I’m sorry for the, er,

“sponsored link” that appeared in this space. Seems I’m still dealing with the aftermath of the Associated Content password leak. Another reminder to always make secure passwords and use different ones on different sites.


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How the Leopard Got His Spots

As a child, I remember finding my father’s copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories on the bookshelf, and being absolutely entranced by them. The most bewitching to me were the ones telling of how the alphabet came to be. They seemed just plausible enough, and I was wrapped up in the excitement the characters experienced as they made a carp’s open mouth for the “ah” sound, &c.

Ampersands in 3 typefaces

The ampersand in Clarendon (magenta), Book Antiqua Italic (cyan), and Helvetica Neue (yellow).

There’s something of the same exciting sense of discovery to Keith Houston’s excellent blog, Shady Characters, which tells the (actual) origin stories of familiar punctuation marks. It’s only updated once every couple of weeks, but it’s evident that it’s because of the amount of research that goes into each exhaustively footnoted post. I thought

I pretty much knew that the ampersand (&) came from a ligature of E and t, from the Latin et, but Mr. Houston surprised me with how much can be said about the ampersand’s origins.

Do yourself a favor and start with the introduction. The site is so well-designed that it feels like sitting down with a good book. Before you know it, you’ll be caught up and anxious for the next chapter.

Notice per the FTC: I have not received any payment, in cash or in kind, for the preceding endorsement.

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The Importance of Bing Earnest

On the Official Google Blog, the tech company has accused Microsoft’s Bing search engine of stealing its search results from Google. Other sites reproduce search engine results all the time, though it’s probably bad form if not illegal to reproduce them without credit whatsoever. Of interest in all this is the way Google caught the miscreants: with made-up words.

The engineers at Google created about 100 made-up words and phrases that real users were unlikely ever to come up with on their own, such as hiybbprqag. They then caused Google to return one or two particular, recognizable results for each query, such as a seating chart for a theater in Los Angeles for the above word. Using computers with fresh installations of Windows, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 browser, and the Bing Toolbar, they searched for the false words and phrases on Google and on Bing. After a few weeks, the exact results from Google started showing up on Bing. These words were not on the resultant pages themselves; the only pages on the entire Internet linking to these pages would have been those Google search results.

Google’s operative theory is that Microsoft uses the Bing toolbar or something else to monitor what users are searching for, even on other search engines such as Google.

This high-tech method of catching copycats has some decidedly low-tech precedents. Dictionaries, encyclopedias and even maps have a long tradition of fictitious entries, both for the lexicographers’ amusement and to provide evidence in case of copying. In 2005, it was leaked that the latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary had a false entry somewhere in the E’s. After quite a bit of detective work by a number of amateurs, the New Yorker reported that it had been discovered to be esquivalience.

esquivalience—n. the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities . . . late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away.

After publication of the dictionary, the website dictionary.com fell for it, publishing the definition and citing Webster’s¹ New Millennium dictionary. (It’s not still up, sadly.) Such a fake entry, following the usage of the New Yorker article, has been termed a Mountweazel, after another such entry in the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia.

So it seems that Bing’s esquivalience made hiybbprqag a Mountweazel.

Link (Google blog)

Link (New Yorker article)

Extra credit (Wikipedia entry for Fictitious entry)

1. It may interest you to note that “Webster’s” is not trademarked for dictionary names. Any old fool can call his dictionary that, and many do. Don’t ever start a speech with “Webster’s defines compassion as…” — you will look ignorant and hackneyed.


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The Whistled Language of the Canary Islands

On the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, the native Guanches who lived there long before the Spanish conquest had a whistled language. The sound of whistling carries much farther than spoken language, so whistling allowed communication across La Gomera’s steep ravines and thick forests. The spoken language has since died out, but the residents of La Gomera have kept the whistling tradition, which they call Silbo Gomero, alive. The language has four vowels and four consonants, and it’s even taught in the schools.

Andrew Bird, eat your heart out.

Link (via LanguageHat)

[Edited 2/3: Changed the video out for a shorter and more informative one.]


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