Nate Silver Takes on Baby Names

The website fivethirtyeight.com, best known for its data-driven political and sports analysis, has a rather good post on the popularity of baby names in the United States.

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Swa meaht me bannan

As part of a rather inspired class assignment, students at Grinnell College in Iowa translated Carly Rae Jepsens’ song Call Me Maybe into Old English and produced a video:

It’s a rather faithful translation of Jepsen’s modern English lyrics, with a few alterations to accommodate anachronisms. For example, pennies and dimes becomes penning ond sceattas (pennies and wealth), jeans becomes brec (trousers), baby becomes loflice (praiseworthy one), and my number becomes min nama (my name).

The translation doesn’t use Old English prosody, using rhyme instead of alliteration. That’s a valid artistic choice and makes the Old English version of the song instantly recognizable, although creating an alliterative version would have been a cool exercise.

I also wince at the faux medieval/Harry Potter motif in the video. But then, the subject of Jepsen’s song is distinctly not Anglo-Saxon, so strict cultural adherence isn’t really possible.

Still, it’s a very clever and fun class project.

What is a Photocopier?

The New York Times is running this video, a dramatization of an actual legal deposition. The words are verbatim from the transcripts, but the actors were given license to perform them as they saw fit, so the video is not necessarily a true representation of what happened.

It’s a brilliant video that shows how much we rely on general categories and definitions when we speak and the pitfalls encountered when trying to pin a concept down precisely. Watch all the way to the end for a stunning demonstration of genericization of a trademark.

(Follow-up: According to Kevin Underhill of Lowering the Bar (a hilarious blog of legal humor, BTW), at issue in the case is whether copying onto a CD-ROM is “photocopying.” Ohio law allows the county clerk’s office to charge $2 per page for photocopies of public legal documents—pricey, but not totally unreasonable when you consider staffing costs. But the county clerk’s office took the position that it could charge $2 for each page of material copied onto a CD-ROM. One law firm saw its monthly bill for photocopies jump from around $1,000 to $100,000. Hence the man’s unwillingness to say what was meant by “photocopy.” If he gave the obvious answer, he’d be providing evidence against his employer and costing the county a boatload of money. But he didn’t want to look like an idiot either.)

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Digitizing Manuscripts

A short video from the Bodleian Library that provides an overview of what digitizing library materials entails.

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Hwæt You Say? (Redux)

Back in November, George Walkden published a paper on the Old English word hwæt and how it is used in in Old English poetry, most famously in the opening lines of Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

My previous post summarizing Walkden’s article is here. But in a nutshell, Walkden says that instead of translating hwæt as an independent interjection “Listen!” “Lo!”, as is usually done, that it is part of a larger exclamative phrase, “How have we heard the glory...” Walkden uses statistical analysis of the word’s use in four works, three Old English and one Old Saxon, to make his case.

In his blog, Phenomenal Anglo Saxons, Peter Buchanan has challenged Walkden’s statistics, saying that his results are insufficient to draw a general conclusion about how the word is used in Old English. For anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend Peter’s blog post. And if you’re not especially interested in the Old English, but want to know what the heck a p-value is, you should also give it a read. It’s one of the clearest explanations of statistical significance that I’ve seen. Not only does Peter walk through the mathematical process for determining p-value, but he explains exactly how the measure should and shouldn’t be used.

[Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine, who finished up his PhD here at Toronto last year. We share the same dissertation advisor.]

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