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Category: computing (page 1 of 6)

Shitgibbon frequencies

Discussion in the linguistic world has been swirling of late around a set of peculiar sweary compounds like shitgibbon, wankpuffin, and jizztrumpet. Ben Zimmer reveals their history, Taylor Jones describes their construction, and Gretchen McColloch discusses their constraints. She also proposes the term shitgibbon compounds, which I think is smashing, and I’m going to use it here.

Shitgibbon compounds aren’t new; Arika Okrent pointed out in a recent episode of Talk the Talk that one such construction, scumbucket, has been popular since the 70s. It appears in print as early as 1976.

For this post, I’m showing the frequency of many possible shitgibbon compounds, measured in raw Google hits, as a way of getting an idea of their popularity. (See the drawbacks of this method here.) This might give us some ideas about what works and what doesn’t. I chose these parts because these are the ones most commonly mentioned in the aforementioned articles. (A note to anyone who wants to recheck these results: After 75 searches, Google asked me to confirm that I wasn’t a bot. It did it again after 150 searches.) Although I enclosed these terms in quotes, Google appeared to include versions with spaces and hyphens into the count.

Per Zimmer, each of these shitgibbons start with a monosyllabic sweary word, and the other two syllables are a trochee; a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable. Jones and McColloch point out that not every trochee works, though: ass-master is not an insult, and you can call me a cock-ninja anytime.

Here’s the chart. I’ve sorted the rows and columns by total frequency.

Let me make some observations along traditional the usual lines.


Swear words in English appear to have a strong tendency to end in a stop. This puts some constraints on what kind of trochee is likely to follow. Trochees that start with a stop (these are sounds like /p/, /b/, /t/, /k/, and so on) are the least popular, staying largely at the bottom of the chart (except bucket). Trochees that start with a nasal or with /w/ are popular. Something striking: no fricatives (except /w/)Carrie reminds me that /w/ isn’t a fricative, so no fricatives.

Going along with McColloch, it looks like similar consonants don’t play well together. These are unpopular:

  • pisspuffin
  • cockcanoe
  • wankweasel

Additionally, having the swear end with the same sound as the trochee seems to be a no-no. Not very frequent:

  • twattrumpet
  • cunttrumpet
  • (but note the popularity of shittrumpet)

Having two of the same vowel is great.

  • twatwaffle
  • shitgibbon
  • fucktrumpet
  • fuckbucket
  • fucknugget (especially notable when –nugget doesn’t go with much else)
  • cockwaffle
  • cockwomble
  • (however very few examples of scumtrumpet)


Some of these shitgibbons appear to be lexicalising. Fartknocker was popularised as an insult by Beavis and Butthead, so it’s had a headstart. Same with douchecanoe, often used on the net and popular despite canoe not being a trochee.

For the well-publicised ones (cockwomble, jizztrumpet, wankpuffin, and of course shitgibbon), some of the hits seem to be part of the discussion around these terms.


With the evident lack of popularity for trochees that begin with a stop, how do we explain the popularity of bucket? Bucket goes well with excretions that you might actually keep in a bucket (jizz-, spunk-, shit- — though strangely not piss-)

Some of these appear not to be insults, but as something else, and this might be adding to their count.

  • fartnugget – the result of a really severe shart
  • douchenozzle – they really do have nozzles

The trochee waffle is popular across the board, and I think this might be because waffle is a funny sort of word. So is bucket. But wombles are funny, and yet not widely taken up, with the exception of cockwomble.

Which raises a question: The fuck’s a womble?

A womble is a fictional animal that picks up rubbish. Animals are good, the siller the better.

  • weasel
  • puffin
  • gibbon

Perhaps we should expect to see the appearance of lemur, but its spelling makes it difficult to find the boundary between swear and trochee. Spot the boundary on these:

  • shitlemur
  • fucklemur
  • jizzlemur
  • cocklemur, which my computer wants to correct to cocklebur

Hyphens and spaces might help lemur join the ranks of sweary animals.

Let me know what you think about this chart, or if there’s anything obvious I should have included. My email is

School bans texting at breaks

Most school administrators are doing a great job, and are generally motivated by concern for their students. But this concern sometimes makes them do silly things. Like this:

School bans phones at breaks

Prestigious girls’ school Penrhos College has banned students from using mobile phones during their lunch and recess breaks because of concerns students are losing the art of conversation.

Principal Meg Melville said, even though girls were sitting in groups during breaks, teachers had become aware students were texting their friends instead of talking to each other.

“We decided we wanted to really encourage them during their break times at school to have conversations with one another, face-to-face,” she said.

Mrs Melville said technology was embedded in the curriculum and mobile phones had become an important part of that.

But it was just as important for students to develop conversation skills such as understanding the nuances conveyed by people’s reactions and body language.

“You can gauge how a conversation is going by looking at the way people are responding – you can’t do that in texting,” she said.

Schools can make their own phone policy — that’s valid. But here’s what I think is wrong with this.

First, electronic communication is still communication. I don’t know why people think it’s not valid, or needs to be restricted.

Second, we don’t have to worry that young people will somehow become unable to read people’s reactions and facial expressions. Human brains have been good at doing this for 200,000 years, and someone’s not going to lose that ability if they text on a phone for fifteen minutes a day. (Or, if they are going to lose it, they’re not going to get it back by having an extra 15 minutes of face-to-face.) Is f2f important? Sure, but they’re already getting some from their teachers and friends at school — their teachers are doing a great job at that.

There is no empirical evidence to show that texting makes people worse at reading facial expressions, at least not that I could find with diligent searching. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that digital communication (including texting) correlates well with literacy, including spelling.

Finally, while these educators are trying to help kids communicate, this won’t do it. They’re simply banning a form of communication (in writing, nonetheless), and then assuming that whatever’s left over will be the right sort of communication. That’s not how it works. If they’re serious about teaching communication — which is a laudable goal — then they’re going to need to do some modelling, with examples of the kind of conversation they want to see. I’d definitely get behind a programme like that; hell, I’d help them write it. But banning phones? An irrelevant distraction.

I’ll tell you what’s going on here. This is adults looking at kids with new technology, and thinking, “Oh, I don’t like that.” It’s bringing all their preconceptions to the front. And why do they have these preconceptions about texting? Unfortunately, a lot of adults are of the opinion that young people are kind of dumb. (And some of them maybe are, but I think they’re smarter than we give them credit for — and that’s true of most people.) Then they try to figure out why they’re dumb, and they leap on the first answer they can find: it’s those damn phones! Adults routinely blame texting for turning kids into morons, just like they used to blame television, comic books, and the fountain pen.

So let me be the voice of reason here: Smartphones are not some scary magical brain-draining thing. They’re getting students to communicate in writing like they never did a generation ago. Schools can and should have policies about their use, but these policies can be informed by data, and not by irrational fears.

Talk the Talk: GIF

I’ve always called it a GIF (like ‘gift’ but with no ‘t’). That’s the only way I’ve ever heard it — on two continents, no less. But I’m aware that some people call it a ‘jif’. I guess I don’t move in those circles. But I can accept that both are okay because, hey, I can accept the validity of things I don’t actually do. What a concept!

Seriously, isn’t it weird that intelligent people can accept other people’s right to do things they don’t do themselves — eat meat, have threesomes, wear plaid — but when it comes to language, they’re like “ERADICATE THE DEVIATORS!”

Anyway, this show’s about GIF, and it’s a fun one. We even strap into the time machine and find out about the letter G.

And if that’s not enough, there’s even a blooper from today’s show.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Show tunes:

‘Gigantic’ by the Pixies
from the album Surfer Rosa

‘Gila’ by Beach House
from the album Devotion

Talk the Talk: Linguistic Time Machine

Language reconstruction is one of the dark linguistic arts, but this time Ben and I are getting into it. It’s like going back in time, deciding what early languages must have been like by looking at what languages are like now. So first, we talk about how language reconstruction works, and then we look at a new project where people are getting computers to do the work.

I hate to say this, but as is so often the case in linguistics, big progress is being made by non-linguists — engineers and computer scientists! Linguists sometimes grump that the engineers aren’t familiar enough with the actual work of language reconstruction, but I love the idea of taking linguistic tasks and making them tractable for a computational treatment.

Even though this is kind of dense subject matter, I think we made it interesting. Thanks to Ben, of course.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Talk the Talk: Scrabble Points

I love Scrabble. I’m just not sure that Q deserves to be worth 10 points anymore. It used to be a serious liability that required some skill to play off. Now? Pfeh. Just play QI, which is a word meaning new age energy horseshit. It didn’t use to be this way back in the old days of the OSPD 3rd edition.

Well, this episode is half about suggested changes to Scrabble scoring, and then the other half is really interesting! That’s where I talk about Peter Norvig finding letter and word frequencies in English by using billions and billions of words. Cool!

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Show tunes:

‘A Letter from the Past’ by I’m Not a Gun
from the album We Think As Instruments

(No video, sorry.)

‘The Numbers Game’ by Thievery Corporation
from the album Radio Retaliation

Letterpress: Great new iOS word game

If you’re hooked on Words with Friends, there’s a new game in town: Letterpress. It’s the best new word game I’ve seen in a long while, and it’s got me hooked.

It’s a word game with elements of strategy, sort of like Scrabble plus Go. No, wait, it’s Boggle plus Risk. Perhaps Upwords plus Ataxx? Actually, the best description would be Boggle plus Reversi. You have to build words from the letters on the board, but when you use a letter, you claim it as your territory and it turns your colour. You win if the most letters are your colour when all the letters have been used.

Your opponent can change your letters to their colour by using them on their turn, but if you manage to completely surround a letter with other letters of your colour, it’ll turn a darker shade of your colour.

Not looking good for red.

That means it’s protected — your opponent can use it, but not flip it. So you have a number of things to do in every turn: make the longest words possible, defend your protected letters, and mount attacks on those of your opponent. And since words can’t be replayed, you’ll be burning through your vocabulary fast.

As in Reversi, the endgame is really important, and there’s a huge advantage for the last player. So part of your strategy will be to watch which letters are left, and make sure your opponent can’t use them all on one massive final word. (Typical scenario: Q, J, and W.) In the most intense games, my opponents and I have had to circle each other, setting up territories and picking off each other’s letters in an ever-diminishing list of available words, until one of us has a healthy bank of protected letters. Then you start knocking off the unused ones when you’re certain that your opponent can’t get enough letters to win, even if they do go out.

Another strategy could be termed the ‘Samsung strategy’: take whatever word your opponent makes, adapt it slightly, and then play it. They played SIFTING? Try (ahem) FISTING. They played THICKETS? Play THICKEST or THICKSET. Progress will be incremental and hard-won, but you’ll be draining your opponent of options if it comes to a game of attrition. And it does.

You’re not allowed to use words that have already been played, or forms of that word. That prevents pointless tit-for-tat wars. The problem is that the game has a really strange idea about what constitutes a form (or, mistakenly, a ‘prefix’) of a word. If INCITEMENT is taken, it allows INCITEMENTS, even though it shouldn’t. However, when I played BLIT, it said that was a form of the already-played word BLITZ. It is so not.

Should it disallow only inflections like plural -S? What about -ING or UN-? It needs to be consistent.

There are other improvements that I hope will come in a future update. It needs a chat function. It needs a rematch button. It would also be nice if it could uncouple itself from Apple’s Game Center, which suffers from inexplicable errors and won’t let me start games with certain people.

Even with these problems, Letterpress is still a fantastic game that’s very worth trying out. There’s a free version; the paid version allows you more than two games and a change of colours.

So this is me calling y’all out on Letterpress. I will challenge all comers. I’m ‘fontor’ on the Game Centre. Come and get me if you think you can.

UPDATE: One mystery solved. Are you getting this error message when you invite friends to play?

“Unable to create match. Please try again later.”

It’s because your friend isn’t set up to accept game invitations. Tell your friend to enable them in Game Centre under the “View Account” setting. Now why couldn’t the Game Centre just say that? That’s a terribly unhelpful error dialog.

I’m unfriending all my dead friends

It would appear that I’m old enough to have outlived some of my friends. Some of these friends are — were — on Facebook, and so now I have dead friends on my profile.

One friend passed away suddenly, and his page was being updated by his family. It was kind of nice, like he was still sort of around. As time has passed, however, reminders about his birthday seem slightly chilling. Today was a turning point. Words with Friends suggested that I start up a game with him. That was when I said ‘enough’! Facebook is for the living.

So I’m heartlessly and unceremoniously dumping my dead friends. We would love to keep them around forever, but there is such a thing as clinging, and I don’t think it’s healthy. It’s no wonder people started burying their dead — we miss them, but dead bodies are a health hazard, physically and emotionally. And while it would be nice to think of some aspect of ourselves continuing in perpetuity, we all have to get used to the idea of a world without us.

Facebook has responded to the problem of (to put it gently) user attrition by turning the profiles of the deceased into ‘memorials‘, which means the pages will still be open for family and friends to comment on, but they won’t show up in certain kinds of feeds — for example, it will stop asking you if you’d like to ‘re-connect’ with them. While this is a good idea, my erstwhile friends are still showing up for me because no one has contacted Facebook to ‘memorialise’ them.

Just imagine, fifty years from now, there may still be a lot of Facebook users, but there will also be an enormous number of dead accounts. Facebook may start to resemble a mausoleum, with neighbourhoods of catacombs full of tombs. Or like the Earth itself, where people who are young and alive work and play busily on its surface, unaware of all the bodies beneath their feet.

Guest post in The Red Pen: Spotting linguistic baloney

Even though I eat linguistic prescriptivists for breakfast, I do have a soft spot for the odd copy editor, including Laura Moyer of On her blog, The Red Pen, she alludes to a clash we had once:

Soon after I started the Red Pen last year, I wrote a column blithely declaring myself a prescriptivist. I’m a copy editor, I said, and copy editors are supposed to be prescriptivists.

A linguist from Perth, Australia, scolded me via email. It was OK for me to be a prescriptivist if I couldn’t help myself, he wrote, but I shouldn’t contaminate others with my beliefs.

I apologized for contaminating him and offered to send a bar of soap.

No need, he replied. “I’ve already boiled my computer.”

Yes, that would be me. She continues by pointing out the need for prescriptive rules, at least in the editing sphere (and I can agree with that), but she does allow that some of the rules editors live by do seem a little arbitrary.

As a copy editor I’ve perpetuated many of [these rules]. I truly regret it, because these aren’t rules of good writing. They’re baloney.

So how does a careful 21st-century copy editor tell baloney rules from good practice?

I thought this was such a good question that I wrote a response, and I’m very pleased that she’s run it as a guest column on her blog:

A linguist responds: Guest column from Daniel Midgley

It’s mostly about using the Google Ngram Viewer to find patterns in what writers actually do.

So, for instance, what about Laura’s idea that “comprised of” is always wrong? Let’s take a look at the data and see what authors really do. We head to the Google Ngram Viewer, look up the search term “is comprised of, comprises“, and:

Looks like ‘comprises’ has the edge. The data breaks in Laura’s direction. Does that mean it’s wrong to say “The committee is comprised of…”? Not really. What it means is that if you’re trying to decide which to use, you’ll be safer going with the choice that many other writers have chosen. Doing it that way will help your writing fit into a body of work, seem more appropriate, and be less distracting.

It’s fine for editors to run a tight ship so their publications appear the way they want. But now it’s easy for them to look at real language data so their pronouncements will have more validity than just their own opinion. Descriptivism informing prescriptivism? Could be a paradigm shift.

Talk the Talk: Search Insights

Search histories are pretty honest. Under the cover of (supposed) anonymity, we search for things we wouldn’t admit. But it all goes into the data pile, and then I talk about it on the radio! You see, today’s podcast is about Google Insights for Search, which is a very cool way of browsing through Google’s query data for all the things people are looking for, by location.

That’s where the fun begins. Near the end of the podcast, I mention a few sexual paraphilias, and in which Australian state they’re most searched for. The strange thing is that Western Australia doesn’t seem to come in at number one in any of them.

Which is where you come in. If you can find out what sexual practises WA leads the nation in, I’d be most grateful if you’d post it in comments. Please — I’ve got to know what people around me are getting up to. It’s driving me crazy.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Grammar police: A case study

I don’t usually share Facebook conversations, but you gotta see this. It’s like a lot of rants from grammar police, but this one hits all the highlights.

Here’s the original grab: “George Lucas disses neighbours by doing something awesome”. One reader looked askance at the appearance of the word ‘diss’.

At this stage, I’ve decided that only a gentle corrective is required. But this reader escalates.

Whoa. Who knew that the word ‘diss’ would cause such an ‘appauling’ ‘degredation’ of language? One would have thought that someone so devoted to the preservation of correct English would… use it. I’m forgiving of bad spelling and punctuation, but not when someone holds themselves up as a protector of language. Grammar police should take note: when you have a rant, it’s a virtual certainty that you’ll start spelling words wrong.
What bugs me most, though, is the presumption that a word that comes from Black American usage is automatically ‘lazy’, ‘degraded’, ‘uneducated’, and ‘eroded’. This is what privileged speakers of the standard variety tend to throw at people who speak non-standard varieties. Racism isn’t cool, but criticising their variety of language is an acceptable substitute.
There’s no linguistic reason to think that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with African-American Vernacular English. Like all language varieties, it’s regular and rule-governed. His rant says nothing about language, and everything about his own attitude towards people of colour. After all, why is he complaining about the slang term ‘diss’, and not the equally slang term ‘awesome’? It’s simple; white people say ‘awesome’, so that’s okay.
So here’s what I usually say to grammar police (plus a poke at the ‘lazy thug’ jibe).

But this reader is not one to hearken to liberal elitist linguistics professors. He responds with a blistering salvo.

Oh, I’m Australian! That explains everything! Who knows what kind of made-up mumbo jumbo they speak?
And then he blocked me, so the fun had to stop.
So let’s finish by noting the common features of the linguistic fascist, all of which are present in this exchange:
  • A belief that language change is indicative of some kind of moral decline
  • A belief that — not just using non-standard varieties of language, but simply borrowing words from them! — will cause ignorance, indolence, and crime
  • A volatile and touchy sense of privilege that easily erupts into attacks of bile
  • Terrible spelling and punctuation
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