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There are Two Kinds of Hashtags—Which One Do You Use Most? 

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How is language evolving on the Internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

What's the point of a hashtag? Most reference works say that it's something like "a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic." And that's certainly what you'll find if you look at Twitter's trending topics, from the frivolous like #FakeDogFacts to the political like #BlackLivesMatter to the utilitarian like #followfriday.  

But what about posts like the following? Does anyone really expect to see a bad 8th-grade glasses photo under #swag? Is #cantstopcrying going to help people looking for Les Mis reviews?

Of course not. Linguist Allison Shapp did a study of over 10,000 randomly-selected tweets and found that hashtags on Twitter come in two categories. Index hashtags are our first kind, the organizational hashtags you typically think of. Shapp found that they often contain links and were more likely to be favorited and retweeted—which makes sense, since they often refer to a real-world event. The second kind of hashtags are commentary hashtags, a social kind of hashtag that's more likely to contain other people's usernames.

Shapp also found that if a tweet contained multiple hashtags, they were more likely to be indexes (which tend to be shorter), and that index hashtags were also more likely to be integrated into the rest of the tweet, whereas commentary tended to occur at the end. And the more often someone tweeted, the more likely they were to use more commentary hashtags, although surprisingly the really frequent tweeters didn't use quite as many commentary hashtags as we'd expect.

One common style of index hashtagging, which Shapp called the "context template," looks like this:

Out of context statement in prose #context #context

For example:

Crazy in Love #beyonce #superbowl #halftime

Shapp's analysis is of Twitter, but it's easily applicable to other social networking sites that use hashtags. And since Instagram and Tumblr don't have such a short character limit, people there often use both index and commentary tags at the same time.

In this instagram post, for example, #CaturdayNiteDerpOff is an index tag (because the internet is amazing) but #JustHereForTheDerps and #GonnaGetDownAndDerpy are clearly commentary.

'Hello? Is this the #CaturdayNiteDerpOff? May I join?' #JustHereForTheDerps #GonnaGetDownAndDerpy

A photo posted by Gremlin (@gremlinthecat) on

What about when people use "hashtag ___" in speech? Well, it's not going to help people search through the airwaves to find a particular spoken utterance, so spoken "hashtags" are near-universally the commentary kind. I didn't follow people around with a voice recorder to get examples, but there's an even cooler way to demonstrate it. If you search for the word hashtag itself on twitter, you find a number of people using it without any hash mark at all to clarify that they really want you to interpret their hashtagging as commentary.

Not every hashtag falls neatly into one category or the other: index and commentary hashtags are more like two ends of a hashtag continuum. Somewhere in between is the #marketing hashtag, where #brands #hashtag #random #words that are #topical but which no one is probably searching for. And Shapp points out that hashtags sometimes start as one-off commentary hashtags but get picked up by a larger group of people and become indexes, making them difficult to classify. One common example of hashtags on this boundary are meme hashtags, such as the "problems" set—#FirstWorldProblems and #90sProblems are indexes, but people also coin one-off "X problems" hashtags as commentary on any problem characteristic of a particular group.

You could call those #hashtagproblems.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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