February 21, 2006

The Antiquity Illusion

Geoff Pullum recently returned to the Recency Illusion (if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it originated recently) and the Frequency Illusion (once you notice a phenomenon, you believe that it happens a whole lot), to add "a kind of inverse counterpart to the Frequency Illusion", the Infrequency Illusion, characterized by Daniel Ezra Johnson as "the belief that something you've found is less common, and therefore perhaps a more interesting 'discovery', than it probably really is."

You're probably guessing that I'm going to add a kind of inverse counterpart to the Recency Illusion, call it the Antiquity Illusion: if you use some linguistic feature naturally and regularly, you believe that it has been in the language for a long time -- at least since your early years.  And so I am.

The larger lesson here is that impressions and memory are both deeply unreliable, and linguists are not in general less subject to the distortions of selective attention and the flaws of memory than non-professionals.

The Infrequency Illusion and the Antiquity Illusion can both be observed wherever linguists chat about the facts of their language -- for instance, on the American Dialect Society mailing list (the archives of which can be viewed on the ADS website).  Someone writes in with some odd turn of phrase in English, only to be told that it's been discussed an ADS-L several times, or that MWDEU has an excellent entry on it, or that it's in DARE or the OED, or that there was a substantial article on it in American Speech two decades ago (or, worse, two months ago).  Someone notices a fabulous eggcorn, only to be told that it was one of the early entries in the eggcorn database and gets thousands of Google webhits.  The Infrequency Illusion at work.

I forbear to name names here, though I'll note that mine is one of them.

The illusion is closely related to a phenomenon familiar in scientific research.  From Gina Kolata's 2/5/06 column "Pity the Scientist Who Discovers the Discovered" in the NYT Week in Review, p. 4:

The discovery that your discovery has already been discovered is surprisingly common, said Stephen Stigler, a statistician at the University of Chicago who has written about the phenomenon.  Not only does it occur in every scientific field, he said, the "very fact of multiple discoveries has been discovered many times."

The Infrequency Illusion is a manifestation of hope.  The Antiquity Illusion is a manifestation of familiarity: what's familiar and routine for you must have been around forever, well, at least throughout your life.  You will be inclined to reconstruct a past in which current linguistic items (lexical items, idioms, pronunciations, constructions, meanings) are projected back from the present.  You may well "remember" conversations from some time ago in which these items occur.  I do.

Try this little experiment: ask a number of friends (linguists or not) how long they think the idiom the whole nine yards has been around; if they're over 30, ask them if they remember reading or hearing it when they were young.  I myself believe that it was in common use when I was in high school and college (in the 50s and early 60s).

My belief is almost surely false, since much tedious digging by lexicographic types has gotten attestation of the idiom back only to 1966.  I still find this astonishing.  (The origins of the idiom are also in dispute, and might never be clarified.  PLEASE, DO NOT WRITE ME WITH PROPOSALS ABOUT ITS ORIGIN.  Look at the discussion in Michael Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.)

More recently, Jon Lighter started a discussion on ADS-L about 'phobe or phobe as a clipping of homophobe.  He had it back to 1989, which struck me as awfully recent.  I was pretty sure it had been used in gay publications and on the newsgroup soc.motss before that.  But searches through soc.motss got me back only to 1992, so maybe my memory is wrong.  Maybe not.  What is clear is that my memory can't be trusted.

(By the way, the clipping 'phobe/phobe is an item whose origin will probably never be traced, simply because, like the compound foodcast recently discussed here by Mark Liberman, it's likely to have been invented independently by different people on different occasions.  The best we can do is get a rough time period for its origin, plus a rough estimate of when it became relatively frequent.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 21, 2006 11:12 AM