January 17, 2004

Public virtue and historical subversion

I'm feeling virtuous about my wedding vowels public service announcement --I trust that it's been helpful to the 19 internet pilgrims who have reached our site so far this morning by asking various search engines about "wedding vowels", "marriage vowels", "renewal wedding vowel announcement", "renewing wedding vowels", "renewing vowels", "vowel renewal ceremonies", and "vowel renewal ceremonies in vegas". If you're looking for a good name for a new phonology-related weblog, you could do worse than "Renewing Vowels", you know?

I'm also feeling good about the 10 individuals who found Geoff Pullum's piece on (non-) recursive sic by searching for "sic meaning", "(sic) meaning", "[sic] meaning", "meaning of sic", or "the meaning of the (sic) notation". They probably got more than they bargained for, but it's all good, and the basic information is right up there at the beginning. Maybe we should take this as a cue to say something enlightening about e.g., i.e., etc., et al., ibid. and whatnot.

I'm even happy about the 7 souls who have had the opportunity to be saved from error by reaching our site on the basis of a search for "names for snow", "snow words in eskimo", "meaning snow other languages", or "eskimo snow", though I suspect that during the same few hours, another 700,000 innocents have picked up the false Eskimo snow meme.

Finally, it's nice to realize that another hundred-odd folks have found something interesting and useful in our archives this morning by searching for "history of emo", "languages of middle earth", "barnum statement", "malapropism", "paracingulate cortex", "larry horn negation", "phineas gage", and so on.

Amid all this flood of public virtue, it doesn't bother me at all that a few people have struck out by finding irrelevant Language Log postings somewhere down the list of pages returned by difficult searches like "american indian language containing the word wax", or "evolutionary tree of the rattlesnake".

However, I do feel rather guilty about the person who found us first on the list of (647,000) pages returned when they asked Google "who is harvard university named after", or the (apparently different) individual who asked Yahoo "who was harvard university named for", and found, at the top of the list of 436,000 answers, the same Geoff Pullum piece on Universities named after linguists (now altered to include a public service announcement). I have a nagging worry that these folks may have gone off feeling satisfied, believing Geoff's deadpan assertion that "Harvard University was named after Sir Walter Montmorency Belgrave Harvard, who in 1689-1691 traveled by donkey through much of what is now western Massachusetts and parts of upper New York State, recording food terms in the languages of the local Indians."

The problem here is that linguists have no conventionalized equivalent to the canid play bow. And even if Geoff had crouched on his forelimbs while leaving his hind legs fully extended, wagging his tail, and barking, it would probably have been misinterpreted by anyone watching him compose his post, and certainly would have been missed by those reading it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 17, 2004 10:59 AM