Little Words, Ngrams, and Emoji

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July 7, 2015 by libroshombre

“It’s the little details that are vital,” according to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who added, “Little things make big things happen.” Take the words “a” and “an.” The Online Etymology Dictionary notes thaFeatured imaget sometimes words beginning with “n,” like “nickname” and “newt,” began with vowels. For example, until the mid-1400s “nickname” was “ekename,”meaning “an additional name,” with “eke” coming from the Old English “eaca” (“an increase”). For easier pronunciation English employs the articles “a” before words beginning with consonants and “an” before those starting with vowels. Spelling more closely resembled spoken English in those preliterate days, and “idiot,” “island,” and “ox” were soon being spelled “nidiot,” “neilond,” and “nox.”

But what about words starting with an aspirate “h” which sounds like a vowel? A recent DailyWritingTips.com posting by Maeve Maddox addressed this, stating that people saying “an historic event” instead of “a historic” are often considered snooty, self-conscious, pompous, and affected. The major opinion setters, such as “The Chicago Manual of Style” and “The Penguin Writer’s Manual,” agree that “a historic” is correct in modern usage. But Google’s Ngram Reader proves it hasn’t always been so.

The Ngram Viewer is a website where usage of a word or phrase between 1800 and 2012 can be compared year-by-year. TheFeatured image Google Books project has digitized millions of books and other written sources, and the Ngram program draws on this enormous database. Maddox wrote that doing a comparative search of “a historical” and “an historical” showed that “(i)n 1800, ‘a historic’ barely shows … In 1869, ‘a historic’ is neck and neck with ‘an historic.’ The two travel along fairly close together until the First World War when ‘an historic’ pulls ahead and dominates until 1938. After that, ‘a historic’ becomes the clear winner.”

“Emoji,” defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “small digital images or icons used to express an idea, emotion, etc. in electronic communications,” are small words of a kind, too. It began in September 19, 1982 when Scott Fahlman sent a message to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science department with a smiley face made by typing a colon, a hyphen, and a parenthesis, as in “:-).” He was the firsFeatured imaget to do it on a computer, but the same symbol’s been in use at least since the 1800s. For example, “Puck,” the British humor magazine, ran a series of similar punctuation-based symbols in March 1881. Today most keyboards insert J automatically after “:-“ is typed. Spin-offs abound, such as :-& (tongue-tied), 3:) (devilish), and #-) (partied all night).

The smiley symbol got the name “emoticon” in 1990 when the words “emotion” and “icon” were blended together. Wikipedia states that the emoticon “is a metacommunicative pictorial representation of a facial expression that, in the absence of body language and prosody, serves to draw a receiver’s attention to the tenor or temper of a sender’s nominal non-verbal communication, changing and improving its interpretation.” In other words, they help convey the writer’s feelings. “Emoji,” which is Japanese for “pictographs,” was adopted in 1997 to describe the bevy of emoticons being included in Unicode, the “character encoding standard for cFeatured imageomputer storage and transmission of the letters, characters, and symbols of most languages and writing systems,” that standardized the digitalizing of most of the world alphabets and symbols used for communicating. Today Unicode contains over 700 emoji, including little yellow faces that sweat, snooze, wear sunglasses, look like cats, and many more.

Speaking of small symbols, there’s a little-known library-related one worth knowing: “OZ.” It has nothing to do with L. Frank Baum and the Emerald City, buFeatured imaget could have everything to do with locating a special book. “OZ” on the catalog note means “oversized” in library lingo. Large coffee-table books are usually gathered in a separate location to prevent their size from forcing some bookshelves to be spaced further apart than required by normally-sized books. Our public libraries keep the OZs at the end of the nonfiction sections.

Keeping 300,000+ items in the right place is a monumental and never-ending task for our librarians, but paying careful attention to that little detail enables everyone else to find what they want. As Arthur Conan Doyle said, “the little things are infinitely the most important.”

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