April 24, 2005

Words needed for words used for special reasons

Prentiss Riddle at aprendiz de todo asks

There must be a term for bogus content intentionally included in a text to show that the readers don't get it, sort of like easter eggs in software.

This occurs to him in the context of Laura K. and SCIgen. The concept is analogous to the copyright traps in maps (which are apparently not legally effective). I recall being told of a lexicographers' term for similar copyright traps in dictionaries, but I don't remember what it is.

I've recently come across another kind of communicative act whereby words are used for something other than their conventional effect, in a way that doesn't seem to have a conventional name. This is where you say something not because you mean it, exactly, but because it gives you a chance to use a word or phrase you've been saving up. The cartoon version:

There's a possible real-world example right at the start of Matt Taibbi's entertainingly vicious pan of Thomas Friedman's new book The World is Flat. Taibbi describes hearing about the book a few months before publication, under the title "The Flattening" rather than "The World is Flat":

It didn't matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility. Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s. [emphasis added]

The chimpanzee-at-NORAD thing is a good line, as is the awake-well-into-your-50s tag. The only trouble is that there's essentially no connection to Friedman's book or the rest of Taibbi's review. It's clear that Friedman is the metaphorical chimp -- Taibbi refers to him as "a genius of literary incompetence", and cites chapter and verse to establish the point -- but what and where is the metaphorical NORAD control room? A blank sheet of paper and the concept of flatness? Friedman's copy of MS Word? The NYT bestseller list? The modern world?

I'd guess that this is a witticism that Taibbi heard, or used himself, in some other (more appropriate?) context. He's been looking for a place to use it in writing; this context is only half-way appropriate, but the phrase is primed and ready to go, so out it pops. The ironic thing is that his review's main point is Friedman's thoughtless use of half-appropriate metaphors.

[Send any suggestions to myl at cis.upenn.edu, as your contribution to lowering my IQ. ]

[Update: Andrew Gray emailed:

You mentioned today that: "I recall being told of a lexicographers' term for similar copyright traps in dictionaries, but I don't remember what it is"

Would this be a Nihilartikel?

"A Nihilartikel is a deliberately fictitious entry in an encyclopedia or dictionary, which is intended to be more or less quickly recognized as false by the reader. The term "Nihilartikel" is German and combines "nihil" (Latin for "nothing") and "Artikel" (German for "article"). There does not appear to be any commonly used English-language term for this phenomenon."
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilartikel

(I have nothing to add, I just like to say Nihilartikel. Which really ties in to the rest of the comment...)

This seems to fit Prentiss Riddle's question almost exactly (depending on what "more or less quickly" and "the reader" mean). It's not the dictionary term I may or may not vaguely remember, which was not a German compound. The gloss first given for Nihilartikel makes it seem unsuitable semantically as well, since a copyright-trap entry is supposed to be hard to spot. However, later in the Wikipedia entry, it says "Besides the obvious possibility of simple playful mischief, Nihilartikels may be composed for other purposes. Chief among these is to catch copyright violators..."

In any case, Nihilartikel is new to me, and I'm glad to learn about it. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 24, 2005 08:11 AM