15 February 2008

Searching for mathification

Over at Language Log (which a friend of mine claims is very widely read among grad students at Penn -- and it does come from Penn -- but I read it before I came here), one often finds references to "linguification". This is the rhetorical device of expressing true things about the world in terms of false statements about language. "It snows a lot where Eskimos live" is true. "The Eskimos have eight zillion words for snow" is false, but if you say it, or in general "The language spoken by X has lots of words for Y", everyone knows that you mean "Y is important to X-speakers" -- even though it doesn't matter that such a fact might not actually be true. (The snow example is both linguification and a snowclone).

A frequent example is claims that certain words are often followed by certain other words, like "It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'." The folks at Language Log don't like this much, in part because the write word there is not "difficult" but "trivial", especially in the age of Google.

Anyway, around the same time I came across that Language Log post, I came across "The knights who say "nerd": 20 pop-cultural obsessions even geekier than Monty Python", from The Onion's AV Club. It begins:
It's the elephant in the nerdy-obsessions room, and in the Venn diagram of nerd-dom, it may be the meeting point for everything else on this list, with good reason.
. Venn diagrams surface again later on in the article, when they're talking about Joss Whedon: "We need a Venn diagram for this one, too. (Maybe diagram-making deserves its own entry?)" Why do Venn diagrams always come up as what seems like a bad example of something that the author seems to think is mathematical? And who was Venn, anyway? So I'm starting to keep an eye out for what one might call "mathification" -- mathematical statements which occur in the popular media which clearly intend to get across a true point about the real world by making a false point about mathematics. I could swear I see this a lot, but I don't think I've seen it since seeing the Onion article ten days ago.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that they didn't mention Markov chains. Computer programmers are very familiar with how Markov chains and analysis of a corpus of text for adjacency together with PRNG can produce text that sounds sort of correct, while stlil being nonsense. (see "dissociated press")

Efrique said...

Never seen Jessiaca Hagy's Indexed?


Lots of Venn diagrams