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]

9 French Insults You Should Know

Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images
Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images

Ah, France—internationally synonymous with fine wines, fashion, and elegant cheeses. As it turns out, the country is home to some pretty fine insults, too, as the list below demonstrates. If you need some more ways to express your distaste in a foreign language, we've also got you covered with insults in German. (If historical insults are more your speed, you can peruse these old English insults, or learn how to level a sick burn like Teddy Roosevelt.)

1. Va te faire cuire un oeuf // "Go cook yourself an egg."

Figuratively speaking, this means “leave me alone.” Historically, the idea is that men would criticize their wives cooking dinner, who would then respond, "Go fry yourself an egg"—reminding their mates that they're incapable of cooking anything other than an egg.

2. Bête comme ses pieds // "You are as stupid as your feet."

The feet are the furthest part of the body from the brain, so supposedly, the most stupid. Besides, have you ever seen smart feet?

3. Péter plus haut de son cul // "To fart higher than your ass."

If you have gas in your stomach and try to expel it above your behind, you will fail. It's just too ambitious. This phrase means that a person is arrogant, or thinks they are able to do impossible things. They're a show-off, basically.

4. Poule mouillée // "Wet chicken"

Chickens are not known for their bravery. Especially when it rains, they try to hide, as ridiculous as that may be. A wet chicken is someone who is afraid of everything.

5. Mange tes morts // "Eat your dead."

You use this insult when you are very mad at someone. The original meaning is "You have no respect." It's said to have started among the Yenish people—a European ethnic minority with nomadic origins.

6. Sac à merde // "Bag of sh**"

No need for explanation right? Speaks for itself. Often used while driving.

7. Tête de noed // "Knot face"

Someone stupid. Literally, the knot refers to the tip of the penis, but in essence the term has a meaning similar to (but even ruder) than the English dickhead.

8. Couillon/Couillonne // "Little testicle"

A relatively mild insult that means something like "idiot" in English.

9. Con comme une valise sans poignée // "As stupid as a suitcase without a handle."

What good is a suitcase if you can't carry it? In a similar vein, "con comme un balais" means "as dumb as a broom."

40 Words That Start With X

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arthobbit/iStock via Getty Images

When the lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson put together his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, there weren't a lot of words that started with X; he even included a disclaimer at the bottom of page 2308 that read, “X is a letter which though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.” Noah Webster went one better when he published his Compendious Dictionary in 1806 that included a single X-word, xebec, defined as “a small three-masted vessel in the Mediterranean Sea.” Although, by the time he compiled his landmark American Dictionary in 1828, that total had risen to 13.

X has never been a common initial letter in English, and even with today’s enormous vocabulary you can still only expect around 0.02 percent of the words in a dictionary to be listed under it. But why not try boosting your vocabulary with these 40 words that start with X.

1. X

On its own, the letter X is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb meaning “to cross out a single letter of type.” X. X. in Victorian slang meant “double-excellent,” while X. X. X. described anything that was “treble excellent.”

2. XANTHIPPE

Xanthippe was the name of Socrates’ wife, who, thanks to a number of Ancient Greek caricatures, had a reputation for henpecking, overbearing behavior. Consequently her name can be used as a byword for any ill-tempered or cantankerous woman or wife—as used in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

3. XANTHOCOMIC

Explosion of yellow powder against a white background
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Xanthos was the Ancient Greek word for yellow, and as such is the root of a number of mainly scientific words referring to yellow-colored things. So, if you’re xanthocomic, you have yellow hair; if you’re xanthocroic you have fair hair and pale skin; and if you’re xanthodontous, you have yellow teeth.

4. X-CATCHER

In old naval slang, an X-catcher or X-chaser was someone who was good at math—literally someone good at working out the value of x.

5. X-DIVISION

Victorian slang for criminals or pickpockets, or people who make a living by some underhand means.

6. X-DOUBLE-MINUS

Young boy with a terrified expression on his face
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1960s slang for something really, really terrible.

7. XENAGOGUE

Derived from the same root as xenophobia, a xenagogue is someone whose job it is to conduct strangers or to act as a guide while…

8. XENAGOGY

… a xenagogy is a guidebook.

9. XENIAL

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The adjective xenial is used to describe a friendly relationship between two parties, in particular between a hospitable host and his or her guests, or diplomatically between two countries.

10. XENIATROPHOBIA

Don’t like going to see doctors you don’t know? Then you’re xeniatrophobic.

11. XENIUM

A xenium is a gift or offering given to a stranger, which in its native Ancient Greece would once have been a lavish feast or a refreshing spread of food and fruit. In the 19th century art world, however, xenium came to refer to a still-life painting depicting something like a extravagant display of food or a bowl of fruit.

12. XENIZATION

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A 19th century word meaning “the act of traveling as a stranger.”

13. XENOCRACY

A government formed by foreigners or outsiders is a xenocracy. A member of one is a xenocrat.

14. XENODOCHEIONOLOGY

Defined as “the lore of hotels and inns” by Merriam-Webster.

15. XENODOCHIUM

A young woman uses her cellphone at a hostel in India
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A guesthouse or hostel, or any similar stopping place for travelers or pilgrims.

16. XENODOCHY

A 17th century word for hospitality. If you’re xenodochial then you like to entertain strangers.

17. XENOGLOSSY

The ability to speak a language that you’ve apparently never learnt.

18. XENOLOGY

An illustration of an alien waving at the camera
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The scientific study of extraterrestrial phenomena is xenology. The study of extraterrestrial life forms is xenobiology.

19. XENOMANIA

The opposite of xenophobia is xenomania or xenophilia, namely an intense enthusiasm or fondness for anything or anyone foreign.

20. XENOMORPH

Something unusually or irregularly shaped is a xenomorph—which is why it’s become another name for the eponymous creature in the Alien film franchise.

21. XENOTRANSPLANTATION

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Transplanting organic matter from a non-human into a human (like a pig’s heart valve into a human heart) is called xenotransplantation. Whatever it is that’s transplanted is called the xenograft.

22. XERIC

An ecological term used to describe anywhere extremely dry or arid. If it’s xerothermic, then it’s both dry and hot.

23. XERISCAPE

If you live in a xeric area, then you’ll have to xeriscape your garden. It’s the deliberate use of plants that need relatively little moisture or irrigation to landscape an arid location.

24. XEROCHILIA

Woman applies lip balm while outside during the winter
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The medical name for having dry lips. Having a dry mouth is xerostomia.

25. XEROCOPY

A xerographic copy of a document—or, to put it another way, a photocopy.

26. XEROPHAGY

The eating of dry food is xerophagy. It mightn’t sound like it, but it was originally a religious term.

27. XESTURGY

The proper name for the process of polishing.

28. XILINOUS

A pile of soft cotton against a white background
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Something described as xilinous resembles or feels like cotton …

29. XIPHOID

… while something described as xiphoid resembles a sword.

30. XOANON

Derived from the Greek for “carve” or “scrape,” a xoanon is a carved idol of a deity.

31. XTAL

Large double quartz crystal against a white background
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An abbreviation of “crystal,” according to the OED.

32. XYLOGRAPHER

A 19th century word for a wood engraver.

33. XYLOID

Why say that something is “woody” when you can say that it’s xyloid?

34. XYLOPOLIST

Pile of wood logs ready for sale
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A 17th century formal name for a timber merchant.

35. XYLOTOMOUS

Describes anything or anyone particularly good at wood-cutting or wood-boring.

36. XYRESIC

Means “razor-sharp.”

37. XYROPHOBIA

A pile of razor blades
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The fear of being close to or touching sharp implements.

38. XYLANTHRAX

Nowhere near as nasty as it sounds, this is just an old name for what we now call charcoal.

39. XYSTUS

A type of covered walkway or portico.

40. X.Y.Z.

Late 19th century slang for a journalist who takes on any work going, or else 18th century slang for a dandyish or “exquisite” young man.

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