Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spying on Words Where They Work and Play

Erin McKean wrote “Corpus,” which appeared in the NYT Magazine on Sunday, July 29, 2007. An editor for the New Oxford American Dictionary and blogger at, she cares about words passionately.

The Corpus she describes is a context collection for words, an FBI précis of what that word has actually been doing. This collection is officially named The Oxford English Corpus (go to for information about access; go to SketchEngine and take a one month free trial to play around with sorting your own words). She tells us selected insights from this spying on words where they work. “Fake,” for example, is illustrated by the dictionary as “fake painting.” What it really does most of the time is detect the “fake smile” or the “fake tan.” It is actually working in the description of your appearance, your identity, not in the description of mere things. Fake paintings don’t even occur in the top 50 uses of fake.

Her article is full of amazing snippets from the Corpus. One of my favorites is about the verb “migrate.” Turns out, it’s directionality is almost exclusively paired with “south,” not with “north.” You’d think no bird, no insect, no skier ever seeks the north, but of course they do. They just don’t do it with “migrate.” Try saying it yourself, “migrate north” sounds funny. What verb would you use for a crane that had spent the winter on the Texas coast and wanted to go to Canada for the summer as usual? Not “migrate” north, probably not “go,” but maybe “return?” But that implies he/she LIVES in Canada and just migrates south to Texas for vacation. What does that say about our innate assumptions about where to live?

You can go to the web site, enter ‘corpus’ and search, and then sign up for a month’s free trial of the Sketch Engine software that you need to run searches in the Corpus. They email you a password and the web address to use. Once you are on the web site, select a corpus (for example, select British National Corpus) and try the options that come up. My favorite is “Word Sketch.” I also like the “sketch-diff” selection that allows you to enter two words and see how their contexts differ, such as “embrace” and “kiss.” I started expecting similar lists, but they are quite different. Guess which one is used with ‘concept” and which with “goodbye?”

Here are some fun things to look up on Corpus:

If you like to play with words, give this a try! Let me know if you find something interesting.

1 comment:

katwilkens said...

Erin McKean is also editor of Verbatim, a newsletter/magazine about language. This concept sounds quite interesting. I like trying to think of words that have a very limited context, like "shrift." It's nearly always in the phrase "short shrift." Never long shrift or medium-length shrift.