Do we have a linguistic DNA?

February 24, 2013

Here is your starter for ten:

Which is the best definition of the term forensic?

A. pertaining to crime

B. pertaining to death

C. pertaining to medicine

D. pertaining to the law

If you chose D, give yourself a pat on the back. I put this question in because I feel that the word forensic is subject to a great deal of misunderstanding. For me the correct definition is “belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature”. It comes from the Latin forēnsis, meaning “of or before the forum”. In Roman times, criminal charges were heard before a group of citizens in the forum. Both the accused and the accuser would give speeches based on their sides of the story. So forensic is an adjective meaning court or legal. However now there is now a second meaning: “relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems”. It has now become so closely associated with the scientific field that many dictionaries include this meaning that equates the word “forensics” with “forensic science”. Call me a pedant, but I think the first definition should be sufficient. A forensic pathologist is one who works in the legal system. You can have forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, linguists, accountants, nurses and engineers. What they have in common is that they all work in the legal system.

For thirteen seasons the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigators have been using their state-of-the art gadgets to solve grisly murders in under forty minutes. Such is the influence of the series that we have the CSI effect – juries unwilling to convict because they are unimpressed by the forensic evidence presented by the prosecution. Today I am going to be looking at a different aspect – forensics and language. I will begin with a branch of forensic linguistics known as forensic phonetics. I became especially interested in this subject after listening to a programme about it on the BBC.

What do forensic phoneticians do? We can glean an awful lot of information about a speaker from their voice. Obviously it’s usually possible to tell very quickly whether a speaker is male or female by listening to the overall pitch of the voice. Combining phonetic and sociolinguistic analysis of a voice can aid in establishing information about the speaker lives, their age, and other information about their background. Phoneticians can make speech visible on a computer screen, measuring its component parts – the duration of sounds, how long they are, their frequency, intensity, loudness and pitch. They can also decipher the content of difficult recordings. This can be useful when you have bad quality sources or unusual pronunciation patterns. Finally we have speaker identification. This could be by a witness. They may be asked to identify the voice in a voice parade or line-up. Alternatively, a professional may use a comparative phonetic analysis to try to establish if a suspect is the person talking on a criminal recording. The Holy Grail in this field would be some kind of automated system to recognise voices, but this is still a long way off.

Now I want to look at a practical example. Wearside Jack was the nickname given to John Samuel Humble, who pretended to be the Yorkshire Ripper in a number of hoax communications in 1978-79. As well as sending three letters taunting the authorities for their inability to catch him, Humble also did an audio-message spoken in a Wearside accent:

I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you George, but Lord! You are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started. I reckon your boys are letting you down, George. They can’t be much good, can they?

As a consequence the investigation shifted away from the Leeds/Bradford area. Thus Peter Sutcliffe, the real killer, was able to get away with murder until he was finally apprehended in January 1981. The phoneticians situated the accent in the Castletown area of Sunderland. In an exercise in futility, 40,000 potential suspects were investigated and the police used billboards, full page ads in local and national newspapers and ‘Dial-the-Ripper’ hotlines to try to get their man. This campaign alone would cost one million pounds. This was not the police’s finest hour. It also shows a danger of this type of evidence. It is fine to use it as one line of enquiry, but you shouldn’t use to exclude any other possibility. In fact, the phoneticians did their job well. In 2005 the long arm of the law finally caught up with Humble. One of the envelopes he had used was traced to him through DNA, and in 2006 he was sentenced to eight years for perverting the course of justice. When he was arrested, Humble was living in the Ford Estate suburb of Sunderland and he told the police he had gone to school in the Castletown area.

Forensic phonetics is, as I have already mentioned, part of forensic linguistics. This is the study, analysis and measurement of language in the context of crime, judicial procedure, or legal disputes. The term first appeared in 1968 when Jan Svartvik, a Swedish professor of linguistics, used it in an analysis of statements by Timothy John Evans, the man wrongly executed for the Rillington Place murders. Svartvik was able to show that the confession statement of Evans was probably not authentic. The part of the statement where Evans confessed to the murders was clearly different from the rest of the transcript.

What do forensic linguists do?

The forensic linguist may be called upon to analyse a very wide variety of documents including:

• anonymous letters

• hate mail

• mobile phone texts in missing person’s cases

• online communications

• ransom demands

• suicide notes – are they genuine?

• verballing – claims by defendants that their statements were altered or even invented by police officers

• wills

A key concept for much of what they do is the linguistic fingerprint. The idea is that each human being uses language differently, and that this difference between people involves a collection of unconscious predilections which makes each speaker or writer unique. Every individual uses languages differently and this difference can be identified just like a fingerprint. What they analyse are the function words – which vs. that, but vs. nevertheless etc. These are the words we tend to think about the least, but with enough text to play with and by studying the frequency and distribution of these words we can know if the writing conforms to samples that we know were written by the author.

The practice of analysing documents for authenticity or to identify the author is not new. In 1439 Lorenzo Valla, the Italian humanist, was able to prove that the Donation of Constantine, a Roman imperial decree by which the emperor Constantine I supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope, was a forgery. He did it by comparing the Latin with that used in authentic 4th Century documents. His conclusion was that it had probably been composed in the 8th century.

Let’s look at some more recent cases. In a famous case in 1982 Robert Eagleson, a professor of English at Sydney University was called in to examine a suicide note. The particular note was said to have been written by Janice Pollett, who had disappeared from her home. As well as examining the farewell note, Eagleson also had access to specimen letters by both Mr. and Mrs. Pollett. After looking at the grammar, spelling and punctuation Eagleson’s conclusion was that the letter had been written by the husband. Mervyn Pollett would later confess to the crime.

Forensic linguistics is also being used on more modern methods of communication. According to Wikipedia, on June 30, 2010, Paul Ceglia filed a lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg claiming 84% ownership of Facebook and seeking financial compensation. What is interesting about this case is the use of emails. Ceglia described email exchanges with Zuckerberg, between July 2003 and July 2004 in which the two discussed the Facebook project, including ways to generate income from it. Zuckerberg’s legal team hired the linguist Gerald McMenamin, emeritus professor of linguistics at California State University, Fresno. He studied the e-mails, and found 11 different style markers, across punctuation, spelling and grammar, and concluded that Zuckerberg could not have been the author.

On October 26, 2012, federal agents arrested Ceglia and charged him with fabricating evidence in relation to his suit against Zuckerberg. Ceglia was charged with one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. In the two pages Ceglia produced for his lawsuit there were a number of inconsistencies such as differences in margins, spacing and columns. When the investigators searched Harvard’s email servers they could find no evidence of the messages Ceglia had mentioned in his lawsuit. And when they looked at his hard drive they found that Ceglia had falsified existing records to bolster his claim. I find this evidence more conclusive than that of the linguist. I agree with the comments by Ben Zimmer in the New York Times:

Many linguists, however, would challenge the notion that the “fingerprint,” a supposedly unique identifier, can be metaphorically applied to writing. Surely we all have our own written quirks and mannerisms — I tend to overuse em-dashes, for instance. But there is just too much internal variability in any person’s body of writing to imagine that we could take just a bit of it — a handful of e-mails — and recognize some sort of linguistic DNA. That is all the more true when it comes to digital genres like text messages, instant messages and tweets, full of unusual spellings and innovative abbreviations, and often sensitive to the type of device we’re using.

I find forensic linguistics absolutely fascinating. There are some really smart people in the field. And I really think it holds a great deal of promise for the future. I am particularly interested in the use of computers and the quantitative approach. But we need cautious about its adoption; forensic linguists still have a long way to go to convince courts of the reliability and validity of their methodology. Language, both written and spoken is not like your DNA or fingerprint, both of which never vary. Therefore, while Forensic Linguistics has its place in the courtroom, it is usually a much more useful for the defence. It is easier to prove that a defendant couldn’t have written something than to demonstrate that nobody else could have been written it. This type of evidence should not be used as the sole piece of evidence for the prosecution. Now I wonder what a forensic linguist would make of my oeuvre…

Lolbertarian and other new words

February 24, 2013

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:


A person who believes society should switch to a base-12 counting system instead of the current base-10 system.


An atheist who respects or accommodates other people’s religious beliefs, or who attends religious services

food baby

A distended stomach caused by overeating.


A libertarian whose views are so extreme as to invite mockery. (laugh out loud + libertarian.)

long data

A massive data set that extends back in time hundreds or thousands of years.


Explaining in a patronizing way, particularly when done by a man who combines arrogance with ignorance of the topic. [Man + explaining.]


A man who has an extramarital affair with a woman


Relating to a worker who wears an orange safety vest while on the job.


In a movie, play, or TV show, the practice of hiring actors whose race is different from that of the characters they portray.


Repurposing or remixing existing artistic works to create, in whole or in part, a new work.


Discrimination based on a person’s gender and age, particularly discrimination against older women.


A person who is sexually attracted to intelligent people.


A photographic self-portrait, particularly one taken with the intent of posting it to a social network.


To interrupt one’s own work to check social media or perform some other non-work-related task.


Describes an accident caused by the driver of a car failing to see a cyclist or pedestrian. Also: Smidsy. [From the phrase, Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you.]

success theater

Posting images and stories designed to make others believe you are more successful than you really are.


A bee that is forced to abandon its hive and kill itself after being infected by a parasitic fly.

Tunnel visionaries: how the Victorians transformed public transport

February 17, 2013

Yet every line, and every station, has its own particular identity. The Northern Line is intense and moody, while the Central Line is filled with purpose and energy. The Circle Line is adventurous and breezy, while the Bakerloo Line is disconsolate and brooding. The sorrows of Lancaster Gate are preceded by the liveliness of Notting Hill Gate, while the comfort of Sloane Square is followed by the brisk anonymity of Victoria. Underground trains have a different tone, and atmosphere, at distinct times of day. In the afternoon, for example, when “everyone else” is at work they become more seductive and luxuriant places redolent of ease or even indolence. In the late evening they become more sinister, a haven for the drunk or the mad. Peter Ackroyd, London Under

The London Underground is 150 years old. In 1863 the United States was still in the throes of a horse-drawn civil war. Germany hadn’t been created, nor was Italy unified. Another 13 years would pass before Sitting Bull defeated Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And Paris would have to wait another 37 years before it had its own underground. The London Underground may not be the best in the world now, and it is said to be the most expensive in the world, but we shouldn’t take anything away from the Victorians for their incredible feat of engineering.

The London Underground has become a symbol of the capital, a part of popular culture. In Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature, the 1926 film The Lodger, he makes a cameo appearance as a passenger on a tube train. In Keith Lowe’s novel Tunnel Vision, a young man has to travel through every Underground station in nineteen hours for a bizarre bet. In Down in the Tube Station at Midnight Paul Weller is assaulted by some men whose breath exuded an aroma of drinking establishments, a certain penal institution and fascistic political groupings. According to Otto (Kevin Kline) in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, the London Underground is a political movement.

It was in 1845 that Charles Pearson, Solicitor to the City of London, began championing the idea of an underground railway to bring passengers and freight services into the centre of the city. Less than twenty years later, on 9 January 1863, the first train pulled out of London’s Paddington Station for the five kilometre underground journey to Farringdon Street. Originally steam trains were used to pull the carriages.

The great and the good, the 700 dignitaries gathered at Paddington for the opening ceremony, were driven through the tunnels in a succession of trains. When they eventually emerged into the terminus at Farringdon Street, they were greeted by police bands. On the following day the line was opened to the general public. Before the opening there had been some doubts about the public’s reaction. What would be lurking down there in the depths of London’s underworld? The tunnels were not well lit because they only had gas lighting at the time. Would people really  risk their lives? The Times was sceptical that Londoners would want “to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul sub-soil of London.” But the naysayers were proved wrong – on the first day it opened 30,000 people went down and the trains were completely full. One journalist compared the opening night of a West End play. This was indeed the greatest show on earth.

The early underground lines were built by a method called cut and cover. This involved cutting open a massive hole in the ground. The idea was to use an existing road rather than to demolish a lot of houses, though a few houses did have to be demolished. You put in the railway and then covered it over again. Then in the 1880s James Henry Greathead invented a tunnelling shield that let you go very deep underground. There had been tunnelling shields before, but Greathead perfected it. To this day, most tunnelling shields are still loosely based on the Greathead shield. The shield enabled the City and South London Railway to open the world’s first deep-level underground electric railway between Stockwell and King William Street in 1890.

Like London itself, the Underground grew in a haphazard and piecemeal way – just how I like it. There was no master plan. The system was developed by competing private operators. Money and power guided its development. In the first stage of its history it was administered by capitalist financiers of dubious reputation. Nevertheless, by the first decade of the 20th century what became the Northern line, the Piccadilly line, the Bakerloo line, Metropolitan and District were all in place.

The companies started to realise the potential benefits of mutual co-operation And gradually it started to happen. In 1908 a meeting was convened to find a common name for their enterprise for marketing purposes. The choice was between “Tube” and “Electric” and “Underground”, with the latter emerging the winner. Another distinctive symbol, the Roundel, a red circle crossed by a horizontal blue bar, was also introduced in this year.

In 1933, all public transport in London became integrated into an unsubsidised public corporation ultimately known as London Transport which, after World War II, was nationalised, bringing the Underground under the direct control of central government for the first time in its history. During the post-war period, the electrification of the network was completed, the last steam locomotive disappearing in 1961.

Harry Beck’s London underground map was revolutionary. Beck, an engineering draftsman had a key insight. Geographical accuracy was not really important. What mattered to passengers how to get from one station to another, and where to change. Simplicity is genius. It reminds some of Mondrian, and social historian Eric Hobsbawm called it “the most original work of avant-garde art in Britain between the wars.” Beck took his inspiration from electrical circuit diagrams where there are straight lines and if you have to have a curve, it is a 45° one. It did meet with some resistance from the bosses, but when it was finally published in 1933, it was a huge hit with the public. In fact, London Underground have now made more money from the Tube map than they have from running trains.

The Underground is a popular venue for suicides. Of the three attempts each week, one is successful. “Jumpers”, as they are known to staff, prefer to die below ground; more deaths occur in underground than in overground stations. Apparently most deaths are caused by being crushed by the train, and not by electrocution. Those who survive may well be charged with offenses such as “endangering safety on the railway” and “obstruction of trains with intent“.  11:00 a.m. is the favoured time.

According to statistics for the nougties released by Transport for London (TfL) in 2011 the rate had gone up to 80 per year, as compared with 46 in the year 2000. This was put down to the global financial crisis. The worst-affected station was King’s Cross St. Pancras while the numbers for the decade by line were as follows:

145 Northern Line

99 Central Line

92 Piccadilly Line

81 District Line

27 Jubilee Line

When there is a suicide a certain Inspector Sands may be called. It may sound like the protagonist of an English detective series, but it is actually a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the United Kingdom, including Network Rail and London Underground, to alert staff and other agencies, such as the police, to an emergency or potential emergency situation without creating panic among the public. The emergency might be a death on the track, a fire or bomb scare The automated public address announcement can be generated automatically by the station’s fire warning system, or can be activated from the station control. “Mr Sands” has long been used as a code for “fire” in theatres, where “Mr Sands is in the foyer” means that a fire has broken out in the foyer.

The role that Underground stations played in the Second World War is well known. We have all seen images of Londoners sheltering from The Blitz in tube stations. But, at first the government hadn’t wanted to let the public to take refuge in its platforms and tunnels during air raids. However, the heavy raids of September, 1940 eventually forced them to relent.  The conditions in the tunnels could be pretty unpleasant, and safety was not assured even within the bowels of London. The most horrific incident on the tube took place at Bethnal Green on 3 March, 1943 during an air raid. A woman with a child tripped at the bottom of a spiral staircase leading to the Central line platforms, and in the ensuing panic many others fell and were crushed to death by the sheer force of those trying to get down the staircase. It was later found that 173 people had died from suffocation. Since the end of the war the Underground has been marked by tragedy on many other occasions. The three most famous incidents are:

The Moorgate crash (1975)

King’s Cross Fire (1987)

July 7 Bombings (2005)

While the Tube may not be growing now, we are seeing the growth of complementary systems. The Docklands Light Railway, which is almost entirely unmanned, serves Canary Wharf. And then there’s Crossrail. This massive project, due to open in 2018, will link Berkshire and Buckinghamshire via Greater London to Essex and Kent. If it’s like the commuter trains in Madrid, it will also be a handy alternative to the tube in central London. In the Spanish capital a journey from Nuevos Ministerios to Sol, which used to take half an hour, can now be done in just three minutes. It’s going to be difficult to represent all these new services on a map. Boris Johnson got back to London after one of his foreign jaunts to discover that the river Thames had been removed. Boris sprang into action and London’s artery was rapidly reinstated. Let’s hope that it can continue for another 150 years.

Tube trivia

February 17, 2013

Here is some trivia I found on the internet and in Peter Ackroyd’s book London Under:

The London Underground currently has 270 stations and 402km of track. It carries 1,107 million passengers each year.

There is only one one-syllable station – Bank. Two stations have six consecutive consonants Knightsbridge and Aldwych.

Mark Twain, who was living in London at the time, was one of the passengers on the inaugural journey of the Central Line in 1900.

The building of these tunnels deep beneath the earth had dangers of its own; by the early years of the twentieth century they were bored by a rotary excavator that had knives at its front digging out the earth and depositing it onto a conveyor belt. Yet the atmospheric pressure at these depths was very high, and a report written in 1908 informed the Institution of Civil Engineers that “a great deal of illness resulted among the men, but there were not many fatal cases.” The workmen were suffering from the disorder known to deep-sea divers as “the bends.” On one occasion the air escaped through the bed of the Thames and boiled 3 feet high above the surface, overturning a boat.

The first fatality occurred in the autumn of 1864. A railway guard at Portland Road station noticed a couple at the top of the stairs. He told them to hurry as the train was approaching. “Come on, Kate,” the man said. The couple hurried down the steps. A short while later the body of the dying woman was found on the rails. She had been drinking with her companion, and had apparently fallen onto the line.

The Bakerloo line was opened in 1906, after parliamentary permission was given (it is rumoured) because MPs wanted a quick route up to the cricket at Lord’s.

The mosquitoes in the London underground are genetically different to their cousins on the surface. Tube mosquitoes – or Culex pipiens f. molestus – will bite mice, rats, dogs and, as regular passengers will have noticed, humans. Hence “molestus”.

1 in 300m: Chance of any given tube journey resulting in a fatal accident.

In 1911 the first escalator was introduced at Earls Court station, to unite the platforms of the District and Piccadilly Lines. The promotional literature promised that the passenger “can step on to the stairlift at once, and be gently carried to his train. A boon that the mere man will also appreciate is the fact that he will not be prohibited from smoking, as in the lift, for the stairlift is made entirely of fireproof material.” A porter was employed to shout out, through a device known as a stentorphone, “This way to the moving staircase! The only one of its kind in London! NOW running! The world’s wonder!” Some travellers screamed at the prospect of alighting from the moving steps, and placards invited them to “step off with the left foot.” A man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down the escalator to instil confidence in the nervous passengers. It was, according to a contemporary report, “as good as a joy-wheel.” An experimental spiral escalator was Holloway Road tube station by an American company, but it was never used

The Victoria line was opened by the Queen (under whose garden it runs) in 1969. It’s one of only two lines (the other being Waterloo and City) where you’re completely underground as you travel from one end to the other.

33km per hour: Average speed of a tube train, including stops.

The locomotives themselves were given the names of tyrants—Czar, Kaiser and Mogul—or of voracious insects such as Locust, Hornet and Mosquito. This was a tribute to their power. One of them was named Pluto, the god of the underworld.

300m: The shortest distance between two adjacent stations, from Leicester Square to Covent Garden.

6.3km: The longest distance between two adjacent stations, from Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer.

The US talk show host Jerry Springer is the most famous person to have come into the world in a London underground station. He was born at Highgate station on 13 February 1944, where his mother had taken shelter from a Luftwaffe bombing raid.

The longest line is the Central Line, which runs 74 kilometres and serves 49 stations. Just 45 percent of the entire network is actually underground.

The story behind the song #1: I Don’t Like Mondays

February 10, 2013

All the playing’s stopped in the playground now

She wants to play with her toys a while.

And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning

And the lesson today is how to die.

And then the bullhorn crackles,

And the captain crackles,

With the problems and the hows and whys.

And he can see no reasons

‘Cause there are no reasons

What reason do you need to die?

The final verse of I Don’t Like Mondays

It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy. Bob Geldof talking about the song




I’ve used I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats countless times in class.  This type of song, with its horrifying backstory, always serves as an excellent springboard for further discussion. Curiously, though many of my students have heard it before, very rarely do they know what it is about. The most common interpretation is that it describes the frustration of going back to work after a long weekend. But even if you think you know the story well, there may well be a lot of details that you just weren’t aware of. So, here is my take on the Boomtown Rats’ magnum opus:

On January 29, 1979 in San Diego, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer positioned herself by a window in her living room and began randomly shooting at the children who were waiting outside Grover Cleveland Elementary School across the street. Her weapon, a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 calibre rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition, had been a Christmas present from her father. Spencer claimed she had really wanted a radio, and she suspected that her father wanted her to kill herself. If that is so, it would seem a rather strange choice of weapon.

The shooting would claim the lives of Principal Burton Wragg and Mike Suchar, the Head Custodian. Eight students and a police officer were also injured. Wragg died trying to help the children, and Suchar was killed while trying to pull Wragg to safety. The fact that no children died was not due to a lack of intent on Spencer’s part, but to sheer luck. After firing thirty rounds, Spencer barricaded herself inside her home, where she would stay for almost seven hours before finally surrendering. During the siege she spoke to a reporter by telephone. When asked why she did it, she is alleged to have replied:

“I don’t like Mondays; this livens up the day.” She later declared that she did not recall making the remark.

Be that as it may, her alleged comment went around the world, and was the inspiration behind The Boomtown Rats 1979 song. I Don’t Like Mondays was a #1 hit in 32 different countries. However, it flopped in America, where Spencer’s parents unsuccessfully tried to have it banned. Whether the failure of the song, which only reached #73 in the US Billboard Hot 100, was due to the band being largely unknown in the U.S. or its controversial subject matter, is difficult to tell.

The Boomtown Rats’ lead singer Bob Geldof went on to organize Band Aid, Live Aid and Live 8. This charity work led to his being awarded a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II, in 1986. The KBE is the equivalent of knighthood given to people born outside of the Commonwealth realm. Although some media outlets continue to refer to him erroneously as “Sir Bob Geldof”, he should not be referred to using the title “Sir”.

Geldof’s efforts have not received universal acclaim. One critic is the English comedian, actor, radio and television presenter, singer, columnist, and author. Russell Brand, who made this joke while presenting the NME Awards in 2006:

“Really, it’s no surprise he’s (Geldof) such an expert on famine, he has after all been dining out on ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ for thirty years”. This put-down by Katy Perry’s ex may have been provoked by Geldof comparing him to a certain part of the female anatomy.

Anyway, back to the song. It’s been more than 35 years since the San Diego shootings, but gun politics remain among the most controversial issues the U.S.A. The clash between the individual right to bear arms and the responsibility of government to prevent gun crime has not been resolved. And the massacres keep coming. 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years have taken place in the United States. Finland, which lies in second place, has two incidents. Of the 11 deadliest shootings in the US, five have happened since 2007 onward. And this doesn’t include the horrific events at Sandy Hook.

It was historian Richard Hofstadter who popularised the phrase gun culture to describe America’s love affair with the gun. American attitudes to guns are something else. Who can forget the scene in Bowling for Columbine in which Michael Moore is offered a free Weatherby Mark V Magnum rifle for opening a bank account? 1% of public schools have daily metal detector checks and 5% of public schools have random metal detector checks. We associate gun culture with right-wing Republicans, but support for guns is more widespread. The Pink Pistols are an example of this. The gay and lesbian gun rights organization’s motto is “Pick on someone your own calibre.”  This is the spiel from their website:

The Pink Pistols get together at least once a month at local firing ranges to practice shooting, and to acquaint people new to firearms with them. We will help you select a firearm, acquire a permit, and receive proper training in its safe and legal use for self-defense. The more people know that members of our community may be armed, the less likely they will be to single us out for attack.

Guns have also entered the popular lexicon. My favourite expression has to be going postal. This term, which was first coined in the early 80s, refers to the violent rage some people experience at their workplaces. The expression gained popular currency after a series of incidents from 1983 onwards in which United States Postal Service workers shot and killed managers, co-workers, police officers and members of the public in deadly acts of rage. In fact, the homicide rate per 100,000 workers at postal facilities is actually lower than at many other workplaces, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

The right to own a gun and defend oneself then is considered by many citizens, especially those in the West and South, as a central feature of American identity. This attitude has deep historical roots. In the nation’s frontier history guns played a vital role as the country expanded westward, enabling settlers to protect themselves from Native Americans, outlaws, animals and anything else that moved. Frontier citizens would often take on responsibility for self-protection. In the war of independence the idea that guns were necessary against foreign tyranny took hold

At the heart of the debate we have the Second Amendment. I have to say that it does sound pretty unambiguous to me:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS, SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.  

In District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark 2008 case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defence within the home and within federal enclaves.

Accustomed to living in Europe all my life some of the arguments made by those who oppose gun control seem scandalous. Nevertheless, it is important to hear them. Whereas in Europe we believe that it is the exclusive role of the state to protect its citizens, in the United States the right to self-defence is considered fundamental. But the most shocking argument for me is the one about protecting themselves from their own government. This is not a universally accepted idea, but it does have many adherents. The idea is that if its own citizens are armed, then the government will think long and hard before trying to coerce the population – the government should feel afraid of its citizens.

I have to say that I am very sceptical about the success of gun control measures. Since 1990, Gallup has been polling Americans on gun control laws. In 1990 78% favoured introducing stricter controls. By 2010 this figure had fallen to just 44%. Guns are out there now and it will be difficult to go back. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2009 there were an estimated 310 million firearms in the United States (not including weapons on military bases), of which 114 million were handguns, 110 million were rifles, and 86 million were shotguns. There may be ways of restricting some kind of firearms, or who has access to guns, but the NRA is very powerful and I would be amazed if any meaningful measures were brought in.

What happened to Spencer? She was tried as an adult, and pleaded guilty to two charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was given an indeterminate sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. In 1993 Spencer became eligible for hearings to consider her suitability for parole. Since then four Board of Parole hearings have all produced the same outcome: Spencer is not fit to return to the community.

These hearings have seen her make a number of unsubstantiated claims. At the 1993 hearing Spencer said she had been a user of alcohol and drugs at the time of the crime, and that the tests showing she did not have drugs in her system when taken into custody must have been falsified. Eight years later she claimed that her had beat and sexually abused her. The parole board chairman said that, as she had not previously told any prison staff about the allegations, he doubted whether they were true. At her last hearing in 2009 parole board ruled Spencer would be denied parole, and that her case would not be considered again until 2019. She will be spending a lot of Mondays in prison before she is ever released.

Weird interview questions

February 10, 2013

My most successful post ever was 40 Oxbridge Interview questions, which included the following gems:

Can a thermostat think?

Do you think the Bavarian peasants of 1848 had an ideology?

If there was an omnipotent god would he be able to create a stone that he couldn’t lift?

Now I’m back with another selection of wacky questions. This time they come from job interviews.

  1. How many piano tuners are there in the world?
  2. Design a spice rack for a blind person.
  3. How would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?
  4. Why are manhole covers round rather than square?
  5. Please spell diverticulitis.
  6. How would you move MountFiji?
  7. Why do mirrors reverse right and left instead of up and down?
  8. Which way should the key turn in a car door to unlock it?
  9. If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?
  10. How many traffic lights are in Manhattan?
  11. If you are on a boat and toss a suitcase overboard, will the water level rise or fall?
  12. How much Mississippi River water flows past New Orleans each hour?
  13. What does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?
  14. If I put you in a sealed room with a phone that had no dial tone, how would you fix it?
  15. If you could remove any of the fifty U.S. states, which would it be?
  16. How many points are there on the globe where, by walking one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north, you reach the place where you started?
  17. How many times a day do a clock’s hands overlap?
  18. There are three ants at the three corners of a regular triangle. Each ant starts moving on a straight line toward another, randomly chosen corner. What is the probability that none of the ants collide?
  19. How do they make M&Ms?
  20. Name five uses of a stapler without staples.
  21. If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?
  22. Would Mahatma Gandhi have made a good software engineer?

Mr. Carson, we need to talk – getting language wrong in period dramas

February 3, 2013

Boardwalk Empire, The Hour, Mr Selfridge, Life on Mars, Downton Abbey and Mad Men – period dramas remain a staple of television schedules. The people who make these shows are famous for paying an obsessive attention to detail. Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, has a reputation for being a perfectionist and control freak. He is even said to have made the actors dress in period underwear. However, there is one area where the realism of the shows is often compromised – the language.  Luckily there is a man who can point these gaffes out. Step forward Ben Schmidt. This history graduate and member of the Harvard Cultural Observatory has harnessed the power of modern computers to analyse the accuracy of the dialogues in some of these top-rated shows. Google Labs and scientists at Harvard University have launched a word-search database based originally on 5.2 million books, published between 1500 and 2008. The Google Ngram Viewer charts the yearly count of selected letter combinations words, or phrases. It has become an essential tool in the new discipline of culturomics, a form of computational lexicology that studies human behaviour and cultural trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts. Schmidt is able to look at every single phrase to see if it really appeared in print in the period in which the series or film is set. He effectively has an anachronism machine that will ruthlessly hunt down any dodgy words or expressions in the script. He calls them prochronisms. This is when a word or expression is used in a script before it was actually coined. I’m going to look at his analysis of Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Lincoln.

Downton Abbey

I am a fan of the hit series, which is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. It depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their army of servants. I have seen all 25 episodes. The first series begins with news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and they are now up to the autumn of 1921. Language has changed a lot in the last 100 years. Here are some of the prochronisms that Schmidt found in the second series:

The First World War rears its ugly head and Downton Abbey is turned into a hospital. We hear that doctor Clarkson’s helpers aren’t trained in “specialist care”. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the phrase was never used before 1925. In another episode the household is relieved that the butler Carson did not suffer a “heart attack”; but that phrase was about 50 times rarer in 1917

Thomas, who began as first footman and then became under-butler, embarks on a new money-making scheme in the post-war black market. If you consult the OED, it has some uses of the phrase “black market” that date back to the 18th century. But this does not mean that it was in general use. It was during World War II that this happened.

And finally one which I never would have guessed:

Robert, Earl of Grantham: You don’t think she’d be happier with a more traditional set up?

This would seem perfectly innocuous. If I were to suspect anything, it would be set up. But the Earl of Grantham’s comparison would not have been made at the time. Apparently to talk about tradition on a sliding scale is ahistorical; either something was traditional or it wasn’t.

Schmidt makes a comparison between the famous 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The novel is set 100 years before Downton and Schmidt found that between 60 and 67% of the words are more common in 1815 than in 1995; for Downton, only about 50% are more common. Andrew Davies, who wrote the script, did have one big advantage – he could steal lines from Austen.

Mad Men

Set in the 1960s world of advertising, Mad Men reflects the changing moods and social mores of 1960s America. It is a wonderful show; I have not missed one of its 65 episodes, but they do sometimes slip up linguistically. This is particularly true in its use of business language, where modern boardroom lingo regularly creeps in:

Take the verb “leverage” for example. In one episode Pete Campbell bitterly complained that Philip Morris had used Sterling-Cooper “to leverage a sweeter deal” from another agency. This business metaphor, which has its origins in the banking sector, is a product of Reagan’s America, not Kennedy’s.

Schmidt also points that idioms such as “feel good about”, “match made in heaven”, “tough act to follow”, “make eye contact”, and “fantasize about”; all are at least ten times more common today than in the 1960s. We do actually have something that we can compare Mad Men with – TV shows that were actually made in that decade. The Twilight Zone is one such show, and it doesn’t use “feel good about” once in over 100 episodes.

Some mistakes can easily go under the radar. The phrase “I need to” is a surprisingly modern phenomenon. Books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. On the other hand, they would use “ought to” far more often than modern shows. According to Schmidt, movies and TV shows from 1960 to 1965 all use “ought to” more often than “need to”; every modern show set in the 1960s does the reverse. Getting frequency right is necessary if we want authenticity.

You may feel that scripts do not reflect real speech accurately. Then we have an even better source of English – the tape recordings of historical conversations of people speaking off the record. One famous source is the hours of conversations of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. I call this “grammar in the wild”, as opposed to the “grammar in captivity” that you get in textbooks. It makes fascinating reading and you can learn a lot about the way people spoke, admittedly from a particular social group. Schmidt checked hours and hours of secretly recorded White House conversations from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and found very different frequencies from those in the Mad Men episodes.


More recently Schmidt has been looking at Spielberg’s Lincoln. The award-winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay. In an interview on NPR he made the rather bold claim that he had checked every word in his script that sounded out of place. As Lincoln is set a full century before Mad Men, Schmidt was pretty confident that he would be able to prove Kushner wrong.

Despite Kushner’s claims words like “peace talks” inevitably slip in. This construction may have been used to describe negotiations involving the IRA and the PLO, but it doesn’t appear to be very common before Vietnam.

The phrase “13th Amendment” is also out of place. People would have said the “constitutional amendment” or the “slavery amendment.” It had been 60 years since the 12th amendment, which set out the procedure for electing the President and Vice President, and it was not typical to refer to the amendment numerically.

In another scene a character says:

You refused to say that all humans are, well… human!”

But in 1865, referring to people as “humans” would have been slang. To invoke the notion of universal equality, they would have, mentioned “all men”. Similarly people wouldn’t have talked about “racial equality” and “race equality“, but “Negro equality“.


Do these mistakes really matter? Is this just pedantry? I often refer to that L. P. Hartley quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. The language of the past is ultimately a foreign one. Scriptwriters and novelists may try to recreate the past, but they will never be able to “speak” like a true native. This is the difficulty of the enterprise. Even great novelists make mistakes. Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” was written in 1921, but set in the 1870s. She routinely used constructions like “marked trend” and “shoe-polish” that no one in the 1870s would have known. In fact, only 40% of its words are more common in the 1870s than the 1920s; worse than Downton Abbey.

We shouldn’t place accuracy above all other goals. There are far more substantial flaws. In the case of Lincoln, the film has been criticised for leaving out the role that slaves played in abolition. In a post I did about historical fiction I mentioned a historian who had complained about historical films. He said that they would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period. But then the characters opened their mouths and would say things that no one of that period would have come out with. It is more important to capture the spirit of the time than the exact words. But if TV shows and films want to fetishise authenticity so much, why don’t they use all the tools available? They could employ someone to analyse the dialogues. So, Mr. Weiner, if you are reading this, I’m offering my services. I can assure you that my rates are pretty reasonable.


I came across the work of Mr. Schmidt in a wonderful Lexicon Valley podcast. If you love language, I do recommend this show. Schmidt has his own website.

Anachronism watch

February 3, 2013

Here are a couple of videos featuring prochronisms: