Humor (being funny or amusing) is sometimes difficult to define and to understand. What you may find funny, I may not and vice versa (the reverse is true). A group of Canadian researchers, however, may have an explanation for why we find some words funny and other words not.
A psychologist (scientist studying the mind and how it works) named Chris Westbury was actually studying a condition called “aphasia,” problems with speech due to brain damage, when he observed something interesting. He found that each time the subjects (research participants) saw the word “snunkoople,” they thought it was funny. “Snunkoople” is not a real word. It is a nonsense word, or a made up (not real) word with no meaning. This got him thinking. Why are some nonsense words funny while others are not?
He and a group of researchers at the University of Alberta set out (planned and began) to find out. They showed people in this new study pairs of nonsense words and asked people which was funnier, the one on the left or the one on the right. Here are a few of these pairs of words:
Quingel or Heashes
Prousup or Mestins
Finglam or Cortsio
Witypro or Octeste
If you’re like the people in the study, you would say that the first word in each pair is funnier. Why? The researchers believe the answer is in something called “entropy,” a term they borrowed from other fields, including physics (the field of science concerned with matter (physical substance) and energy). Entropy, as they define it in this context (situation), relates to how much disorder (confusion) there is in a word. In other words, if a word looks like it could be a real word or is similar to real words, there is less disorder, less entropy. If the words are not similar, not expected, or strange-looking, there is more disorder or entropy and people think they’re funnier.
This is not a new idea. In the 19th century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proposed that things are funny to us when expectations (what we think will happen) are violated (failed to meet expectations). That’s why 20 clowns climbing out of a very small car may be funny to us, or you may laugh when Jeff sings like Celine Dion.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the daily applications (usefulness) of research, but not in this case. Not only does this general idea help us understand the brilliance (great talent and intelligence) of Jeff’s humor, but it may also save us some embarrassment. You may not want to name your child “Lnikproop” or your new product “Umhwegeegi.”
Today is a public holiday in the United States called Veterans Day. A veteran is someone who was once in his or her country’s military (army, navy, etc.). Today is also a day of remembrance in many countries, since it is the anniversary of the end of World War I, what was once called the “war to end all wars” (sadly, of course, it didn’t).
But for a short period in American history, Americans didn’t celebrate this day on November 11th. Here’s the story why.
World War I officially (formally; legally) ended on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting actually ceased (stopped) seven months earlier when an armistice (temporary cessation (end) of hostilities (fighting)) between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect (began) on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – that is, at 11:00 AM on November 11, 1918.
In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed (officially announced; determined that) November 11 as the first commemoration (remembrance; celebration) of Armistice Day. Yet it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in 1938, that the 11th of November was made a federal (national) holiday.
At first, November 11th was a day to honor veterans of World War I. But in 1954, after World War II, “Armistice Day” was changed to “Veterans Day” to remember all of those who served in the the United States military, both during war and in peacetime (when a country is not involved in a war).
For a few years during the 1970s, however, Veterans Day was not celebrated on November 11th. That’s because the federal government changed the law in the late 1960s to “move” certain holidays from the dates they were traditionally celebrated to a Monday, in order to create a “three-day weekend” for government workers and others who had the day off (didn’t have to work). The other holidays moved were Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day.
Many people, including millions of veterans, didn’t like the fact that the government decided to move Veterans Day, since it is so obviously connected to the date of November 11th. So another law was passed a few years later that changed Veterans Day back to its original date, and that’s the date we use today.
The other holidays that were moved by the 1960s law, however, are still celebrated on a Monday, even though two of them are also connected to specific historical events: Washington was born on February 22nd, which is only occasionally the third Monday in February, the day we celebrate it now; and Columbus Day is in honor of the day Columbus arrived in the “New World,” October 12th, which does not normally fall on (take place on the calendar) the second Monday of October. It seems Americans prefer their three-day weekends over historical accuracy in these cases.
Is this day celebrated in your country in honor of veterans? If not, do you have another day that you celebrate those who served your country in the military? Have certain public holidays connected to specific dates been “moved” to create three-day weekends?
P.S. I’ve adapted (taken and changed) part of this brief history from a U.S. government website.
Image credit: Officers of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I (Wikipedia)
Today’s episode of my little video experiment, Headline English, talks about how newspaper headlines often use phrases and words with more than one meaning as a way of grabbing (getting) your attention.
If you read the news, you’ll often see one country compared to others using many different indices (measures; the singular is “index”). Many times, these indices have to do with political, economic, and social comparisons (looking for similarities and difference between two or more things).
I’ve come across an easy way for each of us to compare countries for a rough (approximate; not precise) idea of what it would be like living another country. If you visit the ifitweremyhome.com website, you can compare your country with another country using several common indices. First, look at the thin blue box in the center of the homepage to make sure the website has automatically determined (found; decided) that you’re in the correct country. Then, click on the name of any other country you see below.
The first thing you’ll see is a size comparison. For example, when I compare the United States with Japan, the outline (shape without the details) of Japan is superimposed (visually placed on top of) over a map of the United States, showing its relative (compared to each other) size. Then, I see a list of comparisons using several common factors.
The website uses several different sources of information for its data (information in numbers), but here are some definitions for common indices.
– Unemployment rate: The number of adults who don’t have jobs out of the total workforce (total number of people who can and are available to work).
– Infant mortality rate: The number of deaths of children under one year old out of every 1,000 live (not dead) births.
– Rates of incarceration: The number of people in prison out for every 100,000 people.
– Resource consumption: The amount of electricity, oil, and other resources people or households (everyone living in one home) uses.
– Murder rate: The number of people killed out of every 100,000 people.
– Birth rate: The number of live babies born for every 1,000 people.
There are others, but these are the main comparisons.
Try doing a few comparisons yourself. If nothing else (even if you don’t benefit any other way), the size comparisons between countries are interesting, at least they were to me. Are you finding any surprising results?
You may have heard of the Running of the Bulls (male cows) in Spain, especially the most famous in Pamplona, or seen it on television. This yearly event began many years ago to solve the problem of moving bulls from the corrals (a place to temporarily keep animals) to the bullring, where bullfights are held. The bulls are released from the corrals and allowed to run through the streets to the bullring. Foolhardy (taking unnecessary risks) – in my opinion – young people run in front of the bulls and try to get to the bullring before the bulls. Many are hurt every year. Occasionally some are killed.
The running of the interns (someone who works for a short time in a job in order to get experience), in Washington, D.C., solves a different problem and may seem a little crazy to some. But no one, as far as I know, has been hurt or killed.
The U.S. Supreme Court announces many of its decisions near the end of their yearly term (time of meeting) – in May and June. Some of the decisions are important enough to attract reporters from around the world.
Here’s the problem. The Supreme Court has banned (doesn’t allow) all recording devices – video cameras, audio (sound) recorders, etc. – from the Supreme Court building. Reporters sit in the press room and listen to the Supreme Court proceedings (series of things that happen). When the justices (judges) announce an important decision, reporters in the press room quickly write a report, print it, hand it to an intern, and the running begins. Every television network wants to get their report on air first.
The interns race down a short hallway and out of the Supreme Court building. They cross the courtyard (open area outside), dodging (moving quickly to avoid someone/something) tourists, protestors, and others until they make a hard (sudden) left turn at the sidewalk and sprint (run at full speed) the final yards (meters) to where they breathlessly hand the report to a reporter waiting in front of the television cameras.
The running of the interns is only for the young and fit (in good physical condition). It’s about a quarter of a mile – approximately 400 meters – from the press room to the cameras. And in June, it’s usually hot and humid in Washington.
The winning intern last week, when the Supreme Court announced its decision on Obamacare – the Affordable Care Act – was Lauren Langille from CNBC, an American television business news channel. Congratulations, Lauren!
Here and here are two articles – both with animated (action) photos – that will help you experience this year’s running of the interns.
~ Warren Ediger – ESL tutor/coach and creator of the Successful English web site, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.
I’m trying a little video experiment today. I decided today that instead of writing my blog post, I’d just shoot a little video. I did this first thing this morning, as I was drinking my morning coffee (and before I shaved, as you’ll see!). I love reading the newspapers when I drink my coffee, so I combined all of that with a little lesson about the English that appears in some of today’s headlines.
I recorded it on my iPad, edited in a video editing app right on my tablet (iMovie), then published it to YouTube. The whole thing took less time than it normally takes me to write a post, although I did have a little trouble getting the YouTube connection to work.
So, there you go! Tell me what you think.
UPDATE: I just realized that I misspelled the name of the U.K. Labor Party leader in the video. It should be “Miliband.”
Here’s a headline from a recent Wall Street Journal article:
Private Equity’s Latest Fix: Auto-Body Repair
A lot of newspaper headlines (titles of articles) are based on a “double meaning” of one of the words, where one word has two different meanings. Here the key word is fix.
The verb to fix means to repair, to take something that is broken (such as part of a car) and make it so that it works again, or looks the same as it did before.
But “fix” can also be a noun to describe something that you are addicted to, usually an illegal drug like cocaine or heroin. (To be addicted means you feel you MUST have something, even if it is causing you harm or injury.)
This headline is using both meanings of “fix.”
Let’s go back to the beginning of the headline: private is used here to refer to what does not belong to the government. (Things run by or owned by the government are called public.) Equity refers to money that people want to invest in something. (Remember to invest means to give money to someone in the hopes of getting even more money back.)
So private equity refers to people and companies whose main job is to invest money. This headline is telling us about one of the latest or most recent interests of these investment companies.
In the original article (paid subscription required), we read about equity firms (companies) buying auto-bodyrepair places. An auto is a car (from “automobile”). The body of an auto is the outside of it (not including the engine or the wheels, for example).
If someone hits you with his car, you need to get your car’s body repaired or fixed. Private equity companies are buying these repair “shops.” In fact, they are buying lots of them, almost as if they were addicted, as if they needed their “fix” of them. That’s the double meaning of “fix” in this headline.
The word shop doesn’t appear in the headline, but usually we refer to businesses that do auto body repair as repair shops. A shop can be a place you buy something, but another meaning of “shop” is a place where you get something fixed. We even sometimes say, “My car is in the shop” when we mean our car is being fixed by a mechanic at an auto repair shop.
So, to summarize: Some investment managers are interested in buying lots of small auto-body repair shops and combining them to form a large company with the hopes of making more money.
I just hope no one hits my car so I don’t have to use one.
As people get older, one of their biggest concerns is the loss of memory, of not being able to remember things. Most people know that keeping active is important, but not all activities are created equal (are the same; have the same results).
In a recent study about memory, groups of older adults learned new skills, either 1) quilting, a type of sewing activity where different pieces of fabric are sewn together to make a thick blanket called a quilt–see photo); or 2) digital photography, taking photos with a digital (electronic; using a small computer) camera.
The participants took memory tests before and after they learned these new skills, and their results were compared to other groups who had participated in enjoyable social or leisure (free time) activities, such as watching movies, listening to music, and playing easy games, but that did not involve learning new skills.
After three months of doing these activities for over 15 hours a week, the group that learned digital photography made the most improvement in the memory tests, perhaps because it was the more difficult of the new skills. It not only involved learning to use a digital camera, but also involved learning the photography software Photoshop and, for some, using a computer, since some of the participants had never used a computer before.
The psychologists (researchers studying the mind) who conducted the study believe that learning new skills helps to strengthen the connections in the brain. Learning new skills is better, they believe, than the games and computer programs marketed (sold) to older adults these days that tout (say is a benefit) improvement in memory. They say that those commercial (sold to customers) games only improve short-term (recent) memory to a small degree (a little bit), but learning new skills — such as learning a new hobby — helps to strengthen connections in larger portions (areas; sections) of the brain.
In the past 30 years or so, there have been many media (news) reports about the benefits of keeping active as we get older. Physical exercise is important and so, it seems, is exercising the mind. Picking activities that challenge (present problems and difficulties to solve) the mind garners (gets) the greatest benefits.
If you’re an older adult, do you have hobbies that challenge your mind? If you’re younger, what new skills would you like to learn when you retire and have more time?
The World Cup is in full swing (is already in progress), and millions of people around the world are watching their favorite teams compete (play against each other). Even here in the U.S., there are millions who watch soccer (or “football“). You can’t go to a bar here in Los Angeles – a city of immigrants, after all – without seeing a group of people gathered around (next to) a large-screen TV watching a game (and yelling or screaming).
To win the World Cup, you need talent and probably a little luck. But what if the World Cup were not decided by two teams kicking a ball on a field, but rather some other measure or factor?
For example, if we took the 32 countries that are competing in this year’s World Cup and decided to give the victory to the country with the biggest population instead of the best team, the winner would be the United States (with 318.9 million people).
Here, then, are the “winners” of what we could call Alternative World Cups, according to a recent article by the Wall Street Journal:
Highest population density (most number of people per square kilometer): Korea, at 468.8 people per square km.
Lowest population density: Australia, with 2.9 people per square km.
Fastest-growing population: Nigeria, with 2.8% yearly increase.
Slowest-growing population: Italy, with -2% yearly change.
Most traffic deaths: Iran, with 34.1 deaths per 100,000 people.
Fewest traffic deaths: England, with 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
Most murders: Honduras, with 90.4 murders per 100,000 people.
Fewest murders: Japan, with 0.3 murders per 100,000 people.
Longest life expectancy (how long you will probably live): Japan, at 84.5 years.
Most unmarried women ages 45 to 49: Brazil, with 44.6%.
Fewest unmarried women ages 45 to 49: Iran, with 12.6%.
Most tourists per person: Croatia, with 2.45 visitors per person.
Cellphones per capita (for each person): Russia, with 1.84 phones per person.
Biggest smokers: Greece, with 2,795 cigarettes smoked per person per year (that’s 7.6 cigarettes per day).
Biggest drinkers: Russia, with 15.1 liters per person per year.
Biggest meat eaters: Argentina, with 570 calories per day of meat per person.
Biggest vegetable eaters: Korea, with 179 calories per day per person.
Biggest sugar eaters: United States, with 569 calories per person per day (as much as an Argentinian eats in meat!).
Fattest: United States, with approximately 33% of the population classifiedas (considered) obese (seriously overweight).
What else could we use to determine the World Cup winner?