Monthly Archives: June 2012

Going Green or Being Clean – So Which is it? (Part II)



You say “tomato,” I say…

Yes, word distinction is important. But as Kristin Hansen pointed out in the first part of her interview about these two words, the goal is to motivate people to protect our natural resources using words they respond to and trust.

Hansen is the Sustainability Analyst at the University of California, San Diego. The university names its effort in this arena, “Sustainability 2.0: A Living Laboratory.” Talk about pressure when it comes to making strides in this particular effort.

Sustainability 2.0 Website
(Credit: UCSD)

After all, the school notes:

“Environmental sustainability is in UC San Diego’s institutional DNA, inherited from our forebears at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 1957, Scripps Oceanography Director Roger Revelle warned that greenhouse gases from industrialization could endanger the planet. The following year, Scripps geochemist Charles Keeling began his precise measurement of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the “Keeling Curve,” named for him, is ‘the most important geophysical measurement of the 20th century.’”

Keeling Curve Exhibit at the Birch Aquarium
(Credit: Flickr User Around the Americas)

So UCSD has its own big shoes to fill.

The good news: It certainly is. From building innovative green campus buildings to offering a wide range of courses in environmental sciences to producing clean energy that provides 85 percent of the university’s electricity, UCSD is focusing on making the school as environmentally progressive as possible.

Its goals include: Achieving zero waste by 2020, being “climate neutral” by 2025, training sustainability leaders, constructing buildings that meet LEED Silver standards or better, and providing global leadership in smart grid initiatives.

All in a day’s work for this university.

With those goals in mind, Hansen’s insight on the subject of word distinction is highly welcome. The second part of her interview follows:

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Why do you think these words, “green” and “clean” have become so important?
Inspiring books such as Silent Spring, written in the early 60’s drew attention to the alarming impact pollution has on our environment and health. The need for clean air and clean water was becoming more evident. Additional concerns surrounding human impact on the environment drew attention to the need to conserve our rainforests, whales, ozone layer and more. There was a need for a term to encompass these efforts and many used the term “green.”

Momentum surrounding these issues grew with additional reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Governments began discussing “going green” and the importance of clean air and water. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, was the first agreement for major nations – other than the US – that addressed the mitigating of greenhouse gas emissions. The term green was becoming commonly used at this point by governments, citizens and even businesses.

The initial momentum behind these words was spurred by concerns for our own health. Governments continued the discussion and adopted policies addressing climate issues.

Now, businesses continue to keep these terms relevant. Increasing interest has generated around the words because often “going green” helps companies realize savings. Many corporations such as Wal-Mart have seen great success result from their green efforts that then brought great returns in financial savings and positive press.

Do you think over time that these words will become blended into one meaning?
I believe these terms will take on more distinct definitions in the future, but only time will tell.

From what I understand, some worry that the word, “Green,” is associated with left-leaning political movements. There’s the Green Party, for instance. And Greenpeace. Is that why some people say “Clean.” Is clean a more innocuous term?
Both clean and green have connotations associated with their meaning that can be controversial. Green has been highly politicized. As a result, many conservative groups tend to use “Clean” and often more “left-leaning” movements employ “Green” for motivating their audience.

Republican President George W. Bush had discussed clean coal in his discussions of environmental issues, while President Obama’s administration created the first Special Advisor of Green Jobs  and appointed Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, to the position.

Terms such as clean coal have further politicized the term clean. It is by no means innocuous. The Sierra Club launched an entire campaign to combat the use of “Clean” in the clean coal messaging and marketing.

“Beyond Coal” Campaign Website
(Credit: Sierra Club)

It seems that every term created to describe environmental efforts has been manipulated by various groups. There may never be one all-encompassing word that every political group will embrace, but I like to think there is hope.

There also seems to be confusion over “Greentech” and “Cleantech.” Again, is there a distinction?
These two terms are more closely related than the general uses of green and clean, but “Clean” appears more predominately when discussing technology that focuses on energy efficiencies and mitigating environmental impacts.

– – –

Thank you Ms. Hansen for participating in this fascinating topic. It’s pretty amazing how “green” has gone from describing a color to capturing an environmental movement. And “clean” has gone from parents throughout the land saying “Clean your room!” to describe efforts to create less polluting energy.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Going Green or Being Clean – So Which is it? (Part I)

To kick off our latest blog topic, word distinction, we’re tackling “green” and “clean,” which have seemingly become interchangeable.

If you’re confused about the difference between “green” and “clean” when it comes to describing environmental awareness, activity and products, you’re not alone.

There’s little wonder why confusion occurs. After all, there’s Greenpeace, an environmental organization, and there’s also Clean Peace, a company that sells organic cleaning supplies. There’s green energy and clean energy. There’s green technology and clean technology. There’s the Green Car Institute and the Clean Car Campaign.  You can eat green, as well as eat clean.

Green Cars
(Credit: Michael Craven, Creative Commons)

See the problem?

In our two-part interview this week, we will learn from our guest blogger, Kristin Hansen, the sustainability analyst at the University of San Diego California, there are distinctions between the two.

It can be confusing to say the least. And to make matters even more daunting, it’s not just the words “green” and “clean” that are used to describe the effort to be more environmentally aware and active in protecting our resources.

Hansen once worked at a Christian college where the word choice was “creation care.” It was coined by evangelical Christians who believe it is their responsibility to be better stewards of the earth.

But “green” and “clean” are used most frequently in mass marketing and communications as ways to entice our better behavior environmentally speaking through our actions and how we spend our dollars.

Why is this important? Well, just about every agency and business is concerned about the impact they are having on the environment. They are recycling to reduce waste. They are tele-working to help employees reduce vehicle miles traveled and the carbon emissions that go along with those  miles. In California, the value of a commercial building will also start to be measured in part by the energy efficiency of that building beginning January 2013.

iCommute Program
(Credit: San Diego Association of Governments)

Knowing whether and when you’re clean or green will be an important part of decisions for your home and the promotions of your business. We thank Ms. Hansen for providing her valuable experience and insight using these terms to motivate change.

– – –

We all know that concerns about the environment are front-and-center today. But what word best describes the effort to protect it: “Clean?” or “Green?”
These umbrella terms, “Clean” and “Green” have multiple meanings. In order to motivate people to protect our environment, there will be a need for various words that are more effective with specific people.

As the Sustainability Coordinator for a Christian college in San Diego, I noticed that I had great success in my sustainability and environmental efforts when I chose the correct word to communicate my efforts.  Many people were turned off by the term “green.”  It was then that I realized it is not the term that is important, but the communication to get to an end result.  Whether we use “Clean,” or “Green,” “Environmental,” “Creation care,” or “Sustainability” the ultimate goal is to focus on protecting our natural resources for future generations.

California Boating Clean & Green Campaign
(Credit: California Coastal Commission)

Are these words interchangeable or is there a distinction between the two?
These words have been used interchangeably by many, but there are distinct connotations. I often hear the two interchanged when discussing technology, but the two do have different meanings. Although many individuals and companies interchange these two words, there is still an underlying distinction.

What is it?
Clean refers to having less or no contaminants than an alternative option (clean air act, cleantech, clean coal) and often refers to innovative new practices that utilize efficiencies. Green refers to environmental sustainability and the conservation of natural, fiscal, and social resources.

Do you know their origins when it comes to describing environmental awareness?
Environmental action launched and greatly increased in the 1960’s and 70’s. With this movement came the Clean Air Act [emphasis added].  This monumental act addressed environmental concerns and regulated air pollutants at a national level.

Popularization of “Green” can be seen as far back as 1971 with the creation of the now well-known organization, Greenpeace.  These two words have become even more popular as understandings of the threats of global warming become more public.  Documentaries such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought topics of clean energy and green efforts to the mainstream spotlight.  Both words continue to grow in their usage as companies describe their efforts to do their part for the environment.

– – –

Part II of this interview will continue later this week.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Next Up: Word Distinction

Nice weather we’re having…or is that nice climate we’re having…?

In that particular case, the word distinction between “weather” and “climate” is easy.  When we have a stretch of nice weather, it’s just that – a stretch of nice weather. But in other cases, the distinction between the two words might not be as clear-cut. For instance, for those of us who live in San Diego, are we the happy recipients of good weather or good climate?

In a fast paced world, not only does our sense of time blur – so do our words. Their meaning might seem perfectly clear one day, only to have new words, new issues, new technologies, new needs crop up around them that morph the meaning they had into something new. Sometimes, the word is so close in sound and spelling to another word, it’s meaning was never all that clear to begin with.

And when the words are important – such as the example at the beginning of this post between “climate” and “weather” – the distinction can change our understanding about important issues and solutions and how we frame the issue to begin with – is it climate change or global warming?

An Inconvenient Truth

Whether we know it or not, we grapple with word distinction every day. A site called A Blog for English Lovers, for instance, produces a number of posts about word distinction. Here’s one that starts from the ground up on the distinction between “Earth,” “land,” “soil,” “ground” and “floor.”

How important is distinguishing words? Well, it goes the heart of what type of country we live in. Is it a nation? A democracy? Or a republic? And what does it mean to combine the three? Here’s one opinion.

To get more personal, do you have a career or a job? Well, in this post the writer argues that it’s important to teach younger people about the difference, so they realize a career offers better long-term financial security. While the difference might be well-known to adults in the working force, it may not be to people just starting out.

Over the coming weeks, we will provide expert opinion on the distinctions of a number of powerful words. These will be words we see nearly everyday. Yet, their meaning is blurred. These words play an important role in our lives and in communications that are directed at us.

We’ll cover some significant territory in the upcoming month. We’ll do some globe trotting in interviews about “climate” and “weather.” We’ll see whether our purchasing power is “clean” or “green.” We’ll look into whether our phones, ipads and future robot are smarter than we are – “smart” and “intelligent.” And we’ll end on a satisfying feast of thoughts about the food we put in our bellies – whether it be “organic,” “natural,” and “real.”

Mr. Clean Logo

Our guest interviewees range from a NASA scientist to the surfboard recycler to a university’s Sustainability Program Manager to a former Editor of PC World Magazine.

Stay tuned for more.

From Words to Word Choices

As words are the building blocks of any messaging in our communication, our blog has highlighted the fun, the serious and the just plain interesting about words for the past several weeks.

We learned where words come from and how new words are born. We learned the single word that captured the spirit of the last year, the last decade, the last century and the last millennium. In that order, they were Occupy, Google, Jazz and She (with science as a close runner up to She).

Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal

Take the last century for instance. What is all the meaning packed into that one word, jazz? The century started with people earning on average $13 a week and ended with them earning $13 an hour.  In those hundred years, we met Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, and Martha Graham. We fought World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait and watched other battles like Kosovo, Darfur and the Rwandan Genocide rage. We celebrated Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens and Nadia’s perfect 10. We found respect in the suffrage movement and we thank the one woman who forty years later didn’t sit in the back bus to help us realize Civil Rights were still to come. Some of us found love over Moon River and some found it at Woodstock. Later in the century, some of us found love in a web that connected us to a new, virtual world. We survived the dust bowl, the Great Depression, and fads like cabbage patch dolls and pet rocks. We learned how to drive cars and use ATMs. We listened to everything from Cole Porter to Billie Holiday to punk rock to the sane voice of Walter Cronkite as he tried to calm a nation that mourned a President. We went out to the moon and we went deep inside the cell structure to cure polio.


That’s how much meaning can be packed into a single word.

Louis Armstrong
(Credit: Library of Congress)

We learned about our words in transit in this ever shrinking world and how to not lose their meaning in translation. We saw how words solve crimes and keep us endlessly entertained in friendly competition whether it be with Scrabble or our smart phone’s Words with Friends.

The blog was anchored by wonderful guest interviewees who brought valuable insight to these subjects. We would like to thank them all for their time and their generosity to share their ideas. They are:

Peter Sokolowski, Editor-At-Large for Merriam Webster.

Grant Barrett, a lexicographer specializing in slang and new words, and who co-hosts the public radio program “A Way with Words,” which is heard by a quarter-million people each week.

Dave Wilton, who runs a website, called

Hiram Soto, an online multicultural marketing expert and content strategist at Captura Group.

Alan Perlman, Ph.D., a forensic linguist.

John Chew, the co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association.

In addition to our interviewees, we want to also credit Dr. Robert Leonard, a forensic linguist we also mentioned in our commentaries.

We gained much from their thoughtful responses to our questions.

But we haven’t had the last word with words just yet. Now, we move from word to word choices.

The world is moving fast and in this rush, words are evolving fast. You may find yourself knowing a word one day only to find out its been recast with a new meaning the next. We’re playing catch up every day with the new meanings attributed to words we thought we knew.

For example, do you know the difference between weather and climate, smart and intelligent, clean and green? How about the difference between organic, natural and real? Over the coming weeks, we will hear from experts in the fields offering those terms and ultimately changing how we go about everything from conversing with – rather than on – our phones to selecting which cereal to buy to deciding whether 78 degrees and sunny is something to know more about.

USDA Organic Print Ad
(Credit: United States Department of Agriculture)

So, stay tuned and let us know if there’s some word combinations you’d like us to highlight while we get busy with the sets of words that caught our attention recently. Keep reading and thank you in advance for your comments. We welcome them.

Catherine Smith, President
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Beware the Power of the Word – Particularly the Wrong One

Words are important. If you bungle one, look out! You run the big risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, the character from the 70s iconic sitcom, “All in the Family,” who routinely misused words. One example:

“Your honor, may I encroach the bench?”

Believe us, you don’t want to sound like Archie Bunker…

Archie Bunker
(Credit: CBS)

That’s one of the reasons words are our most recent theme. There’s a big universe of words and it’s growing, so choose carefully.

In this story, there are a number of examples of people not using words correctly. Funny stuff, yes, but it can lead to much embarrassment.

Indeed, here are eight rather common words you may not realize the true meaning of.

One also has to be careful of using words that may have a double meaning. Take “rolling” as in rolling along for example. Sounds like everything is operating smoothly. But, in slang, rolling also means being high on the drug ecstasy. So be careful to report that your transportation project is “rolling along,”as rolling isn’t just about tires and rail lines.

Boys rolling tires
(Credit: Martha Cooper)

We also have to be careful with words that are pronounced alike, but have a completely different meaning. Check out this story about the pratfalls of homophones.

Unintended communications happen because the English language is complicated, organic and tough to quantify. Heck, there’s even much debate over how many words make up the English language.

You might think that in itself would be a pretty simple undertaking. But it’s not as easy as taking the dictionary and counting the words. That’s because there are significant disagreements over how we should count our words. Merrriam-Webster, which publishes dictionaries and who contributed to the blog theme last month, notes how there are different inflections of a word, case in point – “drive” and “drove.”  Is that one word or two? And what if the word has different meanings. Should it count as one word only? Or a word for each definition?

Those examples are not the only problems we face when trying to determine the number of words. What about words that aren’t really English?  For instance, do we count “spaghetti,” which is actually an Italian word, but one that’s used daily in America, particularly by Chef Boyardee.

The Oxford Dictionaries notes, “It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?”

Both dictionary giants have about the same number of entries in their most comprehensive dictionaries – about a half-million.

Contrast that to the first comprehensive English language dictionary written by Samuel Johnson and published in 1775. Called A Dictionary of the English Language, it was quite the undertaking and took him nine years to write. It was considered a landmark publication because of Johnson’s attention to detail. For instance the word “time” had 20 definitions with 14 illustrations. But, to give you an idea of how our language has grown, his dictionary had 42,773 entries.

Where do all these new words come from? Well, we create new words to reflect our changing society. For instance, cyberbullying, is now a word. It describes how people use the Internet to attack others. It was first coined and defined by a Canadian educator and was soon used so often, it became a part of our vocabulary.

But we also lose words. For instance, ever hear the word, “aquabid,” anymore? It’s a water-drinker.

There are number of ways new words are created. Some are completely new, à la cyberbullying. And some are shortened versions of existing words. The word, “flu” comes from the word, “influenza.” Here’s an article spelling out the different ways words are created.

While the dictionary folks are pretty much on the same page when it comes to estimating the number of words we have, others disagree. They think the number is much higher than a half million.

For instance, Google, along with Harvard, has been involved in an immense research project – the digitalizing of millions of published books into a database. By doing so, it came up with an estimate of the number of words in the English language – about a million. And the numbers are growing rapidly, about 8,500 words a year. That helped validate a claim by the Austin, Texas-based The Global Language Monitor that said we reached the million-word threshold in 2009. It put the number of words as of the beginning of this year at 1,013,913 and says a new word is born every 98 minutes.

The ironic part of the debate is that regardless of the number of words that we have at our disposal, we don’t exactly use all that many of them. The average American adult, depending on his or her education level, knows between 30,000 and 60,000 words.

And we don’t use many complicated ones either. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the most common word in writing is “the.” The most common noun is “time.” The most common verb is “be” and the most common adjective is “good.” For the full list, go here.

So pick carefully while you’re using all those words. And keep Archie Bunker from rolling along.

Guetapens” and “Quixotry” – Championship Words!, Part II

If you go to John Chew’s (Math) home page here, you will find his name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. Gee. Wonder why?

Scrabble Board
(Credit: New York Daily)

Not only the co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, the Toronto resident is also an expert Scrabble player himself and helps organize Scrabble tournaments.

If you go to Chew’s Scrabble home page, you will see he takes the game quite seriously.  For instance, as we mentioned earlier, Chew holds the distinction of having the highest tied scored of any Scrabble game in a sanctioned tournament. Both he and his opponent, Zev Kaufman, scored 502.

Chew even broke it down move-by-move on his Scrabble page, noting the decision making process and even points out questionable play of his own: “Chew still has about 15 minutes on his clock and Kaufman is 20 seconds overtime. Chew decides this isn’t the key play and slaps down a poor play right away, to score a few points, split duplicate tiles for endgame flexibility, and put Kaufman back under time pressure.”

How cool!

For the full analysis, go here.

We’re thrilled to have his insight on the fun we have with words and the wonderful game of Scrabble.

– – –

Why is Scrabble such an enduring game?
Like the board that it is played on, the appeal of the Scrabble game has both breadth and depth. The game has broad appeal, because it poses an interesting challenge to anyone who can spell and count. You don’t need to learn complicated rules, or acquire skills beyond what you naturally pick up in grade school; and while there is a luck component, you can overcome it with effort at most levels. The depth of the game’s appeal lies in its never- ending challenge: no one has ever truly mastered the game. Even if you can beat your family, you may have a friend who can beat you; if you can beat all your local friends, there’s someone on the Internet who can beat you; if you’re the national champion, you may be a long way off from world champion; and even if you’re the world champion, your chances of defending your title are poor.

Playing Scrabble makes you feel good, because it’s rewarding. On a micro level, you think hard about a puzzle for two minutes a dozen times in a game, and each time you find the right answer, you’re rewarded with a lot of points and a neurochemical feeling of accomplishment. On a macro level, if you have a competitive personality, there is always something that you can do between games to improve your play: study more words, play more quickly, learn more strategy, research your opponents’ weaknesses, and so on; and the payoff from that in your next game gives you a buzz of satisfaction.

Why do you think, culturally, we have such a fascination for word games such as Scrabble?
We play games to acquire, maintain and enhance the skills that we are mentally and physically equipped for, and which have some value in our culture.  Our culture is based on communication; our communication is based on language; and our language is based on words. The ability to communicate clearly by choosing the right words to express an idea is considered a cultural leadership skill. Word games such as Scrabble tweak this by measuring the rightness of words by how many points they score, rather than on their ability to motivate the people around you. But in each situation, the important things are to know a lot of words so that you will be able to find the right one for the moment.

When did you first play? What drew you to the game?
I played every board game that I could as a child until I could beat my family at it, then set it aside and moved onto the next. What brought me back to the game as an adult were two events.

After graduating from college in Canada, I went to work in France for a couple of years, developing database publishing software, which involves storing vast numbers of words in a computer and retrieving the correct ones to communicate effectively with a user.  I have found if I go more than three months without regularly using a language, I begin to lose verbal fluency in it, even if it is one of my mother tongues, like English.  Scrabble had at the time just come out for the Nintendo Gameboy (the ancestor of their current DS series of handhelds), and I started playing it on my commutes to keep my English active.

I eventually returned to Canada, studied some more, including cramming for a series of extremely challenging exams.  When I was done with them, I looked for something to do to unwind, and found the very first server dedicated to playing Scrabble online.  I met Adam Logan, who has gone on to be a good friend as well as the World Scrabble Champion, and he steered me toward the Toronto Scrabble Club, the oldest and largest Scrabble club in North America, of which I am now the co-director.

What’s the best word you ever came up with?
I don’t really think about the game in these terms.  Playing the game is about finding the best word that you can find within your available time, and then moving on to the next challenge, setting the last turn completely behind you.  If you dwell on your past turns or past games, it distracts your focus from the next turn and the next game, and affects your play.

But I have an answer for the question, because I get asked it a lot. I was once playing a friendly game with Robin Pollock Daniel, one of the strongest female players in the world.  The word EXTRA was on the board, and I had EEINRTU on my rack, so I extended EXTRA to make EXTRAUTERINE across a triple word score for 107 points.

Yearly, the National Scrabble Championship is held. Hundreds participate. Are you surprised by the attraction it generates?

No, not at all. It’s the annual gathering of the best and most obsessed members of our community. The tournament itself is only part of the attraction, and for many it’s not even the main part. For longtime attendees, it’s the social aspect: the chance to spend a week immersed in words with your tribe; going out to dinner at the end of the day and knowing that everyone else in the restaurant is reading the menu not to decide what to eat, but to look for interesting words and their anagrams; to be able to talk with people about what you did all day and have them really get it.

Actually, I read that some describe Scrabble as a math game. That’s because the focus is on generating as many points as possible from a word. Would you agree with that assessment? (You are working on you PhD in mathematics, right?)
Yes, I am, and I would have defended my thesis already were it not for Scrabble, so it’s a double-edged sword.  There is a lot of basic arithmetic in Scrabble, in that to play quickly you have to be able to look at say EXTRAUTERINE on the board and see without counting that it scores 107 points (because it’s a 12-letter word with 7 extra points on the 8-point X, for a base total of 19 points, times three for that triple word is 57, plus 50 for using all your tiles); and when we work with kids in the School Scrabble programme, it’s certainly gratifying to see their mental math skills improving along with their spelling.  There’s a lot more math to it than that though, in the strategy.  If you wrote a computer program that always played the highest-scoring word, the top players in the world would be able to beat it six games out of seven.

You have to understand probability theory better than a poker player, to be able to anticipate the effect that the tiles you leave on your rack will have on your future plays, given the tiles that have already been seen. You have to understand game theory better than a chess player, to correctly analyze a much wider tree of possible moves, especially in the late game.

Do you play other word games, such as Bananagrams or the social media game, Words With Friends?
I have designed special rules for, organized and played in a few Bananagrams tournaments.  I like playing Anagrams after hours at tournaments with Scrabble players.  I sometimes play Boggle as a form of cross-training for Scrabble. On long car trips, I’ll play various variations of Ghost.  I like doing cryptic crossword puzzles. There’s an old PC game called Bookworm Adventures that I’ll still dust off once in a while to play with the kids.  I haven’t yet played WWF (Words With Friends), but that’s because I’m not looking for another activity to consume all of the spare time that I used to have; all the other games I mentioned I can play for an hour and then set aside.

Bookworm Adventures
(Credit: Popcap Games)

Do these new games threaten the popularity of Scrabble? Or is it just a case of more the merrier?
If you’re playing WWF or Boggle, then clearly right at that moment, you’re not playing Scrabble, but that doesn’t make Scrabble less popular.  It gets you in the habit of playing word games, so that when one of your friends asks you for an online game of Scrabble, or you’re at the cottage and someone pulls out the Scrabble board, you’re more inclined to accept the challenge.

Do you have any resources you’d like to let people know about to improve their game and overall fun with words?

– – –

That was fascinating insight. Thanks to John for his contribution in helping us explore how we have fun with words. By the way, what’s a six letter word for grateful? Starts with a “T” Yes, thanks again for taking part in our blog. We’ve learned a lot.

Michael Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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“Guetapens” and “Quixotry” – Championship Words!

Game time!

In May, we focused this series on the importance of words in messaging and communication. We’ve traveled from how many words there are in the dictionary to “jazz” being “the word” of last century and to not allowing your words to get lost in translation. We even looked at solving crimes with words.

Now, it’s time for a little fun. Yes, with words.

If the popularity of word games is any indication, it appears that many of us do love to play with words. And that’s a good thing. Experts say that playing word games keeps the mind sharp and increases our vocabulary. On the down side, it prevents us from doing more mundane things, such as the laundry or the dishes, because – come on – what’s more fun? Words or laundry? We choose words every time.

Take actor Alec Baldwin, for instance. He got kicked off a plane when he wouldn’t stop playing the popular “Word With Friends” game on a mobile device.

Oh, we’ve got game, no question. From the venerable Scrabble to Bananagrams, there are a wide variety of word games that challenge and entertain us.


It starts early. Remember playing “Hangman” as a kid? Word games can get quite highbrow. New York Times crossword puzzle anyone? (Don’t do it in pen.)

Annually, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is held and it’s so popular that the finals are broadcast on none other than ESPN. This year’s winner was a San Diego eighth grader, Snigdha Nandipati, who attends Francis Parker School. Her winning word was “guetapens,” which means ambush. Who couldn’t spell that?

Snigdha Nandipati wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee
(Credit: ESPN)

This week’s guest blogger, John Chew, loves word games, particularly Scrabble. This Toronto resident is the co-president of the North America Scrabble Players Association and helps organize Scrabble tournaments.

Scrabble was created at the time of Great Depression and is still going strong. It has even adapted to today’s technological advances. You can play it as a traditional board game as well as on the Internet and mobile devices.

For those who want to take the game into the major leagues, there’s an annual National Scrabble Championship and a World Scrabble Championship held every two years. It’s a game for everyone. For example, the person who has the highest Scrabble score ever is a humble carpenter. Michael Cresta scored an 830, beating the previous high score of 770. One word alone, “quixotry,” notched him 365 points. Here’s a fascinating story on how he did it:

Mr. Chew? Well, he holds the distinction of having the highest tied score in a Scrabble tournament. He and his opponent both scored a 502. Tomorrow, we welcome his, well, words and on the fun we have with them.

Michael Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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Is Your Hero a Sandwich or an Extraordinary Person?

Alan Perlman’s work as forensic linguist has included everything from analyzing the Son of Sam writings to providing an expert opinion of plagiarism of song lyrics involving the rock group, The Who.

The Who

Cool job, yes?

Yesterday, we began exploring this fascinating world of forensic linguists. These are professionals who apply the tools, concepts and techniques of linguistics to matters involving law and jurisprudence.

Perlman is such a professional. And today, he shares insight into the field.

And this skill did not come overnight. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics and 20 years experience as an expert in forensic linguistics. According to his website, this expertise “represents a unique combination: a deep theoretical understanding of the workings of the language…together with extensive experience in the application of linguistic principles to the analysis of language samples in order to assist attorneys, other legal profession, law enforcement personnel, and others in understanding the linguistic issues that bear upon particular cases.”

It’s good that such people can be turned to. For instance, when a man suffered damages from malfunctioning rental equipment, he had no clue that he had signed a contract releasing the company from liability. Perlman studied the contract and, after statistical analysis of the prose, opined that it was “too complex to understand.”

We’re happy to have him share his thoughts:

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If anyone would know a lot about words, it is you and your fellow forensic linguists. What an amazing field. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Forensic linguists’ concerns go well beyond words and word choice.  People who specialize in words and their history are called philologists (older term), etymologists, and lexicographers.

Forensic linguistics is the application of the tools and techniques of linguistics to a wide range of legal issues. These include:

  • Phonetics of spoken language in legal situations to glean information about the speakers(s) and their attitudes and emotions.
  • Semantics: interpretation of intended and inferred meanings in legal documents, testimony, depositions, and other legal discourse.
  • The language of the law.
  • The language of the courtroom.
  • Veracity in testimony, witness statements and other accounts of events.
  • Interpretation and translation in a legal context.
  • Minority language rights.

Do you have a specialty?
Yes, I specialize in the following five additional areas: document interpretation, plagiarism, protectability of copyright/trademark, libel, and authorship.

Can you explain document interpretation for us?
In document interpretation, I examine contracts, wills, or other binding documents. I analyze specific words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and other units, including the entire document, to offer informed judgments on clarity, comprehensibility, and (un)ambiguity.

And what about plagiarism? Is that difficult to ascertain?
There are many forms that a plagiarism case can take. I examine texts to determine the likelihood of plagiarism. Here’s an example. The creator of an online course found it stolen and being offered by someone else. On the basis of similarities between the two courses phrased their questions, I helped substantiate his charges.

Some observations: A spurious plagiarism charge is often leveled as part of a fishing expedition or to “get” someone by impugning their honesty. A charge of plagiarism requires the intent to deceive – inept quoting doesn’t count. Example: A college student was – inappropriately, in my view – accused of plagiarism because his footnoting mechanics were erratic. He knew he had to attribute; he just didn’t do it perfectly. Somewhat less common is honest error: the person was unaware that he/she got an idea somewhere else.

Some cases of paraphrase may be evidence of plagiarism, though most plagiarists aren’t skilled enough to create complete paraphrases.  In such cases it is obvious that the original language has been tampered with.  Other suspected cases of plagiarism may be examples of independent creation (it does happen) or separate borrowing from same source.

With so many brands on the market, copyright/trademark infringement must be a challenge. Can you tell us about it?
For protectability of copyright/trademark, I help attorneys define the semantic points at issue, and I offer informed judgment on the genericity, specificity, and/or protectability of contested material. I consult dictionaries and other sources to determine the degree to which a given word or phrase is already part of the language. I also assess the similarity of names/marks and offer informed judgments in infringement litigation. For example, by comparing phonetics, orthography and frequency of consonant clusters, I demonstrated that another marketer’s brand name was, on several linguistic levels, similar to that of the Plaintiff.

And what about libel? How do you determine that?
I evaluate the accuracy and appropriateness of language. In one case, a candidate’s campaign materials referred to his opponent as a “convicted racketeer,” and his lawyers produced complex legal precedents to show how the words could actually apply to the other politician, who was a “convicted racketeer” only by a most implausible stretch of the conventional meanings of those words. I argued that the real issue is: how will the phrase be understood in context, by native speakers of English?

And can you actually determine authorship through your work? How?
I analyze two or more language samples — the grammar, lexicon, and other features (MANY other features) — to offer informed judgment on the authorship of anonymous, forged, or otherwise disputed documents.

Although it employs the methods and concepts of modern linguistics (and sometimes makes use of statistical analysis and computer databases), forensic linguistics as stylistic analysis is at least 200 years old.

Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics by Gerald R. McMenamin

According to Gerald R. McMenamin (Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics), “hundreds of studies — in the form of journal articles and books — have been done on style, stylistics, and questioned authorship. German studies of Old Testament authorship date back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In addition, evidence has been presented in multiple court cases, and numerous judicial opinions have been documented based on evidence of forensic stylistics.

These cases date as far back as the 1728 Trial of William Hales in England and the 1846 Pate v. People case in the US (pp. 86-7).”

Our blog is focusing on words this month. Are there particular words that you look for in your analysis that tend to be a clue or are all words equivalent in helping you reach your conclusions?
A speaker/writer’s word choice is only one of dozens, if not hundreds of features that forensic linguists look at in authorship and other studies.  Individual words are important insofar as they reflect larger patterns.  If two documents each consistently use two different synonyms, there would be grounds for suspecting different authorship.  Or a writer might use shut in a variety of contexts, whereas another might use different words in the same contexts: turn out [not shut] the light, close [not shut] the windows, etc.  Occasionally a writer will overuse a word so egregiously that it becomes a marker of his/her style.  One writer I identified repeatedly used puke as a noun, verb, and adjective.

As of course you know, there are words that are unique to regions. For instance, on the East Coast, people use the word, “hero,” to describe a submarine sandwich. Also back East and in the South, people call toll roads “turnpikes.” Here, in California, they are simply called toll roads. Is there a resource for word selection by region that you reference?
I thought referring to freeways by the plus interstate highway number (There’s an accident on the 405.) was distinctly Californian. In any case, the definitive reference book is the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The Californians Skit – Saturday Night Live
(Credit: NBC)

Are there any individual words so unique to a particular locale, that you can actually pinpoint where a person comes from? In San Diego it might be fish taco, for instance?
There may be, but there are so many words and so many contexts in which they are used that a forensic linguist, who can only take what the text gives him/her, rarely has the opportunity to use a single word as evidence in identifying an anonymous speaker/writer.  Also, the geographic origin of an anonymous writer/speaker has never been a significant question in any of my authorship analyses.  Rather, the question is always: Did the person write the suspected/anonymous document or not?  (Note also that people can pick up local vocabulary items even though they grew up somewhere else; this possibility further weakens the likelihood that an individual word can be a clue as to the anonymous individual’s identity.)

From what I understand of your work, all of us give clues when we write? Sort of like fingerprints?
Yes.  The “fingerprint” metaphor has been a topic of controversy among forensic linguists for some time. I contend that producing a text involves so many spontaneous (and often simultaneous) decisions that the combination of them, if the quantity of data is sufficient, can indeed reveal an individual style (even allowing for spell-check, auto-capitalization, and other “noise factors”).

And we are not aware of this?
Correct.  Think how long you have lived in blissful unawareness that your writing differs in many subtle ways from someone else’s. Most people are absolutely unaware that they have a writing style, probably because everyone is taught to write, and the goal is presumably the same, so they assume the output (i.e., the way they write) is the same. Some may make observations if the matter is brought up (“I tend to use a lot of exclamation marks.”), but such observations are rarely helpful and, more often than not, wrong.

If I were really, really careful, could I disguise my identity by choosing different words?
You could change individual words but not necessarily disguise your identity.  What’s required is not “really, really careful,” but the knowledge of which words to replace – and with what.  You’d have to know which ones are replaceable, replace them with exact synonyms, and do it consistently.  Even then, you’d still be using your own distinctive patterns of word formation (dreamed or dreamt? leaped or leapt?), idiom, orthography, and syntax.

You’ve done all sorts of work in this field from trademark infringement to the plagiarism of song lyrics involving The Who. What was your most interesting case?
There are many candidates.  In one authorship case, the writer took the trouble to steal signature stamps from the various people she was purporting to be, but her writing style was as distinctive as if she herself had signed it.  She didn’t use hyphens even with prefixes, and she always included the addressee’s name somewhere in the email, as I’m doing now, Michael (this is called a “vocative”).

In a contract interpretation case, I compared the writing of a rental contract with that of People magazine and the Chicago Tribune and was able to show exactly, quantitatively, how legal language is complex – in this case, too complex for the contractee to understand (he wasn’t aware that he’d agreed to indemnify the manufacturer and rental company even if the equipment killed him!)

In addition to doing civil work, you’ve also helped law enforcement with your expertise. For instance, you did an analysis of written letters involved in the Son of Sam case.  What was that like? Chilling?
Mostly I’ve been consulted long after the fact, just to confirm (or refute) someone else’s analysis.  In Son of Sam, I opined that the writings associated with the case came from different authors and that the copious writings of the Zodiac killer came from the same person.  I try to keep my emotions out of it and focus on the text.

Do some concerns purposely try to confuse us by creating hard-to-understand and complicated wording? How can we protect ourselves?
Absolutely.  Here is an article I wrote on the subject :

The only defense we have is to know where the malicious obfuscation is likely to occur – and insist that it be recast in simple terms before we evaluate or agree to it.

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Thank you Dr. Perlman for your input on this unique field of work. And for our readers, the next time you need to solve a crime, check the words. They may have someone’s fingerprints all over them.

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.