Uncommon Knowledge

The seduction of cloud cover

In a previous column, I wrote about a study which found that college admissions officers were tougher on applications that were reviewed on cloudier days. A new study by the same author finds another weather pattern in college admissions, only this time, it’s the students. Applicants who visited on cloudier days were significantly more likely to enroll, if they were accepted. The author attributes this to the positive association between sunny weather and outdoor activities, and their corresponding negative association with studying. Therefore – and contrary to what you might expect – a sunny day leaves a bad impression. 

Simonsohn, U., “Weather to Go to College,” Economic Journal (forthcoming).  

Law & Order & Crushing your opponent

If you’re a lawyer, or you just watch a lot of “Law & Order,” you may want to deliberate on the following study. People who were subliminally or incidentally exposed to legal words were then significantly more inclined to think competitively, see others as less trustworthy, and pursue their own self-interest. The authors of the study blame the Anglo-American system, with its norms of adversarial, zero-sum confrontation. Moreover, the increasingly pervasive legal style of thinking – in government, business, and entertainment – has arguably caused a vicious cycle, where legal thinking leads to cynicism, which encourages people to resort to more legal thinking. 

Callan, M. et al., “The Effects of Priming Legal Concepts on Perceived Trust and Competitiveness, Self-Interested Attitudes, and Competitive Behavior,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).  

Love the work, hate the Star Trek figurines

With women now making up a large share of the labor force, their persistent under-representation in technical fields has become a major issue. While the debate often gets bogged down in nature-vs.-nurture arguments, there may be some simple, practical steps that can be taken in the meantime. One possibility: decor. Across several experiments, students were placed in, or asked to imagine, rooms with either stereotypically geeky objects (e.g., Star Trek paraphernalia, junk food, computer stuff) or nongeeky objects (e.g., nature photos, coffee mugs, general-interest magazines). Women exhibited much less interest than men in pursuing a computer science major or job opportunity if the room contained geeky objects. However, women seemed to be more interested than men if the room contained nongeeky objects. This was true regardless of the gender ratio of their hypothetical peers. In other words, simply being in an environment with geeky objects turns many women off, when they might otherwise be just as, if not more, interested than men in a technical career. 

Cheryan, S. et al., “Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (December 2009).  

The truth about testosterone

Legend has it that testosterone makes people aggressive. In a provocative twist on this story, new research suggests that testosterone is getting a bad rap. Sixty women were given a single dose of either testosterone or a placebo. Several hours later, they played a sharing game. Women who received the testosterone were actually more generous than women who received a placebo. However, women who believed they had received testosterone were much less generous than women who believed they had received a placebo. The authors conclude that, consistent with some prior research, testosterone promotes seeking social status, not being aggressive, but that the common assumption of a link between testosterone and aggression can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, giving people an excuse to be aggressive. 

Eisenegger, C. et al., “Prejudice and Truth about the Effect of Testosterone on Human Bargaining Behaviour,” Nature (forthcoming).  

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. 


Article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/01/17/the_seduction_of_cloud_cover/


Horse sense

The buggy whip is not just (practically) obsolete; for decades it has been a synonym for obsolescence, shorthand for any enterprise or technology–AOL, travel agents, landline phones–that’s allegedly on the slide to extinction.

And one business professor thinks the idiom itself is due for retirement. Writing in last Sunday’s New York Times, Randall Stross argued that the buggy whip metaphor was obscure, anachronistic, and not an accurate symbol of the economic changes it supposedly represents.

Whether the buggy whip is a suitable, or optimal, metaphor for ”outdated technology” I leave to the business and economics crowd. But is it really so obscure that it ought to be thrown under the carriage? I think not. Horses may not be part of our daily lives, but thanks to classic Westerns and Cinderella, not to mention carousels and mounted police and ”Masterpiece Theatre,” they still loom large in our mental landscape–and in our language.

Think of all the horse sense embedded in cautionary phrases: It’s no use beating a dead horse. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, don’t change horses in midstream, don’t put the cart before the horse. You can lead a horse to water (but you can’t make him drink), if you’ve remembered to lock the barn door (before, not after, the horse is gone).

You can be a dark horse (a mysterious or unexpected competitor), or eat like a horse, or get up on your high horse; do some horse trading, or hold your horses, or horse around. And though farriers are as scarce as hen’s teeth, everyone knows horseshoes, either as a lawn game or as symbols of good luck. And those are just the explicitly horsy expressions. In other horse-powered idioms, the connection isn’t so obvious.

Hobson’s choice, for instance, has a back story so good that it sounds like fiction. The phrase refers to a stable in Cambridge, England, where Thomas Hobson (1545?-1631) kept horses for hire. Customers couldn’t pick a mount, however–they rode the one Hobson offered, or none at all. Michael Quinion, at his World Wide Words website, explains that Hobson rotated his horses, sending the freshest out first so none would be overworked by the hard-riding undergraduate clientele. Hobson’s choice is thus no choice–take it or leave it.

These everyday saddle horses were called hackneys, and later hacks, and both words were eventually used for any freelance worker (including, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a prostitute). The longer horses worked for hire, the lower the status of hack sank, till the word meant not just a worker-for-hire (human or equine), but especially an overworked and underperfoming one.

The horse senses still echo in taxicab lingo–officially, Boston taxis are Licensed Hackney Carriages–and in our use of hackneyed (since 1749) to characterize cliched language. Hack is also a disparaging word for journalists, known since the early 19th century: ”Let them hire a news-paper hack, a shameless, trading defamer,” says the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation (1810). (The dictionary claims that the designation is ”now chiefly jocular,” but I’m not so sure.)

Of course, it’s not just exhausted freelance workers who share their lot with horses. A full-time employee may be in harness, saddled with responsibilities. Do you give subordinates their heads–loosen the reins and let them make decisions, even if they back the wrong horse–or do you rein them in? (Not reign, even if you do hold the whip hand.) If disaster strikes, do you get back in the saddle? Maybe your company sells to the carriage trade, though the big spenders no longer drive up in broughams, landaus, barouches, or cabriolets (VW or otherwise).

There aren’t many horsy people around these days, but a frisky, long-legged youngster may be described as coltish (though, oddly, coltish has become a chiefly feminine adjective). A classy grownup is sometimes called a thoroughbred, though the comparison, like familiarity with horse racing, is less common than it once was. Still, it was current enough in 1991 that the rapper Apache could appropriate it–”She’s a thoroughbred, walks and talks with class.” And since the 1930s, a reckless young man, especially when driving, has been a cowboy (in allusion, I assume, to the quick stops and starts that the quarter horse excels at); nowadays, of course, cowboy drivers come in both sexes.

Do you bridle at such comparisons? Then you’re showing resentment or taking offense, ”in the manner of a spirited horse under a strong rein,” says the Century Dictionary (1889)–the original image is of someone tossing her head or drawing it up haughtily. Or maybe you’re blinkered, seeing only what’s in front of you, like the distractible horses whose side vision is shielded.

Humans and horses, after all, were keeping company thousands of years before the dawn of English, let alone carriages and footmen. I don’t want to make rash predictions, but our linguistic buggy whips may prove harder to kill than the real ones were.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/01/17/horse_sense/

Movie Misquotations

Over the last century or so, movie quotations, like pop-music lyrics, have come to replace Biblical verses and Shakespearean couplets as our cultural lingua franca, our common store of wit and wisdom. Yet many of the most frequently cited motion-picture lines turn out to be misquotations. The speech from “Dirty Harry” in which Clint Eastwood says, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” is commonly shortened to “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Michael Douglas’s “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (“Wall Street”) is condensed to “Greed is good.” Expressions of James Cagney like “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat” (“Taxi!”) and “Dirty, double-crossing rat” (“Blonde Crazy”) are immortalized as the snappier “You dirty rat.”

Why do we so frequently get the lines wrong?

One phenomenon at work, as in the cases above, is compression. Even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations falls prey to this type of error. It cites “Apocalypse Now”: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory.” What Robert Duvall really says is: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ . . . body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory.”

Sometimes lines are altered so they can stand alone, without the cinematic context. In “Island of Lost Souls,” Charles Laughton remarks, “They are restless tonight.” Now we paraphrase this as “The natives are restless.” Sometimes a specific reference is changed to a generalized one. “If you build it, he will come” from “Field of Dreams” becomes “If you build it, they will come.” Misquotations often improve upon the screenwriters’ originals by offering a better rhythm or cadence. Thus “Win just one for the Gipper” (Pat O’Brien in “Knute Rockne, All American”) is remembered more mellifluously as “Win one for the Gipper.”

The most famous example of a film line improved by the popular mind is, of course, Ingrid Bergman’s request to the pianist in “Casablanca”: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’ ” It didn’t take long for the line to begin to shift. Nigel Rees, the British author and quote maven, has noted that Jack Benny included “Sam, Sam, play that song for me again, will you?” in a radio parody of the movie a year later. At some point along the way, it became the memorable “Play it again, Sam,” which Woody Allen helped to cement by using the paraphrase as the title of a 1969 play and a 1972 motion picture.

Another notable instance of the progression of cinematic phrasing toward greater euphony is a line of Mae West’s. For her play “Diamond Lil,” West wrote: “Why don’t you come up sometime?” The later film “She Done Him Wrong” made it longer: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” We know it today as “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”

Sometimes movie dialogue is recalled inaccurately so as to preserve visual cues that would otherwise be lost. “Me Tarzan, you Jane” is so established that Bartlett’s is again taken in, sourcing this as “Spoken by Johnny Weissmuller in the movie ‘Tarzan the Ape Man.’ ” In fact, in the film Weissmuller alternately taps himself and Jane Parker, repeating, “Jane . . . Tarzan.” It was only later, in an interview in Photoplay magazine, that Weissmuller poked fun at his role by characterizing it as “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”

Misquotations can sometimes be quite subtle, faintly but significantly improving the diction of a quote. The Laurel and Hardy catchphrase “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into” has been transmuted to “Here’s another fine mess. . . . ” Our memory can sex up a line, misstating Jean Harlow’s “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” (“Hell’s Angels”) as “Excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable.” Wording can also be changed to keep up with colloquial speech. In 1948, in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Alfonso Bedoya declared, “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” In a 1967 episode of the TV series “The Monkees” and in “Blazing Saddles” (1974), this was revised to the now-dominant version: “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

The boldest form of misquotation is the wholesale fabrication, attributing words to movies in which nothing like them appeared. These are sometimes created by comedians doing impressions of actors in movies. Charles Boyer is widely thought to have spoken “Come with me to the Casbah” to Hedy Lamarr in “Algiers,” but as Nigel Rees discovered, the line was the creation of Boyer impersonators who used it to mock the film, and it was not uttered on screen. The phrase most famously associated with Cary Grant — “Judy, Judy, Judy” — was never spoken by Grant in a movie and may have had a similar origin in an impersonation of him.

When a quotation captures the essence of a performer, we want to believe it was spoken, even if it would have been anachronistic. Again Mae West and “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) provide an example. “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” is often ascribed to that film, but it does not appear there or in any of her other early productions: it was too risqué for the time of its supposed use.

It is a fitting homage to the fantasy machine of Hollywood that its verbal gems are no less compelling when their origins are themselves fantasies.

Fred R. Shapiro is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” and associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School.


Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/magazine/17FOB-onlanguage-t.html