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 prĂ©cis 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.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Have you seen the moon lately?

My friend Aleta recently posted a prompt where she cited this quotation: "The moon develops creativity as chemicals develop photographic images."--Norma Jean Harris. I started thinking about how rarely I see the moon any more. When dating, I used to see it because I was out at night. Even if I walk from car to house in the dark, I don't seem to notice the moon now. But the moon is beautiful, well worth noticing. I looked for moon images on the web and found a site at with some exciting and other somnolent images of the moon. Great food for writing thoughts, almost as good as smelling fresh strawberries (recommended by Gayle Brandeis in Fruitflesh).

Moonlight lends a mysterious quality to what would be mundane transactions during the day, and can make us want to know more, dig deeper into the motivations of our characters. Sensory input by smell, a very important writing tool, becomes easier to call up and incorporate when you're imagining a moonlit scene. Lots of flowers open or release extra perfume at night (not just night-blooming Cereus, with its ethereal beauty, but stock, jasmine, and many other flowers).

I was very taken with a great collection of pictures of the moon phases I found on Their names are worth refreshing in your mind: waxing crescent, waning you really know how a waning gibbous moon looks? And how it's different from a waxing gibbous? Very nice pictures, and good images to write into your poems or prose.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Why sports? For me, it's not the records broken...

Edward Wyatt profiled the 24-year-old winner of the grueling cycling race, the Tour de France, in the July 29, 2007 New York Times. I was very impressed with what I learned about this young man.

Alberto Contador won the Tour de France bicycle race at the end of July, 2007. In 2004, in the first stage of the Tour of Asturias, his brain hemorrhaged. He had the clot removed and remained in hospital during his recovery. He had to have a titanium plate inserted in his skull to close the wound from the brain surgery. No one knew if he would ever talk and walk, let alone get on a bicycle again. Looking back on that time, he said, “I felt like my whole life and career was going to take a different direction. It taught me to value other things a lot more.”

In 2005, when he had finished 21st in the Tour de France, his Liberty Seguros team was excluded from the 2006 tour because of numerous riders on that team whose names were associated with the Puerto drug scandal. Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes had batches of many cyclists’ blood, potentially usable for self-transfusions. Contador’s name first appeared on that list, but he fought and finally got an apology; it had been included by mistake.

He wrote an open letter to his fans, from which these words were taken:
“Life has shown me that experiences that at first sight seem harmful and unpleasant to us can always result in highly positive lessons for us.

“I will continue working, possibly with even more devotion—if that’s possible—to make you experience this beautiful sport and to hear you say once again that you believe in it and in me. And because I believe in a clean sport, as I have practiced it, we will collect the result of our efforts in a few years.”

It was hard to put up with all of the drug scandals affecting Vinokurov and Rasmussen, other cyclists who had excelled in the race before their expulsion. But seeing this young man succeed in spite of all of the adversity in his life was thrilling. That, rather than seeing a new home run record set by Barry Bonds, is the kind of inspiration I seek from sports.