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As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time

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Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:

1800s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg

1900s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange

2000-2008

1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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