December 28, 2006

Factoids of the Year

Today the BBC News "Magazine Monitor" posted "100 things we didn't know last year", introduced like this:

Each week, the Magazine chronicles interesting and sometimes downright unexpected facts from the news, through its strand 10 things we didn't know last week. Here, to round off the year, are some of the best from the past 12 months.

One of the featured items was very familiar:

45. Cows can have regional accents, says a professor of phonetics, after studying cattle in Somerset

Truly, they have no shame -- see "It's always silly season in the (BBC) science section" (8/26/2006) for the hilarious details.

One of the "10 things" in this week's "strand" will also be familiar to our readers:

1. Just 20 words make up a third of teenagers' everyday speech.

What fraction of the other 100 "interesting and ... downright unexpected facts" do you suppose are equally bogus? I'm not sure, but I'll bet at least that the presentation by BBC News is careless and misleading. Let's check another factoid with linguistic connections:

57. The word "time" is the most common noun in the English language, according to the latest Oxford dictionary.

This is a reference to a news item from June 22, "The popularity of 'time' unveiled", which is basically a re-write of an item from the "English Uncovered" supplement to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. "The hundred commonest English words" was posted on the site on January 6, 2006, so there was plenty of time for research.

And the BBC got the main point right: the commonest noun in the BBC's billion-word corpus was indeed listed as time. But the story does manage to botch the background reasoning:

OUP project manager Angus Stevenson said much of the frequency of the use of words such as "time" and "man" could be put down to the English love of phrases, such as "time waits for no man."

I doubt very much that Angus Stevenson uttered any such preposterous violation of common sense. A quick Google search suggests that "time waits for no man" contributes only 67,800 hits towards the 2.23 billion pages containing time, and the 1.04 billion pages containing man. What the "English Uncovered" supplement actually says about this is:

Another reason for a word's high position on the list is that it forms part of many common phrases: most of the frequency of time, for example, comes from adverbial phrases like on time, in time, last time, next time, this time, etc.

Indeed, this version of the assertion is intuitively plausible, and Google counts for the listed phrases -- 59.9m, 192m, 45.4m, 71.7m, 267m respectively -- confirm the intuition. We're not asking for higher mathematics here -- just a bit of common sense, basic logic, and elementary care for the facts.

Here's a recent fact that I didn't know ("BBC loses license fee battle", 12/27/2006):

In what amounts to a major blow to the credibility of BBC director general Mark Thompson, the government has reportedly decided to go ahead with a far lower license fee settlement than called for by the BBC.

According to sources close to the settlement, Treasury Secretary Gordon Brown has settled on a 3% increase in the BBC's £3.3 billion ($6.5 billion) per year license fee in 2007, followed by an increase of 2% per year over the following three years.

The figures fall far short of the BBC's call for a 5.7% increase each year through 2012, a figure it said would take account the rate of inflation, currently running at 3.9%.

The news was broken by Channel 4 News and widely picked up by news organizations here.

When the BBC made its original license fee bid at the start of the year, it called for a license fee hike amounting to 6.4% a year for seven years. This was later revised downward to 5.7% after the government's independent auditors rejected the BBC's own financial analysis and cost projections.

I don't think that very much of that $6.5 billion per year goes to BBC News. But still, you'd think they spoke one of those languages without a word for accountability.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 28, 2006 01:56 PM