(Not Just) For Fun

The Brain as the Locust of Human Thought

It has always seemed to me that linguistics (not to mention life) should be fun.

One thing that has been a lot of fun for me (as well as a source of many ideas for research topics), has been the practice of building collections of linguistic oddities. I believe it was Isaac Asimov who said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I’ve found it!), but ‘That’s funny...’”. I think the quote applies to both senses of the word “funny”, and there are several kinds of fun to be gotten from following up on odd funnomena, of which sheer delight in the data may be the keenest.

I have quoted Joe Grimes to several generations of students as saying that a fundamental rule of linguistic investigation is to get at least 10 examples of whatever you’re interested in. There are two reasons for this: (i) If it is a robust phenomenon it will not be hard to find 10 examples. If it is hard to find them, that is a good thing to know. (ii) By the time you have found 10 examples you will have come to realize that the phenomenon is more complex than you thought at first, and that your list comprises at least two sub-types of the phenomenon. So now you have two or more lists for which you need at least 10 examples. And so your collection grows.

One of my favorite collections is of accidental blends, malaprops (which typically involve blending) and other bloopers. It has grown to rather monstrous proportions: as of early 2009 we’re pushing 13,000 entries in the main databases, and there are over 3000 in a database of misspellings (I think I spelled that right), many of which also are or may be blends, and another thousand or so in other, smaller databases. These are real bloopers recorded by me or someone I know personally (in some cases people I’ve only met by email), and many of them have been recorded repeatedly.

Some of the best of the collection is being shaped into a book, entitled My Brain Has a Mind of its Own, wonderfully illustrated by my son Christopher. The thumbnail above is from Chapter I, “The Brain as the Locust of Human Thought”. I post for your delectation

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