Archive for the ‘Psychology of language’ Category

Morning spunk: same word, different word

May 27, 2016

In a sense, a re-play of an earlier posting, “spunk” of 3/16/11, which was about spunk ‘spirit, mettle, courage, pluck’ vs. spunk ‘semen, seminal fluid’. Now spunk appeared as a morning name for me a few days ago, along with the ‘pluck’ context of the interview between Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore) and Lou Grant (played by Ed Asner) in the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show: Grant: “You’ve got spunk … I hate spunk.”

That led me to NOAD2, where I found a single noun entry with three subentries:

1 informal courage and determination.
2 tinder; touchwood.
3 Brit. vulgar slang semen.

(Note: seminal spunk might be more common in BrE than AmE, but it is scarcely unknown in AmE, as a search will readily confirm.)

Speaking informally, this dictionary presents these three as a single word with three different uses (all of which ae available in my speech), while I would have thought these were three different words which just happened to be identical in spelling and pronunciation. What could possibly unite them?


Coffeenyms and reservation names

October 7, 2014

From Andras Kornai, a link on my Facebook timeline, tagged as “for Mr. Alexander Adams”: a Schwa Fire piece, “The Name on the Cup: Brewing the Perfect Coffeenym” by Greg Uyeno. About choosing a name for ordering in a coffee shop with lots of background noise. A related task is choosing a name for making reservations over the phone (I have a small amount of local fame in some circles for using Alexander Adams as a reservation name.)

Then there’s Uyeno’s playful coinage coffeenym.


Earworm therapy

September 10, 2014

A Leigh Rubin Rubes cartoon, via Facebook:

Brain surgery to remove the notes of the offending tune, now kept in a jar, like captured fireflies.


garden pathing

September 5, 2014

From Chris Waigl on Facebook:

Garden path alert. After reading this for the first three times, I was left with an extraneous “appear to have been a loan”. Got it the fourth time.

Both McDonnells, who now face years in prison, were acquitted of lesser charges of making false statements on loan applications, while Ms. McDonnell was convicted on a charge she alone faced, of obstructing a grand jury investigation by trying to make a gift of $20,000 worth of designer dresses and shoes appear to have been a loan. (link to NYT)

At first (second and third), Chris understood that Ms. McDonnell was convicted of trying to make a $20,000 gift of dresses and shoes (to some person or organization). She thought the sentence was finished – but then it went on!

A classic garden path sentence, to use the term of art (in linguistics and the psychology of language) that has been around since 1970 and has often been used on Language Log and this blog.


Go back, reader, go back

April 24, 2014

In the April 18th issue of Psychological Science, an article by Elizabeth R. Schotter, Randy Tran, and Keith Rayner (all of UC San Diego), entitled “Don’t Believe What You Read (Only Once): Comprehension Is Supported by Regressions During Reading”.

(I came across this first on the Association for Psychological Science site (behind a wall), but there’s an account of the research available for non-members here.)


Is That Jesus in Your Toast?

April 12, 2014

In last Sunday’s NYT Sunday Review, a piece under this title by Ana Gantman and Jay van Bavel (NYU Psychology). The lead-in:

Take a close look at your breakfast. Is that Jesus staring out at you from your toast?

Such apparitions can be as lucrative as they are seemingly miraculous. In 2004, a Florida woman named Diane Duyser sold a decade-old grilled cheese sandwich that bore a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary. She got $28,000 for it on eBay.

The psychological phenomenon of seeing something significant in an ambiguous stimulus is called pareidolia. Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches and other pareidolia remind us that almost any object is open to multiple interpretations. Less understood, however, is what drives some interpretations over others.


Three for Pi Day

March 14, 2014

Three cartoons this morning: A Dilbert on writing conventions, a Pearls Before Swine with yet another word avalanche (a repeated theme in this strip), and a Zits on reading and listening:


Earworm therapy

April 2, 2013

From the Telegraph on 3/24/13, a story by science correspondent Richard Gray headed:

Get that tune out of your head – scientists find how to get rid of earworms

Scientists claim to have found a way to help anyone plagued by earworms – those annoying tunes that lodge themselves inside our heads and repeat on an endless loop.



March 28, 2013

(Postings beget other postings.)

People have been writing me to say that at first they misread abutilon in my posting on this plant as ablution. In Google+, Robert Coren called this an “anagrammatic” misreading; this isn’t literally so — people aren’t going to misread glean as angel, for instance — but it’s right in spirit. Three things are crucial: the status of abutilon as a very rare word, one that many people don’t know at all and others see very infrequently; the relationship between the spellings ABUTILON and ABLUTION; and the frequency of TION as word element in English.


Magnetic synesthesia

January 29, 2013

An arresting summary in This Week in Psychological Science, of “Learning, Memory, and Synesthesia” by Nathan Witthoft and Jonathan Winawer (in Psychological Science for January 10, 2013, (24)1):

Individuals with color-grapheme synesthesia experience color when viewing written letters or numerals. Although some studies examining whether there is a learning component to synesthesia have returned negative results, these studies have examined very small numbers of individuals. Witthoft and Winawer revisit this question with the benefit of a larger sample. Eleven individuals with color-grapheme synesthesia completed a color-letter matching task in which they indicated the shade of the color they associated with each letter of the alphabet. The researchers found that participants’ color-letter associations closely matched those found in Fisher Price magnetic letters sets — which all but one of the participants had owned as a child. The authors suggest that these findings demonstrate a need to include learning and memory components into explanations of synesthesia.

The Fisher Price alphabet:

The full article (available only to subscribers) is very clear that these results don’t mean that some number of synesthetes have simply learned the letter-color associations from refrigerator magnets. For one thing, a huge number of children have been exposed to the Fisher Price alphabet, but the number of synesthetes is small. Witthoft and Winawer suggest that a small number of children are inclined to synesthesia, and that for them, exposure to colored letters and numbers can provide models for their associations.