Saturday, June 1, 2013

Word play analysis

Your word is "singerie." "singerie, did I pronounce it right?" "Yes, singerie." "What is the part of speech?" "It's a noun." "May I have the definition?" "Singerie is a picture, decoration or design in which monkeys are depicted." "Would you please use it in a sentence?" "The singerie painting Bob bought for one buck at the flea market depicts monkeys in top hats and tails talking about how disgusting their species smell." "Singerie, S-I-N-G-E-R-I-E, Singerie."

One of my favorite shows to watch is the Scripp's annual spelling bee. It provides some hope that not every child is spending all of their time mindlessly drooling while watching looping six second Vine videos on smart phones.

I was surprised. "Singerie" is a real word? Why in the world did we ever need to have a word for a picture depicting monkeys aping human behavior in a painting? I don't have a single painting decorated with monkeys, and don't know anyone who does. I can't even remotely understand why someone would want to have said simian related content on their wall. Now that I'm through insulting both collectors worldwide of singerie based art, my point is don't we have enough words already?

I love words, but the truth is we do have an awfully large number of them in the English language. There are now more than 1,000,000 words and growing. New English words are being added at the rate of 440 per month. Maybe you can't really have too many words, but I'm sure I will never know them all.

So how do you count the number of words there are in English? If you're Google you covert 15,000,000 books to digital format. Separate out the ones that are in English, and then use a computer to scan the billions of words to identify unique words, and even phrases. You then take the untold billions of words, and make a search engine everyone can use to look at words and phrase usage over time.

Taking a look at singerie usage in print over time actually provides some real information. Looking at the occurrence percentage, we can see by the large numbers of zeros to the right of the decimal point, this has never been a word of the masses. There are three peaks.

One is around 1840 coinciding with one of the more famous examples of singerie, which was painted on the ceiling of, are you ready? The Monkey Room at the Monkey Island Hotel on Monkey Island in Bray-on-Thames England. They have no monkeys there. Remember the species smell awful. The second spike around 1930 was a very brief resurgence of interest, and the bump in the sixties is when the monkey painting fad occurred. In this case it was the monkeys doing the paintings. I liked this art better.

Getting a little nautical, here are the phrases "Shiver me timbers" and "Blow me down." Shiver me timbers first appeared in print in 1834, but it was somewhat popularized by Stevenson's Treasure Island in 1893.

The expression Blow me down was most likely derived from a sea shanty, but the rapid rise in usage in the thirties was primarily due to the popularity of the famous sailor Popeye in 1933, and has stayed in usage ever since.

Searching "Power boat", and "Sail Boat" clearly shows the rise and impact of technology on language.  The usage of sail boat has been around for a very long time. The term power boat doesn't statistically appear in print until 1833. But look at the climb by power boat caused by the invention of the gas engine starting in 1903. By 1916 the phrase power boat was more popular than sailboat, and has largely stayed that way ever since.

The Google Ngram site is very addictive, and looking at word usage over time certainly provides a view of how the English language is evolving and growing. It's fun and addictive to boot.

I will leave this with a couple of terms we all know, and you can infer any insights available from the graph. I'm not investing in anything to do with a LORAN.

Along with Singerie, I also now know a few other new words such as Zenaida, (dove), Phyalagogue (drug that makes more spit), Cyanophyceae (algae), and Cipollino (Greek marble) all of which I haven't found a way yet to work into a conversation. I already knew about Lefse, and how to spell it (tasty potato pancake) from my time living in Minnesota, but don't even ask me about Lutefisk. Dried cod soaked in lye until it turns to jelly is not to my taste, even if you dump the whole bottle of Tabasco on it.


  1. How many combos (words known and not yet known) can you make with 26 letters?
    Would this be called permutations?
    And are mutations in general to be avoided?

  2. Anon, there are 403,291,461,126,606,000,000,000,000 possible permutations, and mutations are encouraged. This is an eggzact number.

  3. Karl in Northern NYJune 4, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    Singerie can be in video format as well as favorite is the "blew a seal"
    video, here:

    BTW, your comment spell-checker does not recognize the word singerie...

  4. Karl, thanks for the comment, and especially for the link. It was hugely funny. "No, it's just ice cream"


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