August 29, 2006


In response to Arnold Zwicky's post on Snickers morphology, several readers have written to reference the much-loved Jargon File entry for bogosity:

1. [orig. CMU, now very common] The degree to which something is bogus. Bogosity is measured with a bogometer; in a seminar, when a speaker says something bogus, a listener might raise his hand and say “My bogometer just triggered”. More extremely, “You just pinned my bogometer” means you just said or did something so outrageously bogus that it is off the scale, pinning the bogometer needle at the highest possible reading (one might also say “You just redlined my bogometer”). The agreed-upon unit of bogosity is the microLenat.

2. The potential field generated by a bogon flux; see quantum bogodynamics. See also bogon flux, bogon filter, bogus.

You should also consult the entries for bogotify, where the coinage autobogotiphobia is described as "a self-conscious joke in jargon about jargon", a phrase with some current relevance; and coefficient of X, where the subtle but important difference between "foo index" and "coefficient of foo" is exemplified as follows:

Foo index and coefficient of foo both tend to imply that foo is, if not strictly measurable, at least something that can be larger or smaller. Thus, you might refer to a paper or person as having a high bogosity index, whereas you would be less likely to speak of a high bogosity factor. Foo index suggests that foo is a condensation of many quantities, as in the mundane cost-of-living index; coefficient of foo suggests that foo is a fundamental quantity, as in a coefficient of friction. The choice between these terms is often one of personal preference; e.g., some people might feel that bogosity is a fundamental attribute and thus say coefficient of bogosity, whereas others might feel it is a combination of factors and thus say bogosity index.

I was always especially fond of the term microLenat:

The unit of bogosity. Abbreviated µL or mL in ASCII Consensus is that this is the largest unit practical for everyday use. The microLenat, originally invented by David Jefferson, was promulgated as an attack against noted computer scientist Doug Lenat by a tenured graduate student at CMU. Doug had failed the student on an important exam because the student gave only “AI is bogus” as his answer to the questions. The slur is generally considered unmerited, but it has become a running gag nevertheless. Some of Doug's friends argue that of course a microLenat is bogus, since it is only one millionth of a Lenat. Others have suggested that the unit should be redesignated after the grad student, as the microReid.

I recall a version of this entry that also mentioned the international standard unit of insincerity, but that's another story. I'm pretty sure that the term bogosity was already in use at MIT in the early 1970s, though my memory may be affected by the ubiquity of the term bogus in that culture. (If memory serves, occasions for use of the term were also plentiful, though I suspect that some future axiomatic social science will discover that conservation of bogosity is a universal law.) The 1981 CMU version of the Jargon File has

BOGOSITY n. The degree to which something is BOGUS (q.v.). At CMU, bogosity is measured with a bogometer; typical use: in a seminar, when a speaker says something bogus, a listener might raise his hand and say, "My bogometer just triggered." The agreed-upon unit of bogosity is the microLenat (uL).

I always thought that bogosity was formed by self-consciously false analogy to porous/porosity and other pairs of that type. Note that this element introduces the resonance of an adjectival form nougatous to the Snickers coinage. I also suspect that bogosity in turn influenced the coinage of travelocity, where the echo of velocity also comes into the picture, and this may also be one of the resonances of nougatocity.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer points out that:

Another form likely influenced by bogosity is bozosity/bozocity, as I noted in a comment on Double-Tongued Word Wrester.

By the way, Geoff Nunberg referred to "the administration's apparently bottomless bozosity" in a June 11 LA Times column.


[Update #2 -- Blake Stacey writes:

The closest I have seen to the "hackish" term "bogometer" entering a broader field of discourse is in the New York Times coverage of the
Bogdanov Affair, in which two television personalities managed to earn Ph.D.s by publishing artful nonsense. Quoting reporter George Johnson,

This is where experts say that sincere or otherwise, the Bogdanovs' papers fall flat. Reading through an Internet debate between them and the physicist John Baez of the University of California at Riverside is like watching someone trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It is as though the Bogdanovs, like twins one reads about in psychology experiments, have developed their own private language, one that impinges on the vocabulary of science only at the edges.

If so, then their argot was apparently good enough to get past the gatekeepers at the University of Bourgogne, where the brothers recently got their Ph.D.'s with dissertations their colleagues find as baffling as their papers. (Some scientists are amused that long before anyone outside France had heard of the Bogdanovs, the term "bogometer" had been used to describe an imaginary device that blinks frantically when confronted with a bogus claim.)

The Wikipedia article on this affair has experienced some serious slings and arrows, mostly because people involved came along in person to slant its coverage they way they want to be seen (quite a "the map is not the territory" moment). However, now that the heyday is past, it's much more informative.

Johnson's parenthetical connection between Bogdanov and bogometer seems dangerously close to making fun of someone's name, which is generally considered to be an inappropriate form of argument. He's half-rescued in this case by the anonymous attribution to "some scientists".. ]

[Update -- Topher Cooper writes:

Found the posting on “bogosity” and the “microLenat” from the Jargon File interesting, largely because it doesn’t agree with my memory in a number of particulars. I was a part-time undergraduate working full-time for the AI department at C-MU during the period when the term was commonly in use.

The definitions are fully in accord with how I remember it being used – it’s the origin that seems a bit flakey. Mind you, my memory could be at fault.

From the proposed alternative unit – the microReid – I’m guessing that the grad student in question was Brian Reid. The problem with the whole story is that Doug Lenat was at the time a grad student at Stanford while Brian was a grad student at C-MU. Brian had previously been at the University of Maryland and worked in industry (yes, I checked his Wikipedia entry, but it is basically what I remembered). It doesn’t seem likely that he was ever a student of Lenat’s.

There were a bunch of people in the AI group at C-MU who had previously been at Stanford. My impression was that they introduced the use of the term to C-MU.

The explanation that I received for naming the unit of bogosity after him was that he was someone who would generate more ideas in five minutes than most people do in a week – sort of a comp sci Robin Williams. Of course, nearly all of those ideas were completely bogus. Every once in a while, though, one of those ideas was a true gem. That still left him with more good ideas a week than most people. Someone once suggested that the microLenat was an unusual unit of measurement because there were only 999,999 microLenats per Lenat – the one remainder measured something quite distinct from bogosity. I had met Lenat at conferences and attended some of his chaotic presentations so this explanation made a lot of sense to me.

Although I don’t remember any particular connection between Brian Reid and use of the term microLenat I could easily see where Lenat’s style -- which contrasted rather sharply with Brian’s – may have been grating to Brian. It is possible that he used the term with a bit more bite to it to someone outside of C-MU, giving rise to the sour grapes story.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 29, 2006 07:32 AM