January 2011

a snow shoveler

Snow Shoveler

After a recent snowstorm, the Boston Globe published an op-ed piece by Scot Lehigh (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/01/21/dont_kids_shovel_anymore/) in which, expanding on Medieval poet and thief François Villon’s query concerning the whereabouts of the snows of times past, he asked, “Where are the snow shovelers of yesteryear?” Specifically, “Where are the entrepreneurial kids who used to offer to shovel your sidewalk after a storm (having previously discharged their duties to their morning paper route clientele)?” Ô les beaux jours! While the Globe subsequently printed a couple of high-dudgeon letters to the editor attesting to the quick-and-wellness of at least two self-described pliers of the trade, the original article caused me to wonder how one might determine at what point a given occupation (such as snow shoveler, tinker, or reeve) has become obsolescent or, ultimately, obsolete, its last practitioners gone to that great unemployment office in the sky?


Look in the Yellow Pages to see if the jobs have listings? For those increasing numbers of the telephoning populace who have given up their land lines and routinely recycle their complementary phone books, this would likely mean a trip to the library. Fortunately, Google has recently given the public a nifty application (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) that lets you graph the frequency of occurrence over time of words and short phrases (e.g., those for occupations) as they have appeared in an enormous corpus of printed documents.  To be sure, a word or phrase may persist in print long after its referent has for all practical purposes ceased to exist (or, in some cases, like tinker, has metamorphosed), so the fact that, say, snow shoveler may still be found in print doesn’t mean that there are any actual snow shovelers left (letters to the Globe not withstanding). However, you can make certain inferences from the trajectory of the frequency of  a word’s or phrase’s appearance in the corpus.


So, what can Google’s Ngrams application tell us about the prevalence of snow shovelers? Consider Exhibit A, a comparison of the frequencies of occurrence of the terms snow shoveler and, with our own a nod to M Villon, poet and thief:

Ngrams graph

Poets, Thieves, and Snow Shovelers 1600-2000

By and large, poets seem to have gotten better—or at least much more—press than thieves in comparison to both of whom snow shovelers barely make the charts and at that not until the 1800s. (The date range under Search in Google Books is a tip-off here to which I’ll return presently). Here’s the Ngram graph for snow shoveler by itself:

Ngrams graph 2

snow shoveler

Perhaps it would be fairer to start in 1800 and pick some more appropriate competition, say, dish washer and chimney sweep:

Ngrams graph 3

Snow Shovelers, Dish Washers, and Chimney Sweeps 1800 - 2000

Better. Now, about the links under Search in Google Books: Each of these takes you to a list of sources from which the data represented in the graph were drawn that you can look at on line. For example, when you click on the leftmost (earliest) time span under snow shoveler, the first hit is a page in Bankroft’s First[-fifth] Reader of 1883:

Ngram hit

Early Snow Shoveler

Page 136 (and the following) offer a picture of a lad shoveling snow followed by a poem entitled “The Little Snow-Shoveler,” which begins

“Merrily whistling along the street,

With his little nose, his hands and feet

Sharply bitten by old Jack Frost,

His curly hair by the rude wind tossed,

Armed with his shovel, goes Ned Magee;

In search of some work, of course, is he.”

 Not, perhaps, quite in the same league as Villon’s “Testament et Rondeau” (though the enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is nice). But it is snowing again and Ned Magee’s avatar is nowhere to be seen, so I must leave you with Ngram while I go out to clear the sidewalk and the driveway.

Ngram graph 4

Sidewalk and Driveway

It may be a trivial assertion that every act of communication, however brief, original, or opaque, has a back story, an underlying history that informs its immediate semantic content. For example, if I overhear you on my morning commute say “Hi, Mom; I’m on the bus,” I and all the other passengers within earshot have no trouble perceiving the immediate semantic content of your speech act, namely, that you are informally greeting someone named “Mom” and announcing that you are on the bus. (If, assuming we’re both on the bus and I hear you say, “Hi, Mom; I’m home in bed with a cold,” it will be apparent to me, if not to Mom, that the immediate semantic content of your speech act is at odds with reality at least as I perceive it, but that’s another story.)

In either case, assuming that I know you only as the guy I see on my commute who’s always talking on his cell phone, it is up to me (should I have nothing better to do to pass the time until I reach my destination) to imagine the back story of your communication, something I would probably be more apt to do if the scenario were the one in which you were clearly lying to the recipient of your phone call than in the more vanilla case in which the semantic content seemed to be congruent with the current surroundings. I could, of course, interrupt your phone call and ask you directly to elaborate on your back story, but this would be a serious breach of etiquette on my part and, besides, if you lied to your Mom, who’s to say that you wouldn’t lie to me and our fellow commuters as well?

 Another possibility, exemplified by Raymond Queneau in his classic Exercises de style—Exercises in Style in its English translation—is to forego the back story and head off in an entirely different direction. Exercises de style opens with a brief (106-word) anecdote in which the narrator observes a rude fellow passenger at rush hour on a Parisian bus who repeatedly complains of being jostled by another passenger, then flings himself into an empty seat when it becomes available. Coincidentally, the narrator sees this same fellow again two hours later in front of the St. Lazare train station in conversation with an apparent friend who points out that the man is missing a button on his overcoat. End of story. Queneau then proceeds to recount these mundane events without further elaboration in ninety-nine different formats—as a sonnet, in country dialect, as a form letter, as a telegram, and so on.

In both of these bus rides, the “subject” is (or was) present and observable first hand. Sometimes, however, all one has to go on for the creation of a back story (or reportage à la Queneau) is a written communication, which can be just as brief, original, and opaque as a spoken one. Some of the more interesting written communication appearing in a public setting is unsanctioned and, because prohibited, tends to be created surreptitiously, in haste, and with a concomitant  economy of language. The authorship of such messages tends to be at once anonymous and in your face—anonymous because if the author were easily identifiable, he or she could be punished, and in your face because the author wants the world to read what he or she has written. Actually, the question of authorship and anonymity can be a little more complicated than that, as suggested by the following example of the genre that fairly begs for a back story:

Leah's name carved in a tree trunk


Who’s Leah? Who carved her name in the trunk of the tree in bucolic Mt. Auburn Cemetery (whose entrance, incidentally, is at a stop on the local #71 and #73 bus lines)? It might have been Leah herself, of course, which would send the story off in a completely different direction from the one in which the engraver was, say, an admirer (probably not a family member, though not impossible, especially in a made-up story). What about that letter after Leah’s name? An initial—Leah B to distinguish her from her doppelgänger, Leah A—or the beginning of a longer message abandoned in haste or despair? Does the heart go with Leah or are the carvings unrelated? Has the heart been defaced, perhaps to remove a reference to a former rival for Leah’s or the engraver’s affections? Does Leah know that someone carved her name on this tree? Does her name appear on any other trees? In other media, e.g., cement? Under a different name?

names in cement

Toni + Bo 4-eva

alto horn 2011
Hello, world @1951

 “Hello, world” is the season-agnostic output of many a budding programmer’s first successful program but it is an especially apt one as a greeting to the new year for the optimists among us, programmers and nonprogrammers alike. Accordingly, we offer ten different ways in which you might express this greeting (from which we will omit the comma) to greet the year 2011:

1. In Morse Code

…. . .-.. .-.. —  / .– — .-. .-.. -.. 

(See http://morsecode.scphillips.com/jtranslator.html for a nifty Morse Code – Roman alphabet conversion utility.)

2. In one or another of the conventional acrophonic alphabets, e.g.,

How Easy Love Love Oboe William Oboe Roger Love Dog

(See http://morsecode.scphillips.com/alphabet.html for a list of ten such “alphabets.”)

3. In a language other than English, e.g.,

  • Latin (Ave Munde)
  • Brazilian Portuguese (Oi Mundo)
  • French (Bonjour Monde)
  • Hindi( Devanagari namaste duniyaa)

4. Using only “silent” letters, e.g.,

H (as in fight) E (as in love) L (as inwalk) L (as in talk) O (as in people) W (as in write/wrong) O (as in flower) R (as in forecastle) L (as in palm) D (as in handkerchief).

(Cf. http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/museum/silent.html for a list from which, stumped by O, D, and—because our speech is not of the so-called “r-less” variety—R, we have borrowed.)

 5. In phonetic (IPA) transcription: ipa hello world

6. In Pig Latin: ello-hay earld-way. Or Oppish: hopellopo woproplopdop(?) [We may be in over our heads here.]

7. Using an odd-ball font:

funny fonts

As an anagram, e.g.:

  • Rolled Howl
  • Doll Howler
  • Droll Whole
  • Lewd Ho Roll

(See http://www.angelfire.com/biz/WLAW/anagram.html for an entertaining anagram generator.)

9. In semaphore:

semaphore hello world

10. And, finally, here’s a budding JavaScript programmer’s script that you can try at home should you have absolutely nothing better to do to improve the shining hour. To do so, create a text file named helloworld.html and copy the following code into the file and save it. Execute the script by clicking on the file. If you’re running Internet Explorer, you will need to override the restriction against running scripts and ActiveX controls before you can run the program.



<title>JavaScript Hello World</title>   

<script language=”JavaScript”>


function hello()


            alert(“Hello world”)






<form name = “helloworld” onSubmit=”hello()”>


<input type=”submit” value=”Click me”>