Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Quirky Goldblum Linguification

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2009

Jeff Goldblum

Jeff Goldblum

I was reading the entertainment section of the newspaper yesterday, and came across an article about Law & Order. A few paragraphs in, it said:

Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which has added to its cast an actor about whom it is apparently impossible to write a sentence that excludes quirky. (Ginia Bellafante, New York Times News Service)

Ah, I get it, I thought. Bellafanted doesn’t intend for me to take this literally. I’ve learned from Geoff Pullum’s occasional criticisms of linguification that all she means is that this is an actor who’s widely regarded as quirky, enough so that writers often mention this trait when they write about him. Or her. So anyway, who is this actor? Johnny Depp? Jodie Foster? John Malkovich?

The article went on: “Needless to say, it’s Jeff Goldblum.” Oh, Jeff Goldblum. OK, he’s quirky, too. Now I can see that it was needless to say. At this point, though, Bellafante was not content to let the linguification lie; she seemed to want to say, “No, really! I’m serious! It’s actually impossible!” because the next sentence was:

A Google search of his name along with the adjective to which he is involuntarily hinged [NW: hitched?] results in about 18,700 entries.

Now that called for some investigation. I looked first at Bellafante’s own article, which contained seven sentences referring to Goldblum, only one of which contained the work quirky. That, of course, was the one I quoted, and even there it’s a mention of the word, rather than a use. Oh, well, I’ll count it. And to be charitable, maybe Bellafante meant you couldn’t write an article about Jeff Goldlum without using or mentioning quirky — that would explain why her Google search only looked for whole pages, not individual sentences, that met the criteria.

Which brings me to the Google search. Probably for reasons of space, Bellafante’s search for pages containing Jeff Goldblum that didn’t contain quirky got left out of the article, which is a pity, since that’s what really would have helped prove her point. Here’s what I found on Google:

Search Google hits
+”Jeff Goldblum” +quirky 20,100
+”Jeff Goldblum” -quirky 1,020,000

I notice first of all that the search with quirky returns 20,100 hits, more than the 18,700 Bellafante got. This is understandable because first of all, counting Google hits is a slippery business, and second, now there are lots of hits for news sources that include Bellafante’s article. But the search without quirky returns 1,020,000 hits. So about 1 in 51 webpages with Jeff Goldblum also contains quirky.

Well, I guess I’ve been too literal once again. Now I know: Journalists are getting smarter about using linguification. Smart enough to find some numbers to add punch to a trope that’s become trite, but not enough to find numbers that actually mean anything. That makes sense: If they tried to get meaningful numbers, they’d end up having to leave out the linguification, and how plain and boring the articles would be if that happened.

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15 Responses to “Quirky Goldblum Linguification”

  1. GPHemsley said

    Too literal, indeed. It was supposed to be humorous. “Jeff Goldblum’s quirky. Everybody always says that. Ha ha.”

    Perhaps you should go back to analyzing Beatles songs. I’ve been wondering a bit lately about “Love Me Do”. ‘Splain that one to me, huh?

  2. Stan said

    Thanks for updating and adding to Bellafante’s original research on Google hits for “Jeff Goldblum” + “quirky”. Someone should plot a bar graph of those Google hits over time.

    I am sorry to lower the tone, but one of the quirkier things in which Goldblum was involved (albeit presumably without his consent) was this scatological poster. Googling the phrase from the poster returns 19,200 hits, or 1,810 when the phrase is in quotation marks. Quite impressive for such a strange phrase, and arguably worth an article in its own right.

    The original eponymous website is now invalid, but there is a follow-up. Also, even by Goldblum’s standards, that is a very quirky photograph of him. Amused, but otherwise inscrutable.

  3. Ran said

    > So about 1 in 51 webpages with Jeff Goldblum also contains quirky.

    The reason for this is quite simple: only about 1 in 51 webpages with Jeff Goldblum actually contain sentences about the actor. If you think about it, it’s kind of cool that the presence of quirky is so great a diagnostic criterion for determining whether a sentence containing the token-sequence Jeff Goldblum is actually about him: perfect sensitivity, excellent specificity.

  4. Neal said

    Ran: Seriously?

  5. Ran said

    Neal: No, not seriously.

  6. The Ridger said

    Please tell me you’re not going to join Pullum in his irrational hatred of this. It’s like complaining that someone who says “It rains every day in Maryland during the summer” is mendacious because some days there is no thunderstorm anywhere in the state.

  7. Lee said

    Does Pullum hate linguification because it’s so much hyperbole, or because it’s symptomatic of laziness, ineptitude, or just plain dishonesty on the part of the journalists he pillories for engaging in it? I haven’t visited all of the links Neal provided, but it seems like it’s the latter from what I have read so far.

  8. Ran said

    Lee: As far as I can tell, he hates it because he’s found the thing he’s prescriptivist about. All his rationalizations — it’s inept, it’s lazy, it’s clichéed, it’s not even real hyperbole, it doesn’t mean anything, it offers nothing over an unlinguified version, etc. — could have been pulled straight from a prescriptivist’s Book of Excuses. Some of them probably were.

  9. Neal said

    Ridger, Lee, Ran:
    My opinion of linguification was about the same as my opinion of any overused expression or writing trick that I see: annoyance that people keep on doing it when it’s so cliched, plus a bit of extra puzzlement at claims like “you won’t find X and Y in the same sentence” — what, not even to say “X is definitely NOT Y”? After reading Pullum’s rants on them over the years, I’ve noticed them a bit more. This is the first one I found worthy of writing about because of the deliberate inflation of what’s basically a throwaway claim not intended to be taken seriously. I’d probably dismiss “It rains every day in Maryland during the summer” as hyperbole, but I’d feel Charlie Brown kicking Lucy’s football if you were to continue with, “I mean every single day, literally. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, there’s not a single day that it doesn’t rain,” and it *still* turned out you were just exaggerating.

    You’re right, though, in that this topic is rather tenuously linked to linguistics. The only tag that fit was “You’re so literal!”

  10. Ran said

    I think a better comparison would be:

    > It rains every day in Maryland during the summer. According to historical precipitation data, Baltimoreans can expect almost four inches of rain to fall on their heads each month from June to September.

    Exaggeration, followed by further exaggeration, buttressed by actual information that does support the underlying claim, if not the superficial exaggerated claim. (As it happens, even the actual information isn’t literally true, since most Baltimoreans are skilled in the operation of rooves, umbrellas, etc.; but I think it creates a nice image to bring home the idea of how much it rains there, and I don’t think it runs any risk of actually deceiving the reader.) Don’t you think it’s interesting that Jeff Goldblum’s name intersects with “quirky” twenty thousand times on Google-indexed Web pages? Doesn’t that drive home the point that people frequently describe him that way?

    • Neal said

      I don’t know if 20K hits for a name + quirky is remarkable or not. Let’s try a few actors (and one non-actor just out of curiosity) for comparison…

      +”Tom Cruise” + quirky: 120,000
      +”Johnny Depp” + quirky: 112,000
      +”Jesus Christ” + quirky: 82,000
      +”Tom Hanks” + quirky: 73,400
      +”John Malkovich” + quirky: 54,500
      +”Meg Ryan” + quirky: 47,900
      +”Harrison Ford” +quirky: 34,500
      +”Jodie Foster” + quirky: 29,500
      +”Susan Sarandon” + quirky: 29,200
      +”Christopher Walken” + quirky: 23,200
      +”Anna Faris” + quirky: 11,400

      So Jeff Goldblum comes in ahead of only Anna Faris in this list of actors I just came up with off the top of my head. Now it could be (probably is) the case that Tom Cruise is at the top just because there’s more written about him. I didn’t do the corresponding -quirky searches. But doing the same kind of search the writer did, 20K hits is a bit on the low side.

  11. The Ridger said

    Jesus Christ is quirky?

  12. viola said

    @The Ridger
    Is, was, and always will be…quirky.

  13. michael said

    well you took away a quick post i was going to do on comparing “jeff goldblum + quirky” to “[other actors] + quirky”. thanks alot. and you would have gotten a link out of it too.

    i’m kinda with ridger on this one. tho since bellafante does see fit to give numbers, those numbers are easily shown to be a weak device. it’s like saying “he’s really strong. he can bench press almost a hundred pounds!”

    but linguification doesn’t annoy me that much. sure, years ago when i decided to adopt a smart-ass attitude i started picking on the never-in-the-same-sentence trope. but since it is a trope — it’s easy for me to say ‘who cares?’

    wait. is that a linguification?

  14. Rose said

    Quirky? You mean sexy, right??? ;3

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