At the end of each episode, having saved the day, The Lone Ranger rode off into the sunset without pausing for thanks but always leaving a silver bullet behind as a keepsake of his visit.”

Mark MC had a new spin on the subject: “Silver is a noble metal (meaning able to be refined to a high purity); this purity was presumed to ‘cure’ a supernatural condition, such as transmogrifying lupinism (silver crosses for vampires; silver bracelets to prevent bewitching). Iron at the head & foot of one’s bed was supposed to prevent possession by any of the spectres. Either refined iron or heartwood white oak are recommended to defeat vampires. Brass is supposed to deflect the spells that cause zombiism.”

Chris Smith refused to bite the silver bullet: “In the biomedical research world, it means the perfect drug: one that targets a specific disease, kills it 100 per cent of the time, and has zero per cent side effects.”

Elizabeth Ohlson capped it all by saying, “Silver Bullet is also the name for an extra dry, straight up martini.”

Stories involving the origin of ‘eighty-six’ from readers across the globe went this way. Wrote Marc Olmsted: “I was told by a bartender friend that the derivation of ‘eight-six’d’ comes from the Old West. Alcohol was once allowed to be 100 proof in strength, and when a regular was known to get disorderly, he was served with spirits of a slightly lower 86 proof. Hence he was 86-ed.”

David G Imber looked at it differently. “There’s a bar/restaurant in New York called Chumley’s at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village,” he wrote. “The place is known for having no identifying markings on the door, and at least four or five hidden passageways that led to exits, some into adjacent apartment buildings. To ‘86-it’ meant to simply vanish from a ‘dining’ establishment. It’s not hard to imagine how that evolved to mean ‘take a special off the menu’, or any of the other interpretations it’s given today.”

Doris Ivie had the last word: “I read several years ago that ‘86’ refers to the standard depth of a grave in the U.S.: 7 feet, 2 inches; thus to ‘eighty-six’ something is to ‘bury it’.”

But the most new-age discovery is the meaning of ‘404-ed’. To those who are familiar with the working of the Internet, this should be easy. Well, 404 indicates someone or something missing, alluding to the error code that Web servers spit out when a page is not found.

With our creative capacity to extend meanings of words, we use them in completely unrelated contexts. But that’s one of the ways language grows. Now it remains to be seen whether 404 will make it to the dictionary. Not to forget the latest numerical term to become a word – 9/11. Twenty years down the line (after the term has softened and lost some of its current sharp emotional impact) it will become generic to indicate a mishap or disaster. For example: That chemistry final was a 9/11 for me.

(Published in Explocity, 2003)