Archive for ‘Language’

July 11, 2019

Scunthorpe Problem

Dirty Words

The Scunthorpe problem is the unintentional blocking of websites, e-mails, forum posts, or search results by a spam filter or search engine because their text contains a string of letters that appear to have an obscene or otherwise unacceptable meaning. Names, abbreviations, and technical terms are most often cited as being affected by the issue.

The problem arises since computers can easily identify strings of text within a document, but interpreting words of this kind requires considerable ability to interpret a wide range of contexts, possibly across many cultures, which is an extremely difficult task. As a result, broad blocking rules may result in false positives affecting innocent phrases.

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May 14, 2019

Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar is a dystopian New Wave science fiction novel written by John Brunner and first published in 1968. The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1969.

The story is set in 2010, mostly in the United States. A number of plots and many vignettes are played out in this future world, based on Brunner’s extrapolation of social, economic, and technological trends, such as an enormous population and its impact: social stresses, eugenic legislation, widening social divisions, future shock and extremism.

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April 27, 2019

JT LeRoy

Sarah

Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy is a literary persona created in the 1990s by American writer Laura Albert. JT was presented as the author of three books of fiction, which were purportedly semi-autobiographical accounts by a teenage boy of his experiences of poverty, drug use, and emotional and sexual abuse in his childhood and adolescence from rural West Virginia to California.

Albert wrote these works, and communicated with people in the persona of JT via phone and e-mail. Following the release of the first novel ‘Sarah,’ Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop began to make public appearances as the supposed writer. The works attracted considerable literary and celebrity attention, and the authenticity of LeRoy has been a subject of debate, even as details of the creation came to light in the 2000s.

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February 13, 2019

Kakistocracy

Drain the swamp

kakistocracy [kak-uh-stok-ruh-see] is a system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens. The word is derived from two Greek words, ‘kakistos’ (‘worst’) and ‘kratos’ (‘rule’).

The word was coined as early as the seventeenth century. It also was used by English author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829, but gained significant use in the first decades of the twenty-first century to criticize populist governments emerging in different democracies around the world.

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January 5, 2019

Gadfly

Plato Apology

gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities. The term is originally associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, in his defense when on trial for his life.

The term ‘gadfly’ was used by Plato in the ‘Apology’ to describe Socrates’s relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense or be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.

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December 30, 2018

The Negro Motorist Green Book

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American roadtrippers. It was originated and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws, when open and often legally prescribed discrimination against non-whites was widespread.

Although pervasive racial discrimination and poverty limited black car ownership, the emerging African-American middle class bought automobiles as soon as they could, but faced a variety of dangers and inconveniences along the road, from refusal of food and lodging to arbitrary arrest. In response, Green wrote his guide to services and places relatively friendly to African-Americans, eventually expanding its coverage from the New York area to much of North America, as well as founding a travel agency.

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August 1, 2018

Star-crossed

Pyramus and Thisbe

Star-crossed‘ or ‘star-crossed lovers’ is a phrase describing a pair of lovers whose relationship is often thwarted by outside forces. The term encompasses other meanings, but originally means the pairing is being ‘thwarted by a malign star’ or that the stars are working against the relationship. Astrological in origin, the phrase stems from the belief that the positions of the stars ruled over people’s fates, and is best known from the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Shakespeare. Such pairings are often said to be doomed from the start.

It also refers to destiny and the inevitability of the two characters’ paths crossing. It usually but not always refers to unlucky outcomes, since Romeo and Juliet’s affair ended tragically. Further, it connotes that the lovers entered into their union without sufficient forethought or preparation; that the lovers may not have had adequate knowledge of each other or that they were not thinking rationally.

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July 30, 2018

Lügenpresse

Fake News

Lügenpresse (lit: ‘lying press’) is a pejorative political term used largely by German political movements for the printed press and the mass media at large, when it is believed not to have the quest for truth at the heart of its coverage.

The Nazis adopted the term for their propaganda against the Jewish, communist, and later the foreign press.

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July 6, 2018

Slippery Slope

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

slippery slope argument (SSA), in logic, critical thinking, political rhetoric, and caselaw, is a consequentialist logical device in which a party asserts that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant (usually negative) outcome.

The core of the slippery slope argument is that a specific decision under debate is likely to result in unintended consequences. The strength of such an argument depends on the warrant, i.e. whether or not one can demonstrate a process that leads to the significant effect. This type of argument is sometimes used as a form of fear mongering, in which the probable consequences of a given action are exaggerated in an attempt to scare the audience.

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June 7, 2018

Swan Song

led zeppelin

The swan song is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans sing a beautiful song just before their death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in ancient Greece by the 3rd century BCE, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

In Greek mythology, the swan was a bird consecrated to Apollo and was therefore considered a symbol of harmony and beauty.

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May 29, 2018

Trust, But Verify

Reagan and Gorbachev by Terry Mosher

Trust, but verify is a Russian proverb that became well known in English when used by President Ronald Reagan on multiple occasions in the context of nuclear disarmament.

Suzanne Massie, an American author living in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the proverb, advising him that ‘The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few. You are an actor – you can learn them very quickly.’ The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

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October 3, 2017

Whole Nine Yards

The Doom Pussy

The whole nine yards is a colloquial American phrase meaning ‘everything, the whole lot’ or, adjectivally, ‘all the way.’ Its origin is unknown and has been described by Yale University librarian Fred R. Shapiro as ‘the most prominent etymological riddle of our time.’

The Oxford English Dictionary finds the earliest published non-idiomatic use in an 1855 Indiana newspaper article. The earliest known idiomatic use of the phrase is from 1907 in southern Indiana. The phrase is related to the expression the ‘whole six yards,’ used around the same time in Kentucky and South Carolina. Both phrases are variations on the ‘whole ball of wax,’ first recorded in the 1880s. They are part of a family of expressions in which an odd-sounding item, such as ‘enchilada,’ ‘shooting match,’ ‘shebang,’ or ‘hog,’ is substituted for ‘ball of wax.’ The choice of the number nine may be related to the expression ‘To the nines’ (to perfection).

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