Random words

The other day, Bruce Schneier posted a note about “Recent Developments in Password Cracking.”  At the end, he mentioned: “Finally, there are two basic schemes for choosing secure passwords: the Schneier scheme and the XKCD scheme.”  The xkcd scheme, as some of you will recall, is laid out in this cartoon:

Much of the discussion on Bruce Schneier’s blog has included expressions of doubt that many users of the xkcd scheme are actually choosing the words randomly.

I use the xkcd scheme sometimes.  Here’s how I try to ensure that I’m picking the words randomly.  I have a telephone directory; fortunately, they still print those where I live.  I go to Wordcount.org, a site which indexes the 86,800 most common words in the British National Corpus in numerical order by frequency.  I close my eyes, open the telephone directory, and put my finger down on the page.  I open my eyes and see the last four digits of the number nearest my finger.  I put that number into Wordcount’s “by rank” search box and find the corresponding word.  I repeat the process to come up with four random words.

So, for example, the number sequence 6841, 1131, 4508, 1967, yields this word sequence in Wordcount:

hatred interested lecture beneath

Say the word “hatred” makes me uncomfortable.  Sometimes you will come up with a word you dislike, such as a curse word or an ethnic slur, or with a word that is too long, or one that is difficult to remember.  Well, there are more numbers on the telephone directory; repeating the process, I come up with 4300.  The 4300th most common word in the British National Corpus is “bench.”  So, the password can be either:

bench interested lecture beneath


interested lecture beneath bench

My usual practice when one of the first four words is problematic in some way is to put its replacement at the end, but since “interested lecture beneath bench” sounds like a series of words that might possibly appear in some bit of writing somewhere, I would choose “benchinterestedlecturebeneath.”

There are other ways to have fun with Wordcount.org.  You can look for little bits of unintended poetry in the sequencing.  One of my favorites is the sequence of words from #5595 to #5598, “touching shallow charming fuck.”  That tells the whole story of a bittersweet romance.  Or #44631 to #44634, “uneaten reticulum, oxidative fungicide.”  I can’t say that sounds like an appealing meal. Or #5844 to #5848, “publish solar petitions hurried Gabriel.”  Or #50 through #56, “so no said who more about up.”  Punctuate it as “‘So, no,’ said who?  More about up!”  A familiar story is told succinctly from #85 to #88: “See first!  Well, after.”  Punctuation can make a great deal of #100 through #164: “Got much?  Think, work- between go years; er- many, being those before right, because through- yeah?  Good- three make us such.  Still, year must last, even take own, too.  Off here come both- does say ‘Oh, used, going “‘Erm- use government day, man!'”  Might same, under ‘yes,’ however, put world another want?  Thought, while life again, against Never, need old look home.  Something, Mr Long.”  I grant you, it doesn’t make sense, but it keeps sounding like it is about to mean something.  And several of the sub-sequences in there sound so good that it really is a shame they are gibberish.

Save the Words

A website devoted to the preservation and revival of very obscure English words.


Words with nonpejorative technical uses and nontechnical pejorative uses

There are some words which have both a technical meaning in some field of study and a pejorative meaning that is more widely known.  A notorious example is “Negro,” which now tends to be used as a slur in colloquial English but which physical anthropologists still use because none of the alternatives captures the meaning they need to express.  Another example would be “cult.”  In the study of religion, “cult” is the rites and practices of a particular group.  A scholar of religion could refer to any faith group as having a “cult” in this sense and be confident that no one would take offense.  Of course, there’s also the pejorative sense of “cult,” a sect considered false or extreme. 

The word “essentialism” is at the head of a whole category of examples.  Some philosophers hold that each entity in the universe has a number of qualities, that some of these qualities are more important to the entity than others, and that human reason is capable of distinguishing the more important qualities from the less important ones.  This view is called essentialism.  Essentialism in this sense is a perfectly respectable philosophical position, and from the days of Plato and Aristotle down to the present it has consistently commanded the allegiance of many eminent thinkers.  Few would claim that these thinkers have proven beyond doubt that essentialism is true, but it is certainly plausible.  Indeed, while virtually anyone who has read a little Plato can put up a reasonable case for essentialism, it takes a considerable philosophical background to make a sensible case against it. 

The same word is used in a different, though related sense.  Many postmodernist thinkers use the word “essentialist” as a sort of curse word.  In their parlance, “essentialist” often seems to mean something like “stereotyped” or “inattentive to details.”  The “essentialism” they invoke seems to be an image of a person who slaps hasty definitions on categories, assigns other people to those categories, and proceeds to interact with the people as if the only qualities they had were those that defined the categories to which they were assigned.  So, someone who decides to equate “ukuleleist” with “weirdo who doesn’t want to grow up” might meet someone who plays the ukulele and insist on always and only treating that person as a weirdo who doesn’t want to grow up.  Sociologists among you will be reminded of the role of labeling in social relationships, but I think you can see that this use of the word “essentialism” is a gross caricature of the philosophical position I sketched above. 

The names of many philosophical schools and positions have been subjected to this kind of semantic shift.  So the ancient Epicureans argued that pleasure was a positive good; their opponents transformed their name into a synonym for “gourmand.”  The Stoics argued that a right understanding of nature’s laws would free the mind from fear; now we say “stoic” when we mean “unemotional.” 


The 86,800 Commonest English Words

Are these, apparently.

Words ending in “ism”

Here‘s an attractively designed webpage listing a few words that end in “ism.”  I’m not sure what the guiding principle is behind his selection of words- there are just a couple of hundred here, out of thousands to choose from.  Even a onelook search limited to “*ism:beliefbrongs brings up 280 entries.

A couple of word lists

Words ending in –phobiahttp://phobialist.com/

Contronyms, that is to say, words with two directly opposite meanings (such as “dust,” to remove dust from a surface, and “dust,” to spread dust over a surface). http://www.rinkworks.com/words/contronyms.shtml



I once read somewhere that the philosopher Hegel believed that all words are contronyms.  I’ve never gotten around to looking that up to see whether he actually said that, what he meant by it if he did say it, what influence his idea (whatever it was) may have had on the theory of language, or whether it is true.  But it’s an interesting notion, I think.

Unrelated picture:

Slow Start


So the blog is off to a slow start.  I haven’t had much time lately for the sort of wide-ranging reading that would support a lot of postings, and I know you guys have a lot going on as well.  But I think that email would be at a lull right now as well, for the same reason.  So I still believe that going to a blog format was the right move, and that future developments will vindicate this judgement.  I call for a surge of comments, posts, and new links. 

Here’s a link to linguist Larry Trask’s very engaging article, “Where do Mama/Papa words come from?”  I may have included a link in an email a while back, but it’s a really fun read and very convincing.  If you’re at all interested in what historical linguists do, you’ll enjoy it.  The file is pdf, but worth it.  http://www.sussex.ac.uk/linguistics/documents/where_do_mama2.pdf

And another youtube clip from The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  I love them. 


Speaking of youtube, here’s a Viewmaster commercial from 1971 featuring Henry Fonda and Jodie Foster.  Also a kid who may or may not have been on The Brady Bunch


The Word Origins class I teach includes the Greek word phobos, meaning fear, the uncontrollable urge to run away.  Of course that gives us lots of English words ending in the six letters phobia, words that refer to irrational, unmanageable fears.  People get interested in lists of paronyms like that, so the website below has lots of fans.