Zipf’s Law in the context of getting screamed at by a taxi driver

In which I get screamed at by a taxi driver, and then have oatmeal.

There’s something about Zipf’s Law–the property of language that about 50% of the words that you run into are quite rare, statistically, and yet they do occur–that seems quite random when you’re face to face with it. However, it’s just as context-dependent as anything else linguistic. So, getting up at 3 AM to catch a plane exposed me to lots of new words, as you would expect–but, as you can see from the list below, they mostly do go together, in some sense, at least from the second word in the list on.  Here are the words that I had learnt before breakfast:

  • illégal: illegal, banned, outlawed, criminal.  You would’ve thought that I would’ve heard this word before this, and certainly I’ve come across interdit and défense (de).  However, I don’t recall ever coming across illégal until 4 AM today, when I was standing in front of the hotel in Montréal with a suitcase, a taxi driver came by, I shook my head “no,” and he pulled over, rolled down his window, and screamed UberX is banned! at me repeatedly.
  • le gruau: in theory, “gruel.”  In practice, “oatmeal.”  I’m looking forward to a bowl of gruau while I wait for my plane.
  • érable (nm): maple.  Where there is gruau, there always seems to be sirop d’érable (maple syrup).  
  • la garniture: side dish.  Way more meanings than you would think, actually.  In this case, roughly equivalent to “condiments.”  That might be a Canadian usage, though–not sure.
  • la cassonade: brown sugar.  Wondering about the etymology of the word, I looked it up on the French Wikipedia, and learnt that it refers to a different kind of brown sugar in the north of France and in Belgium than elsewhere.  Who knew that brown sugar was so complicated?
  • la canneberge: cranberry.  Cranberry production is mostly a North American thing, so it’s not shocking that I would have come across this word in Canada, but not in France.

That’s a lot of words to learn before sunrise, though, so I’m going to eat my gruau and make another cup of coffee now–flight boards in 15 minutes…

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