Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Vocabulary: Dangerous and Unpopular Words

I found these two interesting articles, one about perceiving the danger of words, another about reviving obscure words.

I was most intrigued by the former, because of this section:

If you’re like most people with an English speaking background then you rated Hnegripitrom as more dangerous than Magnalroxate.

But if you are like most people then you don’t have an advanced degree in organic chemistry, so what are you basing your judgment on?

The researchers had a clue and designed this experiment to test one simple thing: The link between ease of pronunciation and how our brain judges risk.

They demonstrated that we tend to rate things that are hard to pronounce as more risky than things that are easy to pronounce.



That's not the answer I came up with, and not how I came up with it. First, I suspected the words were made up, because I read food labels. Seeing two unfamiliar words in that context made me suspicious. Furthermore, one of them begins with "Hn," an initial blend not allowed in English. That made me pretty sure at least that word was bogus, because people generally won't put something on the market that violates English word-formation rules. The next thing I did was dissect the words looking for root and affix clues to their meaning. "Hnegripitron" contains the "-on" ending found in plenty of chemicals, and "-itron" isn't rare; "grip" is recognizable but rather out of place; and "hne" is nonsense in English and its relatives. The word just doesn't hang together. "Magnalroxate" has the common "-ate" chemical ending; "ox" could reasonably refer to oxygen or oxide or such; and "magna-" means "large." So I'd guess the effect to be increasing something; since it's a preservative, I'd suspect it of ridiculously expanding the shelf life of something that ought in all good sense to be eaten sooner. Given a choice between a gibberish word and a somewhat plausible one, I suspected that the plausible one was more likely to be real and therefore dangerous.

But I wouldn't have settled on a guess: if the article hadn't promptly revealed both as fake, I would've gone out and researched both terms. I have done that fairly often. I usually do it when I hit a new process or ingredient, because my standards tend to be a lot higher than American safety standards. Most of the time I'm stuck eating what I can afford, or find; but when I can, I eat what conforms to my standards. So familiarity plays a role in my decision making process, but it's not based on pure familiarity but rather on the information I can derive from words I recognize. I think the biggest difference is simply that I don't place much weight on a guesswork decision; I go hunting for facts. That's a crucial distinction.

Yes, I know, it makes me weird. Not all my decisions are based on logic, but I use it far more than ordinary people seem to, and I'm far more inclined to slam on the brakes and refuse to continue under certain circumstances if facts are not forthcoming. I am frequently frustrated by how little most people are influenced by facts.
Tags: linguistics, personal, reading, vocabulary
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  • Grapes Make Plasma

    ... when microwaved, and now we know how. :D I love geeks so much. A jock will microwave grapes to watch things catch fire. A geek will wonder why…

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