One French sentence, three new words: scheduling a talk

Part of academic life in every country that I’ve visited in an official capacity is going to people’s talks.  I found this to be a great way to practice my French listening skills, and I always learned new technical vocabulary.  I didn’t usually have to struggle through the talk announcement emails, but the consequences of Zipf’s Law are never far away, and this morning I ran into three words that I didn’t know just in the first sentence of an email announcing an upcoming series of talks by the LIMSI interns:

Les prochaines séances de séminaire du groupe ILES seront consacrées à des exposés des stagiaires, qui présenteront leur travail au sein groupe.

These are especially fun words, since all three of them have English cognates with totally different meanings:

  • la séance: session; in the context of the theater or movies: showing, performance.  I’m pretty sure I saw a wider range of uses in France, but don’t remember any off the top of my head.
  • consacré: dedicated to, devoted to, dealing with.
  • un exposé: report, account; in the context of a conference: talk, lecture; in the context of a class: presentation.


Today’s headlines in Guatemala

According to Wikipedia’s page about Guatemalan newspapers, the most widely read paper in Guatemala is Nuestro Diario.  Let’s see if I can make it any further in this paper than in a French newspaper… Nope, can’t even get past the headlines.  Let’s see what new words Zipf’s Law brings us today.  Nuestro Diario is a tabloid, so not surprisingly, the headlines are all about violence and Miss Teen Guatemalan Mayan.

  • baleado: shot down, shot dead.  Headline: Baleados en la terminal.
  • arrollado: mown down, swept along, dragged underneath.  Headline: Mueren dos hombres arrollados por camión en Guanagazapa.

The anatomy of the hand in Spanish

I can make it through the first sentence of the Spanish-language Wikipedia page on hand anatomy, but by the second sentence, Zipf’s Law strikes…  Here are the first two sentences:

Las manos forman parte de las extremidades del cuerpo humano, siendo el cuarto segmento del miembro superior o torácico, están localizadas en los extremos de los antebrazos, son prensiles y tienen cinco dedos cada una. Abarcan desde la muñeca hasta la yema de los dedos en los seres humanos.

  • abarcar: in this context, to span.
  • yema del dedo: fingertip.  Other meanings of yema: talking about eggs, it’s the yolk; talking about plants, it’s a bud or a shoot.


The risks of hand surgery

Informed consent is important anywhere that you practice.  Getting informed consent includes explaining the risks of the surgery to the patient.  Zipf’s Law applies to the vocabulary of surgical risk, of course (although I don’t know if it applies to the actual adverse effects themselves or not).  Here are some words that come up in the discussion of risks of hand surgery on this web page about hand surgery:

  • conllevar: most of the meanings are in the area of entailing or bringing (as in power bringing responsibility), conveying or carrying (as in a feeling), or implying or involving.  Another sense is to bear or put up with.  La mayoría de las cirugías conllevan los riesgos de la anestesia y de hemorragia.
  • la sensibilidad: feeling, sensitivity.  Pérdida de sensibilidad o movimiento de la mano o los dedos.
  • coágulo: clot, blood clot.  Pueden formarse coágulos de sangre.




Stuff that I didn’t know about Kent State

For me, part of preparing myself for any trip is a lot of listening to the radio.  Yesterday I heard a long story about the Kent State shootings.  I learned a lot that I didn’t know–in particular, that the shootings came in a period of rapidly increasing anti-left-wing hysteria in the region.  I guess I had always thought of them as happening out of nowhere.  What a sad story.

Zipf’s Law strikes in tragedies as much as any other time.  Here are some words that I learned from this story:

  • tropas: troops.
  • disparo: a shot.
  • prever: to anticipate, foresee, forecast, plan.


What is hand surgery, anyway?

Last year I spent a lot of time working with a wonderful hand surgeon, and want to make sure that my hand surgery vocabulary is up to snuff in case I end up with him again.  Last year Zipf’s Law pulled its usual crap on me—like, when you go to see a hand surgeon, the first question he asks is, “are you right-handed or left-handed?”, and I knew how to say “left-handed”–zurdo, which everyone learns in school because it’s easy to confuse with sordo, “mute”–but, I had no clue how to say “right-handed.”  (Turns out it’s diestro.)  For today, I’m starting with a web page that gives a general description of hand surgery.  Zipf’s Law raises its ugly head in the very first sentence, of course.

  • amplia: adjective with a range of meanings including wide, spacious, loose.
  • gama: range, spectrum.  Having looked up these two words, I can finally understand THE FIRST SENTENCE of the web page defining what plastic surgery is: Cirugía de la mano es un término general que incorpora una amplia gama de diferentes tipos de cirugía de la mano. 
  • colgajo: flap, as in colgajo de piel, “skin flap.”
  • suministro: supply, as in suministro de sangre, “blood supply.”
  • ubicación: location, whereabouts, position.

Zipf’s Law is embarrassing sometimes

I’m getting ready for a trip to Guatemala to spend a week interpreting for a wonderful bunch of surgeons.  Check out Surgicorps–it’s a great group, and you should totally donate.

The embarrassing thing about Zipf’s Law is that it often leads you to stumble on words that aren’t unusual at all.  For example: preparing for a trip means spending lots of time listening to the radio in the relevant language.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to a “health and beauty” show in Spanish.  The host used the word recetar, where I would have expected prescribir.  Both mean to prescribe.  I knew the word receta “prescription” (also “recipe”), but just had never heard the verbal form recetar before.  Had no clue it existed.  Unusual?  Only in the sense of rare, and then no more “unusual” than anything else.  Zipf’s Law.



The many ways to spell “Kevin” in French

2014-06-08 11.05.24I’m told that the name “Kevin” was a popular baby name in the 1990s, due to Kevin Costner. However, the name “Kevin” doesn’t have any French equivalent that I know of (although there’s a close Breton equivalent, Breton being a Celtic language spoken in the Brittany region of France).  American and French spelling of vowel-nasal sequences don’t correspond very well, leading to some cute misspellings when people ask what my name is and then need to write it down. I’ve been collecting misspellings, just for fun.  Here’s what I have so far:

  •  Kavim: my favorite.  This is what they wrote on my coffee cup at Starbucks (yes, I went to Starbucks in Paris–it opens far earlier than normal cafes).
  • Calvin: what my barber calls me.  Even Americans in the US make this mistake sometimes.
  • Kévin: I saw this written the other day, as some other guy’s name.  The pronunciation would be pretty different from the way that I pronounce my name.

The best French words ever

So, I’m on my way back home to Denver, sad to leave Paris, but happy to have had this opportunity to spend an extended period of time in my mother’s ancestral homeland. Over the weeks, I stopped noticing the long hike up the hill to work. I don’t know if my judo improved, but I definitely got a deeper appreciation for how much strength doesn’t have to matter in judo if your technique is really good—a result of marathon ne waza sessions with the beautiful Françoise, leading to me being arm-barred, say, every 7 minutes or so. I sampled enough different cheeses to be able to follow the “eat what you like” advice with some confidence that I’ve tried enough cheeses to actually know what I do (and don’t) like, and have read enough about the subject that I can explain what I’m looking for to a cheesemonger (love that word). I wrote 600 lines of code or so, and learned a lot about the structure of French noun phrases.

I’m sure that Zipf’s Law will be taking its wrath out on me right up until the plane takes off from Charles de Gaulle. In the meantime, I’ll wrap up this portion of my life with some of my favorite words from among the hundreds that I’ve come across:

  • haussmanniser: to Haussmannize. From a magazine article about the Marais section of Paris. Haussmann-style architecture is what you’re thinking of when you think of the typical look of Paris. The question posed in the article was, where could immigrants live in an otherwise haussmannisé (Haussmannized) city?
  • soupçonner: to suspect. From a newspaper article about a guy’s arrest. Soupçon can have the same sense in French as it does in English, but I’ve only heard this wonderful verb; the associated noun is un soupçon, a suspicion.
  • hebdomadaire: this amazing adjective means “weekly.”
  • bouquiniste: I love words with an extremely specific meaning—this is a used bookseller on the banks of the Seine. I particularly like the fact that the word entered the dictionary in 1789—the country was being torn apart by one of the most amazing revolutions in European history, and the Académie Française was taking the time to put words about used books and the people who love them in the dictionary.

…and with that, I’m off to the airport. A bientôt!

French temporal adverbs 101

Reading the newspapers, I frequently struggle with the interpretation of various function words and phrases expressing temporal relations.  Here I’ll lay out the explanation of some terms as given by, and then explore some hypotheses that they suggest.  Following, I’ll compare and contrast quand, lorsque, lors de, and pendant.  To see the original page on, click here.

First, an overview, with simple definitions from

The last one is not discussed in the lesson, but it seems to go with the rest, and I do see it in the papers a lot.

Let’s follow’s model and compare and contrast quand and lorsque first.  When expressing what About calls a “temporal correlation,” they are interchangeable.  In these cases, there is a relationship between two events–one establishes a background for the other:

Je marchais quand tu m’as téléphoné.
I was walking when you called me.
Je marchais lorsque tu m’as téléphoné.
I was walking when you called me.

Quand je t’ai vu, j’avais peur.
When I saw you, I was afraid.

Lorsque je t’ai vu, j’avais peur.
When I saw you, I was afraid.

Je te verrai demain quand j’arriverai.*
I will see you tomorrow when I arrive.

Je te verrai demain lorsque j’arriverai.*
I will see you tomorrow when I arrive.

One thing that jumps out of me about all of these examples is that they involve two sentences–either the pattern Quand/lorsque S1, S2 or S1 quand/lorsque S2.  

So, that’s how quand and lorsque are similar.  Now let’s look at different uses, again from  Quand is used for what About calls “habitual correlation”–every time that one thing happens, the other happens:

Quand il est là, elle ne parle pas.
When(ever) he is there, she doesn’t speak.

Quand il sera là, elle ne parlera pas.
When(ever) he is there, she won’t speak.

Lorsque, on the other hand, is used for what About calls “simultaneous opposition”:

J’ai crié lorsqu’il a fallu courir.
I screamed when/whereas I should have run.

Je crierai lorsqu’il faudra courir.
I’ll scream, when/whereas I should run.

Again, what’s being related in all of these examples, for both temporal adverbs, is two sentences.

Now we contrast lorsque with lors de.  Lors de is described by as establishing a background relationship.  We saw that before with lorsque and quand, but let’s look at’s examples:
Lors de son anniversaire, elle était contente.
At the time of her birthday, she was happy.

Je suis arrivé lors du mariage.
I arrived during the wedding.

What jumps out at me about these examples is that the pattern is not an adverb and two sentences, but an adverb and a sentence and a noun phrase (le mariage, son anniversaire).  It’s time to turn to a corpus to see if that generalization holds, or is just an accidental effect of About’s examples.  We’ll do a Google search.  The first page is all links to dictionaries or pages about grammar, so we need to page down a bit:

  • Une erreur est survenue lors de l’écriture sur le disque
  • Les obligations de l’employeur lors de l’embauche (une embauche is “hiring”)
  • 5 réflexes à avoir lors de la réception d’un courriel
  • Liste des opérations lors de la Seconde Guerre mondiale
  • Maltraité pendant 50 ans, un éléphant pleure lors de sa libération

Looks like a good generalization–it holds for the first five hits on a non-grammar/dictionary page, at any rate, and I tell my students in corpus linguistics and field methods that a good rule of thumb is to give five examples of everything.

Now we’ll look at lors de versus pendant.  As explains it, both of them can be translated as “during.”  However, lors de refers to an event that occurs at some point in time, without a specified duration, while pendant refers to the entirety of the time period.  About’s examples:

 Il était content lors de son séjour. Il était content pendant son séjour.
   He was happy (at some point) during his stay. He was happy during his (entire) stay.
   Il était content lors de son anniversaire. Il était content pendant son anniversaire.
   He was happy (for a moment) on his birthday. He was happy during his (entire) birthday.
   Il a travaillé lors des 3 dernières années. Il a travaillé pendant les 3 dernières années.
   He worked (at some point) during the last 3 years. He has worked (non-stop) for the last 3 years.


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