The most annoying, overused and abused words of the year

Timothy Egan makes a good case HERE for getting rid of certain words, including this one: GLUTEN-FREE It’s a public service to warn the less than 1 percent of the population who suffer from celiac disease that bakery products might contain something that could make them sick. But putting this label on things that have no connection is a cynical corporate play for clueless consumers who buy something simply because they think it’s healthy. Red Bull boasts of being gluten-free. So is paint...

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The name you give your child might have an effect on his or her future

Among the countless factors for which I’m eternally grateful to my late parents is that they didn’t saddle any of their five children with trendy or unusual first names. We Cunningham children were born between 1937 and 1947, but our names — in chronological order: Mary, Ann, Patrick, Timothy and Kathleen — weren’t especially evocative of those times. Those names were given to millions of other kids born long before or long after we were. This subject came to mind as I read THIS PIECE about how first names can matter in unexpected ways: In 1948, two professors at Harvard University published a study of thirty-three hundred men who had recently graduated, looking at whether their names had any bearing on their academic performance. The men with unusual names, the study found, were more likely to have flunked out or to have exhibited symptoms of psychological neurosis than those with more common names. The Mikes were doing just fine, but the Berriens were having trouble. A rare name, the professors surmised, had a negative psychological effect on its bearer. Since then, researchers have continued to study the effects of names, and, in the decades after the 1948 study, these findings have been widely reproduced. Some recent research suggests that names can influence choice of profession, where we live, whom we marry, the grades we earn, the stocks we invest in, whether we’re accepted to a school or are hired for a particular job, and the quality of our work in a group setting. Our names can even determine whether we give money to disaster victims: if we share an initial with the name of a hurricane, according to one study, we are far more likely to donate to relief funds after it hits. Much of the apparent influence of names on behavior has been attributed to what’s known as the implicit-egotism effect: we are generally drawn to the things and people that most resemble us. Because we value and identify with our own names, and initials, the logic goes, we prefer things that have something in common with them… That view, however, may not withstand closer scrutiny. The psychologist Uri Simonsohn, from the University of Pennsylvania, has questioned many of the studies that purport to demonstrate the implicit-egotism effect, arguing that the findings are statistical flukes that arise from poor methodology… There are also researchers who have been more measured in their assessments of the link between name and life outcome. In 1984, the psychologist Debra Crisp and her colleagues found that though more common names were better liked, they had no impact on a person’s educational achievement. In 2012, the psychologists Hui Bai and Kathleen Briggs concluded that “the name initial is at best a very limited unconscious prime, if any.” While a person’s name may unconsciously influence his or her thinking, its effects on decision-making are limited. Follow-up studies have also questioned the link between names and longevity, career choice and success, geographic and marriage preferences and academic achievement.. However, it may not be the case that name effects don’t exist; perhaps they just need to be reinterpreted. In 2004, the economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan created five thousand résumés in response to job ads posted in the classifieds in Chicago and Boston newspapers. Using Massachusetts...

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How soon after a tragedy is it OK to joke about it?

The funny thing about most tragedies and disasters is that they eventually become the subject of jokes. A classic example of this phenomenon is this chestnut: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But, of course, as any comedian will tell you, when it comes to humor, timing is everything. You don’t want to be too soon with your jokes about tragedies. Julie Beck has an instructive piece HERE about some serious research into the use of such jokes: Humor is a real and helpful coping strategy. From the darkest depths of despair, a joke may rise. The risk there, of course, is that everyone may not find it funny, that a joke, even one intended to release a little tension in the aftermath of something traumatic, might come across as inappropriate. You may be met with a narrowing of the eyes and a contemptuous “Too soon.” But when, exactly, is a joke too soon? Can it be too late? They say comedy is tragedy plus time, but how much time? What is the exact best moment to deploy your joke for maximum laughs? Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Texas A&M University mapped this out for the benefit of nervous jokesters everywhere… A total of 1,064 participants took an online survey at various times before, during, and after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012. “Although most tragedies are unanticipated, hurricanes permit a full exploration of the humor derived from tragedy because they are tracked and publicized before they inflict harm,” the researchers reasoned… Participants responded to three tweets (i.e., short messages) posted on the website twitter.com, by an account titled @AHurricaneSandy about the approaching storm… Participants then rated how funny they thought the tweets were, as well as how offensive, upsetting, boring, irrelevant and confusing… The researchers divided the surveys into “during crisis” and “after crisis.” The day before the storm made landfall, people thought the tweets were pretty funny—they didn’t yet know it would be a tragedy. Over the next nine days, as people learned the extent of the damage, perceived humor declined. Participants found the tweets least funny 15 days after Sandy’s landfall. Then, it slowly started to be “okay” to find humor in the situation again, leading to a high point of humor 36 days after landfall. Humor fell again after that, and researchers saw another low point 99 days after the disaster. The study also showed that during the first dip in perceived humor, participants found the tweets more offensive… “Most humor theories have difficulty accounting for evidence that distance sometimes helps and sometimes hurts humor,” the researchers write. “We find that temporal distance creates a comedic sweet spot. A tragic event is difficult to joke about at first, but the passage of time initially increases humor as the event becomes less threatening. Eventually, however, distance decreases humor by making the event seem completely benign.” They also posit that when a joke seems offensive, it’s because there is a perceived threat, and that “threat reduction” enhances humor. That explains why the jokes were funniest about a month after the disaster, when the danger had passed. But jokes about something less traumatic than a hurricane could be funny sooner:  “More tragic events, such as a devastating hurricane, should take...

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Lincoln would be proud: Illinois ranks fifth among the cussingest states

Ordinarily, I’m a stickler for reliable methodology in social research, but I’ll make an exception in this case. I’m simply not going to dispute any study suggesting that we Illinoisans are more foul-mouthed but also more courteous than our Wisconsin brethren. If that sounds contradictory…well, social science can be a complicated matter. The story is HERE: [The Marchex Institute] examined more than 600,000 phone calls from the past 12 months. The calls were placed by consumers to businesses across 30 industries, including cable and satellite companies, auto dealerships, pest control centers and more. The Institute scanned for curse words from A to F to S. Analysts then linked the frequency of those words with all 50 states. Following Washington in the “Goody Two Shoes” category – states where people are least likely to curse – were Massachusetts (2nd place), Arizona (3rd place), Texas (4th place), and Virginia (5th place). Ranking behind Ohio in the “Sailors” category – states where people are most likely to curse – were: Maryland (2nd place), New Jersey (3rd place), Louisiana (4th place), Illinois (5th place). Ohioans curse more than twice the rate of Washingtonians, according to the data. Washingtonians curse about every 300 conversations. Ohioans, on the other hand, swore about every 150 conversations. The data also found that: 66% of curses come from men The calls that contain the most cursing are more than 10 minutes long. So the longer someone is on the phone, the more likely that call is to devolve. Calls in the morning are twice as likely to produce cursing as calls in the afternoon or evening. The Institute also aggregated state-by-state data on who says “please” and “thank you” the most. The Top 5 “Most Courteous” states were: South Carolina (1st place), North Carolina (2nd place), Maryland (3rd place), Louisiana (4th place), and Georgia (5th place). Washington didn’t make the Top 5 for Most Courteous, but it did rank in the top third of the country for saying “please” and “thank you.” The Top 5 “Least Courteous” states were: Wisconsin (1stt place), Massachusetts (2nd place), Indiana (3rd place), Tennessee (4th  place), and Ohio (5th...

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What single word is the most widely understood across cultures and languages?

I don’t know if those pricey Rosetta Stone courses offer this lesson, but they should: When you’re traveling abroad, there’s one word in particular you would do well to remember. Jennifer Schuessler has the story HERE: Are there words that are universally understood, across all countries and cultures? A team of linguists has proposed one: “huh.” Huh? In a paper published on Friday in the journal PLOS One, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands announced that they had found strikingly similar versions in languages scattered across five continents, suggesting that “Huh?” is a universal word. The study, conducted by Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, closely examined variations of the word — defined as “a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation” — in 10 languages, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African Siwu and the Australian aboriginal Murrinh-Patha. The researchers also looked at other words and expressions used to elicit clarification during conversation, a function that linguists refer to as “other-initiated repair.” But only “Huh?,” they write, occurs across languages whose phonetic patterns otherwise vary greatly. It might seem trivial to carry out research on “Huh?,” which some linguists argue isn’t really a word at all. But the study, Dr. Enfield said, is part of a broader effort to challenge the dominant view that language is primarily a matter of inborn grammatical structure, as Noam Chomsky has argued. Instead, some researchers suggest, language is primarily grounded in social interaction. “We think of this as the core of language: managing common understanding as we talk,” Dr. Enfield said in an interview. Confirming and checking with other people, he added, “are really fundamental to the use of language.” Linguists have made claims for other universal words, like “mama.” But the evidence for “Huh?,” some researchers familiar with the team’s work said, may be more convincing. Among languages, there are many more variations for “mama” and “papa” than there are for “Huh?,” saidHerbert H. Clark, a psycholinguist at Stanford who has studied the functional difference between “um” and “uh.” “The fact that all these languages have converged on ‘Huh?’ is very interesting,” he...

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