Zipf and Fungible Buttloads

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August 10, 2020 by libroshombre

An FNSB Library Commissioner and I chatted recently, and he asked the meaning of “fungible.”  No one knows every word, but my unabridged American Heritage Dictionary comes close, this time revealing “fungible” means “interchangeable,” like “butts” and “pipes.”  “Butt” has many definitions, ranging from nouns “thick end of something” and “victim of ridicule,” to “a joint made without overlapping ends” and “the fleshy part of the human body you sit on”.

One might even describe it as a “buttload” of definitions.  In a recent debate with the Breadline Director over the meaning of “buttload” – she claimed it harkens back to wooden ships carrying butts of wine, while I maintained it’s a slang expression – led to learning a butt’s technically “a large cask, especially one holding two hogsheads or 126 US gallons.”   Historically, its dimensions varied widely – between 450 to 1060 liters – until 1707 when good Queen Anne standardized wine butts at 126 U.S. gallons in Great Britain and her colonies.  While the Queen’s butt equaled a half tun, a “puncheon” was a third of a tun, and a “hogshead” was a quarter-tun.  We’ll ignore “tierces” (half puncheons), “barrels” (one-third butt), and “rundlets” (one-seventh tun) to note that the only definition for “buttload” in Oxford Dictionaries is an informal North American noun meaning “a large number or amount.”

Our “butt” comes from the French “botte,” or bottle, and the term’s fungible with “pipe.”  In this context a pipe’s “a large wine cask of 126 gallons.”  Like many short words, it’s flexible, and it took a man with a short name, George Zipf, to prove the most popular and, therefore useful, English word was also short: “the.”  “Technically it’s meaningless,” as Helene Schumacher wrote for last January, “yet this bland and innocuous-seeming word could be one of the most potent in the English language.  ‘The’ tops the league tables of most frequently-used words in English, accounting for 5% of every 100 words used.”  But she’s British, and they aren’t as free with “the’s” as we, for instance they say, “I’m going to hospital” instead of our “to the hospital.”

Zipf was a Harvard graduate (summa cum laude) and professor who applied statistics to studying languages, and he discovered that “short and simple words are used most frequently.  Zipf’s Law states that the most frequently used word occurs approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times more than the third most frequent word, etc.  So “the” makes up “nearly 7% of all word occurrences (69,971 out of slightly over 1 million) … the second-place word ‘of’ accounts for slightly over 3.55 of words followed by ‘and’.  Only 135 vocabulary items are needed to account for half the Brown Corpus” (AKA “The Brown University Standard Corpus of Present-Day American English “which contains a million America English words).

Zipf was born in 1902 and, after graduate study in Berlin, he headed Harvard’s German Department there for many years.  His grandfather immigrated from Tauberbischofsheim, Germany around 1850, but according to Claudia Prun’s “Biographical Notes on G.K. Zipf,” his “German family background probably had very little part in Zipf’s interest in German” since his grandfather insisted on speaking only English, his mother spoke only English, and no German was used in his home growing up.  However, “during World War II he was asked to move to Washington to work on the war effort in some capacity, but he declined and stayed at Harvard.”  That’s suspicious enough, but, despite publishing many papers, his office “did not have many books; Zipf believed in using libraries and did not believe in owning books.”

Many of us would never eschew one for the other; owning books and having the run of a good library are both excellent.  Rather than fret about it, I’m going to do nothing.  In short, I shall “niks,” short for the Dutch term “niksen” that means “doing nothing.”  “Niksen is supposed to give your mind a brief break and take the edge off,” according to a article by Emily Maloney.  Initially, “it’s exceptionally difficult to do nothing, especially when you’re wired to do something all the time.”  That’s why removing all your social media apps is important.  Studies have shown that just turning your phone off isn’t enough to keep your mind from returning to it repeatedly.  Maloney recommended starting by niksing for a few seconds and gradually increase your tolerance for doing nothing.  It’s healthy, just like a fungible practice: meditation, and as Spanx shapewear founder Sara Blakely noted, through healthy practices we “can make the world a better place, one butt at a time.”


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