Zipf’s Law, the Poisson Distribution, reflexive verbs, and terrorism in the age of social media

Screenshot 2016-01-25 23.09.23
“Islamic State dramatizes the macabre will and testament of the terrorists of the Paris attacks.” This is the mettre en scène (non-reflexive) form of the expression.  Picture source: screen shot of

By now, we know what goes hand-in-hand with Zipf’s Law: the Poisson Distribution.  Zipf’s Law explains why we run into words that we don’t know in a foreign language every stinking day, and the Poisson Distribution shows how even rare events can come in clusters.  Three rock stars die in one month, and the like.  This morning I ran into two occurrences of an expression that I’d never seen before at all.  There was an interesting twist, in that it’s actually two expressions, one with a regular verb, and one with the reflexive form of the same verb.  Reflexive verbs in French can refer to performing an action on oneself–je me mouche “I blow my nose,” je mouche le bébé “I blow the baby’s nose” (no, I didn’t make that up–look here).  In this case, the meaning of moucher is the same–it’s just a question of whose nose is getting blown.  However, non-reflexive and reflexive verbs can also have different meanings, and that’s the case with the expression that had me going to the dictionary before I even had breakfast this morning.

Mettre is one of those common and rather irregular verbs that shows up in a bazillion expressions.  This one has two forms.  The non-reflexive, mettre en scène, means to stage or to dramatize (definitions from  The reflexive form, se mettre en scène, is to put on a performance.  I saw it on Twitter today: L’atroce vidéo de l’Etat Islamique montre que nous avons changé d’époque.  L’ultraviolence la plus sordide se met en scène façon Hollywood.  “The atrocious Islamic State video shows that we have changed eras.  The most sordid ultraviolence puts on a show Hollywood-style.”

I wish that I had some clever way to wrap up this discussion, but learning yet more vocabulary by way of terrorism just depresses me.  Yuck.  If you’re interested in theorizing about terrorism and the media in general and social media in particular, try this Wikipedia page for starters.  Sigh…

  • mettre en scène: to stage, to dramatize.
  • se mettre en scène: to put on a performance.
  • la mise en scène: staging, directing; dramatization; stageplay, stage direction.

Screenshot 2016-01-25 23.15.07

8 thoughts on “Zipf’s Law, the Poisson Distribution, reflexive verbs, and terrorism in the age of social media”

      1. Well, starting from a fly (insect), you have “faire mouche” = to hit a bull’s eye, se faire moucher to be caught (generally in the act of something), “moucher” in argot means to spy on someone – in fact a “mouchard” is a pejorative way of saying a spy. A nice variation would be the bateaux-mouches I’m sure you’ve enjoyed at one time or another 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. To unite your two recent favorites, what do you think of that one : “se faire mettre” ? One of the thousand ways to express sexual relationship .
    In vulgar slang “se faire mettre” means to be screwed, literally or figuratively .
    Try it next time you meet your boss .

    Liked by 1 person

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