After seeing myself cited repeatedly as the source of

Zwicky’s Law, which states categorically that
 “The more irrelevant garbage you put into a sentence, the better it sounds.”

I pondered. This is from this source, but all the cites go back to John Lawler. The sentiment is one I’ve expressed several times (in connection with grammaticality judgments on specific sentences), though not in fact categorically, and usually light-heartedly, but I didn’t recognize this wording, and couldn’t find the source. So I wrote John to pin the thing down. Turns out it’s Linguists’ Lore.

John says in e-mail:

All I know is that George [Lakoff] told me about it, when I was at UM [the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor] studying with him and Robbie [Robin Lakoff] and assimilating my perceptions to Generative Semantics, syntax, and academic research (which were all subjects I’d never thought much about before).

Supposedly the quotation comes from something you said while y’all [me, George, Robbie, Haj Ross, etc.] were in Boston [early in the 1960s!], and it’s in train with some other reputed Zwicky discoveries I heard about from George and Robbie, like “scanting out” (from thinking more than a minute about the syntax of ‘scant’), etc. [On scanting out, see this Language log posting, but note that when Haj and I compared notes, each of us believed *the other* had come up with the expression, and we both remembered the setting vividly (and identically). Memory is tricky.]

I think the  “irrelevant garbage” formulation is George’s, and I agree it’s a memorable phrase, but that’s all I know about it. You’re in The Lore, Arnold.

So it’s a ghost quotation. As the ghost in question, I choose to repudiate the categorically. But I’m happy to be connected with the general idea.

(At least one site connects Zwicky’s Law with the astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky. Oh my.)


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