Tag Archives: words

Some linguistic insanity

We’ve all heard stories of bizarre sentences resulting from, say, translating a piece of English into Russian and back again. I’m never sure whether these are true, apocryphal or embellished.

Well, yesterday I came across a website called Translation Party whose function is simply to generate these. It doesn’t translate things into Russian: you provide a piece of text, and it then repeatedly translates it into Japanese and back again until it achieves “equilibrium”. That is, it stops when translating the English text it has arrived at into Japanese and back no longer changes the text. I think it uses Google Translate or some such thing.

Here, for example, is the chain of English “sentences” resulting from typing in “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”:

  • shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
  • I was on a summer’s day, what should you compare?
  • I am on the day of the summer, compared to what it was?
  • I, on the day of the summer, do you have anything to compare it?
  • I, on the day of the summer, if you have nothing to compare it?
  • I, for the summer, to compare what is not?
  • I was in the summer of 2006 in comparison to what was not?
  • I have the summer of 2006, what was that compared to?
  • I have compared to the summer of 2006 or any year?
  • I compared the summer of 2006, or any year?
  • My summer of 2006, or any year comparison?
  • My summer of 2006, or any comparison of the year?
  • My summer of 2006, or from any comparison?
  • My summer of 2006, or from or any comparison?
  • My summer of 2006, any comparison or later?
  • In the summer of 2006 I was, or any comparison?
  • The summer of 2006, or is he or any comparisons?
  • Summer of 2006, or any comparison of him?
  • Summer of 2006, any comparison of him?
  • Summer of 2006, any comparison of him?

Don’t ask me where 2006 came from (as I don’t speak Japanese, and therefore have no idea.)

Interestingly, if I make the tiny correction of capitalising the beginning of the starting sentence, 2006 doesn’t get mentioned at all and the site arrives at

  • This summer, like me, you can compare what you are?

via a much shorter chain of sentences which includes the decidedly un-Shakespearean

  • This summer, I was like, What can compare?

I have a horrible feeling that in not many years’ time that may well be standard English grammar.

Each time you enter some text, the website creates a link to the resulting page. Thus if you want to see the steps which led from this tweet from one of my Twitter contacts

  • Good evening, people. 🙂 Wow, now that I sat down again I’m tired. Ug


  • Evening, good people. I am now on a Saturday, I’m currently in Uganda 🙂

all you need do is go to http://translationparty.com/#1013689.

Have fun!

A search Wordle

WordPress provides a wealth of statistics about who clicked what to get to a blog, what they clicked when they were there, and so on (all unidentifiable; don’t worry!). You can get paranoid in them for hours.

A particularly interesting one is the list of search terms which people used to find the page, but it’s also quite hard to digest. You just get a list of the terms and how many times they were used.

I was pondering my list of searches, trying to make sense of it, and then I remembered Wordle, the addictive website where you feed some text in and out comes a “word cloud” in which the size of each word is determined by how many times it occurs.

Ideal! I copied my list of search terms, put them in and played around with the settings for a while, and out came:

Word cloud of search engine terms

Image created at http://wordle.net/
Click to see full size

which is much easier to visualise. Because it’s, er, visual. And, I might add, the brain has a lot of processing power devoted to visual information. (I wonder what an audio equivalent would be? Now that might be fun!)

Actually that particular wordle isn’t 100% accurate, because in my eagerness I forgot that some of the terms (e.g. the impressive pluto planet dwarf plutoid plutino) had been used twice and should have been pasted in twice. Or maybe it is accurate, if it was the same person returning? Who knows? (Answer: the person who used it. OK, point taken.)

Now I’m wondering: does Wordle translate the number of times a word is used into the total size of the word, taking into account how many letters it has, or does it merely translate it into the font size? Hmmm . . . OK, OK, in theory I could work that out by counting the words myself and looking at the result, but that seems like a lot of work at 12:50 am, so I’ll be content not to know for now.

Why are seconds called seconds?

Minute minutes?

I still have a few snatches of memory from childhood about learning to tell the time, and learning how it was divided up. In particular I remember when I first learnt how long a second actually was (considerably longer than I expected) and that there were sixty of them in a minute.

I also learnt that minute wasn’t spelt minnit or anything like that. And I already knew that minute meant “very small”, which seemed odd, since really it was the seconds that were small, not the minutes. And I half-remember thinking it was strange that minutes weren’t called firsts. Why not?

I didn’t know, but it was fun that the words were like that. Evidently I’ve been interested in language for a very long time.

A prime example

In my teens, I got interested in reading popular mathematics books, such as Martin Gardner’s collections from his “Mathematical Diversions” page in Scientific American. (That started quite early too: I remember being excited in my last year at junior school, which translates as age 10, when our class teacher got us to make flexagons. These are like a sort of hexagonal origami conjuring trick which make an appearance in one of his books. I think the one we made was the hexahexaflexagon. Sadly if I tell you about them now it’ll be too much of a digression from this post.)

Sometimes in maths you’ve been using a symbol—say the letter a—to represent something, then find yourself wanting to represent a similar-but-different thing. One traditional way is to simply add a little mark to the symbol: a becomes a′, then maybe a′′ and so on.

From the popular maths books I learnt, somewhat to my surprise, that whereas at school we very logically called these symbols a-dashed and a-double-dashed, having added little dashes to them, the American books called them by the rather strange names a-prime and a-double-prime. What a strange word. How had they been primed? They didn’t have anything to do with prime numbers. How odd.

A degree of confusion

And there was another intriguing thing: when I learnt geometry—specifically, angles—it was apparent that it wasn’t just hours which were divided up into minutes and seconds: degrees were, too. Which was interesting, but the notation was puzzling: 33 degrees, 12 minutes and 3 seconds was written 33° 12′ 3′′ .

“How confusing!” I thought, “Surely 12′ 3′′ means 12 feet and 3 inches? It’s bad enough making them sound like times without also making them look like distances!

So what on earth is going on?

These questions niggled me for years, because although they were intriguing I never quite got round to looking them up.

The revelation

The answer appeared out of the blue about a year ago, and everything fell into place. Very neatly and satisfyingly. (Except it would be more satisfying if a foot had sixty inches in, but never mind.)

Thirty years or so after first wondering about minutes and seconds, I was reading a fascinating book about early mathematics. [1] Among other things it talked about the Babylonians who, as you probably know, were the ones who divided a day into 24 hours, an hour into 60 minutes and a minute into 60 seconds. In fact, they did all their calculations in base 60. (By the way, they were able to solve quadratic equations in 1700 BC, knew Pythagoras’ Theorem many centuries before Pythagoras even lived, and were able to calculate square roots so as to use it).

The Babylonians were the only people who had a decent system for representing fractions. For us, 1:23:45 means an hour, 23 minutes and 45 seconds; for them, the equivalent in their writing meant the number 1, plus 23 sixtieths, plus 45 sixtieths of sixtieths, and they’d have happily gone on adding smaller and smaller divisions, like we do with our decimal places.

The astronomer Ptolemy also featured in the book. He used some ingenious geometry to work out a trigonometry table in half-degree steps. [2] In his introduction he commented that by far the best system for representing fractions was the Babylonian one and that he’d therefore adopted it.

And now comes the Great Revelation. Ptolemy himself wrote in Greek, but once maths like his started appearing in Latin, what did people call their fractions of a degree? The answer turns out to be:

  • “the first small part”: pars minuta prima
  • “the second small part”: pars minuta secunda!

Look at that for a moment. Isn’t it beautiful? All my questions answered in those two short phrases. It’s obvious, but let’s spell it out anyway, and enjoy it all making sense:

  • A minute of time is the first small part, or  pars minuta prima, of an hour.
  • A minute of arc  is the first small part, or  pars minuta prima, of a degree.
  • A second of time is the second small part, or pars minuta secunda, of an hour.
  • A second of arc  is the second small part, or pars minuta secunda, of a degree.
  • The little mark you use for marking a minute—a pars minuta prima—is called a prime.
  • To mark a second [small part] you use two of them: ′′.  Presumably if we used sixtieths of seconds, we’d call them thirds and mark them ′′′.
  • Feet and inches are also first and second small parts of something, so they too get labelled with ′ and ′′.

So all those years ago, I was right. Minutes are “minute”. Seconds do come second! Minutes were called “firsts”, but in Latin.

In a way it’s a shame about the feet and inches, because they don’t quite fit the scheme. An inch isn’t a sixtieth of a foot. On the other hand, isn’t a fathom five feet (sixty inches)? or is it six? I can’t remember.

So I don’t quite know about the feet and inches. But I was stunned when I came across those two short phrases which made everything else fall into place. Isn’t language amazing?


[1] Asger Aaboe, Episodes from the Early History of Mathematics, Cambridge University Press, 1997. Back
[2] In our terms, what he calculated was twice the sine of half a given angle. Back


An exercise in astrolexicography

Plutoids and plutinos . . .

When the former planet Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” fairly recently, two new words were defined by the International Astronomical Union: plutoid and plutino. If you ask me, these would be damn good words whatever they meant: they belong to that group of words which seem to exist as much because they’re fun to say as because they’re needed.

Several weeks ago one of my contacts on Twitter, @Exoplanetology, came up with the word exoplutoid, meaning a plutoid in a planetary system other than our own.

Should you wish to know, a plutino is an object which, like Pluto, orbits the Sun twice for every three orbits made by Neptune. (This is called a 2:3 resonance, and the object remains trapped in that orbit.) A plutoid, roughly speaking, is simply a dwarf planet which orbits the Sun further out than Neptune does.

I suppose an exoplutoid might be a dwarf planet in another star system, further from its star than the last convincing planet.

Nice words. Are there more?

Plutonyms in the dictionary

Let’s proceed with caution. A look at the dictionary reveals that a number of pluto- words already exist. Furthermore, not all of them are anything to do with Pluto. Plutocrats, being plutocratic in a plutocracy, get their name from the Greek word ploutos, which means wealth.

In geology, plutonic relates to rocks which have solidified from a molten state at the fiery depths associated with the god Pluto and his underworld, and a pluton is a “body of instrusive igneous rock”. Geology also uses the word plutonism in this connection.

In chemistry, the element plutonium has nothing to do with plutonism; the elements uranium, neptunium and plutonium take their names (rather nicely) from Uranus, and Neptune and Pluto, which were all planets at the time.

Plutogenous neologisms

Given the existence of all these words already, are we to conclude that Pluto has contributed all it can to the English language? I think not!

There are still plenty of Pluto-related situation requiring words. Some of the situations are more “serious” than others. But all need words, and it is my pleasure to present them to you. They are grouped by function rather than alphabetically. Use and enjoy.

similar in material or structure to Pluto.
exoplutoid, exoplutino:
a body in another planetary system analogous to a plutoid or plutino in ours.
originating from, or generated or caused by, Pluto and its status. For example, plutogenous fisticuffs might result from a heated discussion about its classification. See plutonym, below.
removal of Pluto or a Pluto-like object, e.g. from a list of recognised planets or (as a more advanced engineering project) from a planetery system
relating to the creation of Pluto-like objects, i.e. to plutogenesis.

a word created with reference to Pluto and its status; that is, one which enters the language as a plutogenous neologism.
the study of plutonyms.
the creation of a dictionary or glossary of plutonyms
an inability to remember what Pluto is officially classified as these days.
suffering from or relating to plutamnesia.
someone who suffers from plutamnesia.
1. condition of accidentally using the wrong plutonym, e.g. calling a plutoid a plutino or describing plutogenous situation as plutogenic. The corresponding adjective is paraplutotic.
2. erroneous identification of an object as Pluto.

Got any more? Post them here and I’ll do the plutolexicographer’s job of gathering them together, time and energy permitting. Especially if they’re good.