Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New tricks for old dogs

You might have noticed the article in Friday's Times, part of a series on the digitalization of the humanities, on a new Google-sponsored project to chart the frequency of the use of words in 500 billion words of scanned texts. The assorted scientists and mathematicians involved in the project think a whole new kind of knowledge will be yielded by this data. But is it data? (You may remember the lampooning field day I had when Google let us do word frequencies in all recent internet posts; I think I was on to something beautiful.) Perhaps because of the civilizing effect of my mathematician friend J, I've tried this time to be more collegial. Could one learn something here? Imagine a new kind of humanistic knowledge gleaned digitally from old tomes? (But don't call it culturomics.) The rise and fall of modish words and idioms, at least... I recalled one of my students' recent (mis)use of a perhaps pertinent proverb: "you can always teach an old dog new tricks," he said. You can? Since when?! One could certainly imagine someone inverting for effect. And maybe to someone born in 1992, the retrainability of old dogs is old hat (thank goodness if so!). So perhaps, I thought, the proverb has flipped in meaning?! I used the new google utility, somewhat hampered by a five-word phrase limit. The results (American rather more than British) are suggestive. Sort of. If only in the US, the teachability of old dogs would seem to have been an open question since the 1950s. Resilient culture-forming Baby Boomers may be behind the proverb flip.

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