Library Litotes, Data-Overload, and the Pollyanna HypothesisLeave a comment
March 24, 2015 by libroshombre
There are more than a few books in our public library, and its print books aren’t going away anytime soon. Both statements are true, and both are excellent examples of the litotes, an “ironical understatement” according to OxfordDictionaries.com, “in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary (e.g., ‘you won’t be sorry’).” However, in David Levitin’s “The Organized Mind,” published last August, it’s estimated that “We live in a world with 300 exabytes (300 billion billion) of information … yet the capacity of the conscious mind is a mere 120 bits per second. This presents a challenge not only to our processing capacity, but also our decision-making ability … In 2011 Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986 – the equivalent of 175 newspapers.”
Unfortunately, this also presents a plethora of little moment-to-moment decisions: do I read this next? Check my messages? Choose this website over that one? Levitin noted that “One of the most useful findings in recent neuroscience could be summed up as: ‘The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize.’” In other words, unlike breathing and swallowing, decision-making doesn’t happen automatically; we have to consciously make up our minds to do it. But, “During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day.”
It might be my annual Patrick O’Brian binge I feel coming one, for O’Brian possessed an amazing and amusing vocabulary that’s displayed frequently is his 7,000-page Aubrey-Maturin series of novels. Whatever the impetus, I’ve been noticing frequent mention of nautically-based words. For example, my regular resource for honing my grammar, Daily.Writing.Tips.com, has recently compared definitions and uses of “gibe, gybe, jibe, and jive,” and “jerry-rigged and jury-rigged.” In a nutshell, “gibes,” dating from the 1570s, are taunts while a “gybe,” which comes from 17th century Dutch word “giben,” occurs when a sail suddenly shifts from one side of a boat to the other.” “Jive” can mean “a type of fast, lively jazz,” “uninhibited dancing,” or “talk that is false, misleading, or worthless.”
“Jury-rigged” originated with the “jury-mast, a nautical term for a temporary mast put in place of one broken or blown away” and, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, in this context “jury” is “of uncertain origin.” The same source says that “jerry-rigged,” or “jerry-built,” was first used in 1869 to mean “bad, defective.” Its origin is also lost to time, according to DailyWritingTips.com. “A jerry-builder was a contractor who put up shoddy houses for a quick sale. The first citation for the adjective jerry-built houses is dated 1869.”
As a species we loathe using such negative connotations. In a ScienceDaily.com article last month, University of Vermont researchers announced that they might have proven the validity of the “Pollyanna Hypothesis” that “there is a universal tendency to use positive words more frequently than negative ones. ‘Put even more simply,’ they wrote, ‘humans tend to look on (and talk about) the bright side of life.’” The Pollyanna Hypothesis originated in 1969 at the University of Illinois, and with that era’s limited technology for broadly surveying language usage, it remained pretty hypothetical until the Vermont scientists hooked up with the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit engineering and technology organization.
Backed by a National Science Foundation grant they “gathered billions of words from around the world using twenty-four types of sources, including books, news outlets, social media, websites, television and movie subtitles, and music lyrics. For example, we collected roughly one hundred billion words in tweets.” They then “identified about ten thousand of the most frequently-used words in each of ten languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian, and Arabic.” Native speakers were paid to rate all the frequently-used words on a 1-9 scale. For example, in English, “laughter” rated 8.50, “the” 4.98, and “terrorist” 1.30.
“In all cases, the scientists found ‘a usage-invariant positivity bias’ … In other words, by looking at the words people actually use most often they found that, on average, we – humanity – use more happy words than sad words.” So cheer up, for as Abraham Lincoln noted, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”