Mettre en examen: Zipf’s Law, the Poisson distribution, and the wiretapping of Sarkozy

Sarkozy's legal troubles.
Sarkozy’s legal troubles.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while (or read the About page), you know that Zipf’s Law has an effect on vocabularies: every language has a very large number of words that occur only rarely.  The Poisson distribution describes distributions of rare events, and predicts that even rare events will sometimes occur in clusters.  No movie stars die for a year, and then three of them die in a month–that kind of thing.  If you think about the interaction between Zipf’s Law and the Poisson distribution, you have the fact that every day, a second language learner will run across words that they’ve never seen before–a consequence of Zipf’s Law–and you have the likelihood that they will sometimes occur in unexplained clusters–a consequence of the Poisson distribution.

This interaction was illustrated for me today by the expression mettre en examen.  After not having come across it in 16 months of intensive French study, I came across it just a couple of days ago in a book about English serial killers, and then this morning, it showed up on my phone as an alert about a news story about Sarkozy’s legal troubles.  Zipf’s Law + the Poisson distribution: you live into your 50s without ever seeing a word, and then you see it twice in a couple of days, in totally unconnected circumstances.

  • mettre en examen: defines it as “to investigate” or “to place under formal investigation.”  In the book that I’m reading, it was translated as “to suspect.”  I guess I probably trust more, but that is such data as I have.

What about that affaire des écoutes that the news alert mentions?  As you might suspect, the noun écoute is related to the verb écouter, “to listen to.”  It turns out that this noun has a number of meanings, one of which is “wiretapping.”  Former French head of state Nicolas Sarkozy’s calls to his lawyer were tapped during an investigation of suspected influence-peddling, and this has become known as the affaire des écoutes.  Here are some other meanings, from

  • “oreille attentive”: listening.  Il est à l’écoute de ses clients.  “He is attentive to his clients, he is in tune with his clients.”
  • wire-tapping, phone-tapping: Le journaliste est sur écoute.  “The journalist’s phone is tapped.”  Note the pronoun sur.
  • audience; (TV) viewing figures; (radio) listening figures.
  • There’s an additional meaning related to the nautical speed of a ship, I think, but I can’t quite figure it out.

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