Jul
09
2014
0

Is there a place named after Uclue.com?

Welcome to Ucluelet! (photo by Tourism Ucluelet - PD)

Welcome to Ucluelet! (photo by Tourism Ucluelet – PD)

Is there a place named after Uclue.com? It would have to have been fairly recently named, of course, and hence a still small place, maybe named “Ucluelet”. Wouldn’t that be nice: Uclue.com honored by its own little town? Mountain View hasn’t been renamed Googletown—yet.

Ucluelet does exist, and it is a nice, small settlement on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but it isn’t named after the website. Ucluelet means “people of the safe harbour” in the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) language. It is on the Wild Pacific Trail, which suggests the environment and scenery that attracts tourists, hikers and water sport enthusiasts to the area, tourism being important to Ucluelet’s economy.

It is kind of a pity that Ucluelet was not named after the website. On good authority: the website definitely was not named after Ucluelet.

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Jun
23
2014
1

Why was the English football side unsuccessful in Brazil?

Goal (photo by grassrootsgroundswell - CC-BY)

Goal (photo by grassrootsgroundswell – CC-BY)

Why was the English football side unsuccessful in the Brazil World Cup, when England is the home of soccer? There are several reasons:

  • The team had use of the best training facilities in Rio de Janiero.
  • They were accompanied by an entourage of 72 people, including a psychiatrist.
  • Their sweat production was managed with designer recovery drinks, large fans and heat chambers.
  • Roy Hodgson, Sir Dave Brailsford, and Lord Coe co-ordinated everything.
  • Wayne Rooney said there would be “no excuses”.
  • Every box was ticked.

More likely are the following contributing factors:

  • There is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.
  • The players were suffering from their anti-malarial tablets.
  • They weren’t used to playing in good weather.
  • They had to play against Uruguay.

But these reasons are insignificant compared to the main reason why England was unsuccessful:

  • They didn’t score enough goals.

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Jun
23
2014
1

Why, unequivocally, do Italians call a cup of coffee “espresso”?

Expressing espresso (photo by Scott Schiller - CC-BY)

Expressing espresso (photo by Scott Schiller – CC-BY)

An espresso is a shot of coffee made by forcing nearly-boiling water through ground coffee beans, at up to 10 times normal atmospheric pressure. At this pressure, the temperature will be higher than the normal boiling point of water, which causes more of the flavor to be extracted from the coffee grounds.

The machine and the resultant shot of coffee are so-named because the flavor is expressed from the beans. This meaning of express was already in use prior to coffee machines, especially for milk. For example, a nursing mother might use a breast pump to express breast milk. It was natural to use the same word for coffee too, and “espresso” is Italian for “express”.

Unfortunately, the issue has become confused because some Americans erroneously refer to the drink and the machine as “expresso”, leading some to wonder whether the meaning arose from a different sense of “express”, for example “something which happens quickly”. However, if you’ve waited while the barista makes your coffee, you will reaslise that espresso is a rather slow way to make coffee.

So we can discard the possibility that espresso means “quick”, despite that the inventor of the espresso machine, in a fit of marketing hubris, patented it as “new steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage”. Making espresso coffee is neither instantaneous, nor is it economic (being the most expensive method of coffee preparation). Instantaneous coffee is actually the stuff which comes in a jar in powdered form, and needs only to be mixed with boiling water and stirred briefly.

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Jun
23
2014
5

What did you want to know about sex but were afraid to ask?

Archaeological sex (photo by أشرف العناني - CC-BY)

Archaeological sex (photo by أشرف العناني – CC-BY)

Here is a compact set of answers to the questions you may have wanted to ask about sex, but were too afraid.

  • Sex is Latin for six.
  • A person who has not had sex is known as a virgin.
  • “Virgin” is the trademark for Richard Branson’s branded venture capitalism.
  • Most sex occurs between a male and a female, but humans are diverse and some have sex with others of the same sex, or with fetish objects, or with animals, or with sex toys, etc.
  • Bacteria are not capable or having sex.
  • Some people like to tell others whether or not they should have sex.
  • Some diseases are transferred sexually. Wearing a condom reduces the risk.
  • A woman may become pregnant as a result of sex. One in ten European pregnancies starts in an Ikea bed.
  • It is possible, though unlikely, for a woman to become pregnant the first time she has unprotected sex.
  • The “morning after” contraceptive pill is 95% effective at stopping pregnancy when taken on the “morning after”, but it can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex with reduced effectiveness.
  • There’s some seriously weird sexual stuff in the Bible.
  • Some people like to watch pictures of others having sex, which is known as pornography.
  • The British Phonographic Industry has nothing to do with pornography.
  • Some people pay money for sex. Some people trade resources for monogamy.
  • Geeks sometimes write “pr0n” to bypass filters that block the word “pornography”.
  • Heironymus Bosch’s famous painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” depicts some seriously fruity goings-on.
  • Shakespeare’s Juliet was thirteen and quite under-age by modern western standards. Lady Capulet was married at 12 or 13, and was a mother by 13.

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Jun
15
2014
1

Why does the oldest Italian brand of coffee have a German name?

Hausbrandt Coffee (photo by Hausbrandt Trieste 1892 S.p.A. - CC-BY-SA)

Hausbrandt Coffee (photo by Hausbrandt Trieste 1892 S.p.A. – CC-BY-SA)

The oldest name-brand Italian coffee is “Hausbrandt” and dates from 1892. For German speakers, “Hausbrandt” suggest an old-fashioned spelling of “Hausbrand,” a word that can mean either fuel for a house oven or stove, or one for the burning of a house. It could also suggest the product of a private distillery, the product of a vineyard owner or fruit farmer who distills the juice of his own harvest.

That, however, has nothing to do with coffee, except that coffee beans have to be roasted. The full name of the original company could help: Hausbrandt Triest 1892 S.p.A. Before WW I, Triest was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, its city and harbor at the head of the Aldria.

Coffee was already known in Europe: in Italy in the 16th century, in France in the 17th century, also in Austria after the Ottoman invasion in 1683. The story is that sacks of coffee were found after the Turks were repelled. Triest became a major harbor for the import of coffee. In the 19th century, there was a coffee house, Caffè Hausbrandt, founded by an Austrian merchant marine captain, Hermann Hausbrandt. (I will assume that his family were not arsonists.) In 1891, the association of coffee brokers in Triest was founded. In 1892 the brand “Specialità Caffè Hausbrandt” was registered. The name, Hausbrandt Triest 1892 S.p.A., that of a company with shares, would seem to have been established after the brand name had earned broader recognition.

Hausbrandt coffee is now internationally well known and belongs to the Zanetti family, but not internationally as well recognized as Segafredo, which also was founded by the Zanetti family in 1973, or the competitor Illy, founded by Francesco Illy in 1933. Perhaps Zanetti chose to promote a new brand name for Italian coffee that sounded more Italian than Hausbrandt.

That is very understandable. I had never heard of Hausbrandt and was very surprised to find an espresso cup and saucer with the name on an island near Venice, not at one of the famous coffee houses on the Piazzo San Marco.

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Apr
28
2014
4

What is the Most Common Phrase in the English Language?

"Google" peaked in the '40s, thanks to Barney Google cartoons, and again in the 1990s (image used with permission from Google)

“Google” peaked in the ’40s, thanks to Barney Google cartoons, and again in the 1990s (image used with permission from Google)

You probably already know the most common letter in the English language is the letter e. It accounts for about 12% of all the letters you’re likely to see on a given page (go ahead…count ‘em!). On your keyboard, only the venerable space bar gets more of a workout than the letter e.

On a slightly grander scale, the most common word in English is the (i’ve used it eight times already), followed by other shorties like be, to, of, and and a.

But what about common phrases? What combination of words are at the top of the list of the things we write and say? Or, to be more precise, what’s the most popular phrase in modern American English?

I don’t know.

Seriously, I didn’t have a clue. Finding letter frequencies and word frequencies is a ten-second research task, but teasing out phrase frequencies is something else entirely.

First of all, the most common phrase where, exactly? The phrases that are most commonly used in, say, the Wall Street Journal won’t be the same as the high-frequency phrases in Harlequin Romance novels, which are different again from popular phrases used on Facebook. Are we talking about academic writing, spoken English, fiction, consumer magazines, Broadway plays, Fox News? The sources make a big difference. So does the time period — last five years? last five decades? last five centuries?

Secondly, just what is a phrase anyway? Yes, it’s a collection of words, but phrases also carry a certain conceptual completeness. In the nick of time is a well-known and frequently-used phrase, but we’re less likely to think of in the nick as a legitimate phrase, even though this particular combination of words occurs just as often as it’s more familiar parent.

Linguists, possibly the nerdiest of nerdy professionals, get around these issues in two ways. They tend to steer clear of phrases, per se, dealing instead with collections of words called N-grams. In the nick of time is a 5-gram, while in the nick, two words shorter, is a 3-gram. They also build linguistic corpora — immense collections, typically of millions or billions of words, from sources selected to represent something, like the corpus of all Shakespeare works, all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, or the vast collection of verbiage in Google Books.

Happily for us, linguists also build online tools that anyone can use to explore N-grams in various corpora. You can do some pretty cool stuff with Google’s N-gram Viewer for displaying trends in the collection of Google Books (and if you really want to get crazy with it, check out their advanced search features). But to get at the most popular English phrases, I downloaded the database known as COCA — the Corpus of Contemporary American English (why it’s not COCAE is a bit of a mystery), thoughtfully made available by the good linguists at Brigham Young University. COCA is a 450-million word corpus of written and spoken English from a wide variety of sources, and covers the period 1990-2012. I used the database to crank out some big lists of the highest-frequency 4-grams and 5-grams, and took a look.

An awful lot of the word groupings are familiar but decidedly unphraselike. For example the end of the, in the middle of, and the rest of the were all high-frequency 4-grams, but they don’t really strike the ear as legitimate phrases.

So I sorted through the list, and picked out the:

=================================================================
TOP TEN MOST COMMON PHRASES IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN ENGLISH
=================================================================

10. We don’t know
9. In the first place
8. The New York Times
7. What do you think
6. Thank you very much
5. I don’t want to
4. On the other hand
3. For the first time
2. At the same time

and the Number 1 phrase in the entire English language…

1. I don’t know

=================================================================

See. I told you.

P.S. #8 really surprised me, but the numbers (hopefully) don’t lie. And in case you’re wondering, linguists count contractions as two words, so I don’t know is a 4-gram, not a 3-gram; I don’t want to is the only 5-gram on the list (the next most common 5-gram is President of the United States).

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