Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.





The tip of your breast//has traced a new luck-line//in the hollow of my hand

The poetry of Jacques Prévert was one of the nicer discoveries of the past year for me.  Prévert did his military service around the time of the First World War (I’m not sure when–English-language and French-language Wikipedia give different dates).  During the Second World War, he protected the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma, who would set some of his poetry to music–and who joined the maquis (combatants in the Resistance) and was injured when he jumped on a mine during the liberation of Nice.

There are some themes that recur quite frequently in Prévert’s poetry.  They include Paris and the Seine; love; and war.  This being the very first day of National Poetry Month, I’ll give you one of his love poems, along with my attempt at a translation–we’ll get to some of the war poetry later.  The poem is Sanguine, published in 1951.

la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main

the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand 


La fermeture éclair a glissé sur tes reins
et tout l’orage heureux de ton corps amoureux
au beau milieu de l’ombre
a éclaté soudain
Et ta robe en tombant sur le parquet ciré
n’a pas fait plus de bruit
qu’une écorce d’orange tombant sur un tapis
Mais sous nos pieds
ses petits boutons de nacre craquaient comme des pépins
joli fruit
la pointe de ton sein
a tracé une nouvelle ligne de chance
dans le creux de ma main
joli fruit
Soleil de nuit.

The zipper slid down your lower back
and all of the happy storm of your loving body
right in the midst of the shadows
suddenly burst out
And falling on the waxed floor, your dress
made no more noise
than an orange peel falling on a rug
But beneath our feet
its little pearl buttons crackled like seeds
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
the tip of your breast
has traced a new fate line
in the hollow of my hand
Blood orange
beautiful fruit
night sun.

A number of Prévert’s poems have been set to music.  Here’s Yves Montand singing Sanguine:


…and here’s a guy with an odd accent–probably no odder than mine, me being, like him, an American–reading it:

French notes

la chiromansie : palmistry.  The chi is pronounced ki.  How would one know that, other than by looking it up (I had to)?  I don’t know–the pronunciation of chi usually baffles me.

la fermeture éclair: zipper, except when you’re talking about the zipper on a pair of pants, which is la braguette, as I learned the hard way in a café on rue des Écoles one day–a story for another time, perhaps.

A question (I’m lookin’ at you, Phil dAnge, and I have a poem for you later this month): why is the feminine form of éclair written without a final e?  Looks like clair to me, whose feminine is claire. 

Focus versus feedback: Blogging about your grad school experience

Don’t think the picture matches the topic? Read the post.

My response to a question on Quora (English notes below):

Screen Shot 2019-03-18 at 12.40.21

I agree with the other answers that suggest that you focus on your research work, as opposed to blogging.

Having said that: I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress. Particularly, I will post the occasional introduction to a paper and ask people to tell me what parts of it are not clear. Since feedback on this specific kind of question is better if it comes from non-specialists in your field than if it comes from specialists, a blog with a random readership base is actually a pretty good way to get it.

Note that I do not recommend this approach to getting feedback if you are not yet at a place in your career where you see critiques as attempts to help you, as opposed to attempts to attack you! Thick skin is a prerequisite in academia in general, and certainly when you ask others to tell you about the problems with your work. Having said that: comments on your blog might be a good way to start getting thick skin!

Good luck with your studies!

English notes

to solicit: When followed by a noun, this means “to ask for (something).”  Examples:

  • We solicited participation in an online survey through national and city LGBT organizations and personal contacts to examine differences in depression, anxiety, alcohol and tobacco use, and body mass index among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans (n = 252) in suburban/urban and rural/small town locations.  (Source: Kauth, Michael R., Terri L. Barrera, F. Nicholas Denton, and David M. Latini. “Health differences among lesbian, gay, and transgender veterans by rural/small town and suburban/urban setting.” LGBT health 4, no. 3 (2017): 194-201.) It’s so interesting to me that neither Trump nor any of his children have served in the US military–and yet, he wants to keep transgender troops from doing so.  Could we have, like, at least five of them to make up for his, Melania, Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka’s failure to serve?
  • This study utilized qualitative interviews and focus groups with veterans with documented polytrauma/TBI history to explore veterans‘ perceived barriers to employment and vocational rehabilitation program participation, as well as to solicit thoughts regarding interest in an evidence-based vocational rehabilitation program, the Individual Placement and Support model of Supported Employment (IPS-SE).   (Source: Wyse, Jessica J., Terri K. Pogoda, Ginnifer L. Mastarone, Tess Gilbert, and Kathleen F. Carlson. “Employment and vocational rehabilitation experiences among veterans with polytrauma/traumatic brain injury history.” Psychological services (2018).
  • It is critical to solicit and use input from team providers and leaders when establishing PST services.  (Source: Chinman, Matthew, Rebecca Shoai, and Amy Cohen. “Using organizational change strategies to guide peer support technician implementation in the Veterans Administration.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 33, no. 4 (2010): 269.

The verb to solicit is interesting in that if you use its nominalization solicitation without an object–i.e., without specifying the thing being asked for–the most obvious interpretation of it means to ask to purchase the services of a prostitute.  Examples:

…and the adjectival form means something completely different:

solicitous: showing or expressing concern.  Examples:

  • solicitous inquiry about his health (Source: Merriam-Webster)

…and then the “agentive” nominalization solicitor has yet another unrelated meaning:

solicitor: “the chief law officer of a municipality, county, or government department” (Source: Merriam-Webster). Examples:

How I used it in the response to the question:

I myself am an academic, and I sometimes benefit from using my blog to solicit feedback on work in progress. 

Mix and match: miscellaneous Michelet

A shortage of French-language reading materials in Japan leads me to discover Jules Michelet, who turns out to be one shit-hot writer… Miscellaneous vocabulary from Les croisades and a random volume of Histoire de France.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for today’s English notes.

Shit-hot: very, very good. Some examples:

That last example is especially interesting because it includes both “shit-hot,” which is quite good, and “shit,” which is quite bad.

Navy Blue: One discourse, one sense? No.

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy, Navy Blue… ay, matey, there’s the rub. 

There’s this thing called word sense ambiguity.  A “word sense” is a meaning, and many words have more than one; “word sense ambiguity” is the case of a word in context (as opposed to in the “lexicon,” or “mental dictionary”) having more than one possible sense.  In practice, a word in context has as many possible senses as there are for that word in the lexicon, so: many words are always going to be ambiguous.

Does that mean that it’s not possible to recover the correct sense?  Not at all.  In fact, humans are so good at “resolving” word sense ambiguity that we rarely notice that it’s there, even though we experience it almost constantly.  For computers, though–that’s a different story.  Word sense ambiguity is a problem for any computer program that tries to do things with language.  What to do?  Well, mostly, people try to get their programs to take advantage of context in some way.

Screen Shot 2019-02-06 at 04.59.28
Gale, William A., Kenneth W. Church, and David Yarowsky. “One sense per discourse.” In Proceedings of the workshop on Speech and Natural Language, pp. 233-237. Association for Computational Linguistics, 1992.

Some approaches to this problem, known as word sense disambiguation, take advantage of what’s known as the one sense per discourse hypothesis.  Said hypothesis postulates that in any given discussion, an ambiguous word will only have one of its meanings.  So, if you can figure out that in a given conversation the word bank refers to the land along the side of a river, then you don’t even have to consider the meaning place where you keep money for the conversation as a whole.  Figure it out one time, and you’re done for the remainder of that “discourse.”

I spent most of the 1980s in the US Navy.  The music that we were listening to in those days: Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, REO Speedwagon, Berlin.  But, the classics, too: In the Navy (Village People), Navy Blue (Diane Renay)… ay, matey, there’s the rub.  See, in the single song Navy Blue, there is a play on the word blue.  

Replace the crossed keys with a caduceus and that’s what my blues looked like at the end of my enlistment. Source:
  • navy or navy blue is a color.  It’s the color of what we call in the Navy our “dress blues,” which for enlisted men means the “Cracker Jack” uniform, which in fact is a hell of a lot more black than it is blue–but, whatever.
  • blue means something like mildly sad, mildy depressed.  In French, a rough equivalent of the phrase to be blue or to have the blues would be avoir le cafard.  

One discourse, two senses: a counter-example to the one sense per discourse hypothesis.

To be fair, I should point out that Gale et al. never claimed that the one sense per discourse hypothesis was an absolute–it’s more of a heuristic.  They reported it to be true 98% of the time or so–but, not always.  Still: I must point out the shameful lack of attention to Diane Renay’s #6 hit in their classic paper.  For shame, for shame, for shame.

Here’s a link to the song.  Scroll down for the full lyrics with explanations of some of the obscure military terminology and terms of romance, and don’t forget to buy a sailor a drink today–he’s serving his country, unlike, say, Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump…


Navy Blue

Sung by Diane Renay, lyrics by Bob Crewe, Bud Rehak, and Edward Fluri

Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
  • steady boy: old term for boyfriend with whom you have an exclusive relationship.
  • ship ahoy: old mariner’s term used to hail a ship
He said he wanted to settle down
And let me be his girl 
But first he had to do a little travelin’ around
And see the whole wide world
  • to settle down: to establish a permanent residence
  • girl: in this context, ‘girlfriend’
That’s why I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
I got a letter yesterday from Tokyo
And a souvenir
A walky-talky wind-up little China doll
That says “Wish you were here”
  • wish you were here: stereotypical text written on a postcard when you’re too lazy to write anything substantive
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
He’s comin’ home to see me on a weekend pass
A forty-eight hour day
That boat he’s sailin’ on just better get here fast
‘Cause I can hardly wait
  • pass: permission, sometimes written, for a military person to take time off.  A weekend pass is from Friday evening to Sunday evening–also known as a “48,” although that doesn’t have to be on a weekend.  A “96” is a 4-day pass.
  • day in this song is sometimes transcribed as day-ate, i.e. date, giving the line the meaning of a rencard galant of 48 hours.
Till then I’m
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
‘Cause my steady boy said “Ship ahoy”
And joined the Nay-ee-ay-vee
Blue, navy blue, I’m as blue as I can be
Paroliers : Bob Crewe / Bud Rehak / Edward Fluri
Paroles de Navy Blue © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Ducklings and goslings and inklings, oh my

That moment when the elves take your baby and leave one of theirs in its place.

I dragged myself out of bed at 8:30 AM today.  Under normal circumstances, if I’m still in bed at 5:45 AM, it means that I had a rough night–I am most definitely both a morning person, and an early riser.  Seulement voilà (“the thing is”):

  1. At this time of year, it doesn’t get light outside in Paris until about 8:30 in the morning.
  2. At 2 AM I got obsessed with the need to learn all of the words for baby animals in French.

Morphemes are the things that words are made of.  For example, the plural cats has two morphemes: cat, and the that carries the meaning of plurality.  (This happens to be the example from which my child learned what a morpheme is–as a young child, and as we did the dishes together.  Must suck to be a linguist’s kid…)

English has an odd little morpheme that refers to things that are small.  Like the of cats, it is what is called a bound morpheme, meaning that it cannot be a word on its own–it has to be attached to something else.  (Contrast that with the cat in catnap (a short, light nap), catnip (a plant–it’s basically pot for cats), and cathouse (a brothel–archaic)).  Here are a couple of examples:

  • duckling: a baby duck.
  • inkling: a small hint, or a small piece of knowledge.  (I’ll give some examples of its use later.)
Source:  See the site for helpful information about how to recognize a foundling, return a foundling, etc.

The -ling morpheme is also not productive: that means that you can’t really use it freely to make “new words.”  For example, it’s not clear that anyone would know what you meant if you casually threw the words waterling (parallel to inkling) or penling (parallel to duckling) into a conversation.  (Contrast that with -gate, which over the course of my lifetime has become applicable to practically anything, with the meaning of “a scandal related to:” Bridgegate, Pizzagateetc.)  Because it’s not productive, one could list all of the words in English in which it occurs.  Limited only by my memory, of course.  My best shot at doing so:

  1. duckling: baby duck
  2. gosling: baby goose
  3. foundling: a child who has been found after having been abandoned
  4. changeling: when the elves take away your baby and leave one of their own in its place
  5. inkling: a small hint, idea, trace, piece of knowledge, clue

In the Foundling Hospital grounds, London, c1901 (1901)
The London Foundling Hospital in 1901, from an article about a 1911 foundling lottery in Paris at

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Zipf, you’re a drooling idiot.  There are lots of words in English that end with -ling: for example, DROOLING.  Feeling, wheeling and dealing (French: mic-mac or micmac), healing… 

Well… I may be an idiot, but I’m not a drooling one.  Here’s the thing: a morpheme is defined by its sound (or spelling)–in our case, ling–and by its meaning.  Drooling and gosling (baby goose) contain the same sounds/letters, but not the same meaning of smallness, so it’s not the case that they share the same morpheme.  -ling is a pretty textbook (French: typique) example of a non-productive morpheme.

So, yeah: I don’t sleep much, and I’m trying to learn to speak French, so at 2 AM I got obsessed with learning the names of baby animals in French.  This web page got me started, and then I started searching for weird English-language baby animal names (say, gosling), and here you see the results.  (Yes, some occur more than once.) At 2 AM, I only knew chiot (puppy), chaton (kitten), and veau (calf)–how about you?  And, native speakers (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you)–can you add some more?

Adult animals:

Juvenile animals:

English-language example sentences


  • The Steel Riders Saga is a sci-fi/fantasy novel about Free Wheeler, a foundling discovered by the legendary Steve Thompson during a deep terrain ATV ride. Thompson leads an ATV pack known as the “Steel Riders.” In their fantastical journeys Free Wheeler finds true love and home.  (Twitter, @quantum_tide)
  • Meanwhile, in Australia, there’s a National . I have never heard of anything so glorious! (Nobody in my family cares about gravy as much as I do. I… might be a foundling?)  (Twitter,
  • Can I just say…Baby Faced Finster. A foundling!! You Naughty Baby!! Hahaha! 😂❤️  (Twitter, @TheSuperAmanda)


  • I’ve mentioned this numerous times on the podcast but… I have an inkling that Nintendo will use Smash DLC to promote upcoming (inc third-party) Switch releases.  (Twitter, @pixelpar)
  • My new resolution is to not read the thread of comments of tweets where I know or have an inkling that it’s not going to be a good thing.  (Twitter, @valparkie)
  • You are a gem of a friend and you don’t have an inkling of how much i appreciate your ignorance of my vices.  (Twitter, @Shakti_Shetty)
  • I don’t have an inkling of what the future holds but I’m excited  (Twitter, @JaredTench)
  • Roommate, Camden *going to Waffle House in Dunn*: “If I get the smallest inkling of a crack-whore, I’m leaving!”  (Twitter, @dr_pattyguin)


What computational linguists actually do all day: The lexical frequency version

In practice, we spend most of our time trying to figure out where we went wrong in writing some computer program or another. 

Tell someone that you’re a computational linguist, and the next thing out of their mouth is likely to be either:

  1. How many languages do you speak?, or…
  2. What’s that?

In theory, computational linguists spend their time thinking about fun questions like:

  1. Is natural language Turing-complete?
  2. The relationship, if any, between what we know about words (say, the word dog can be a noun or a verb, and it occurs more often with the words bark and leash than with the word meow) and what we know about the world (say, a dog is a canine, and might like to chase balls, and will eat cat shit if not instructed otherwise).
  3. How Zipf’s Law, which describes the fact that a small number of words are extremely common, while a large number of words are extremely rare, but do occur, might or might not be related to the mathematical phenomenon of the fractal.

In practice, we spend most of our time trying to figure out where we went wrong in writing some computer program or another.  (OK: that, and writing grant proposals.)  Think that being a computational linguist sounds glamorous?  Here’s how I spent my morning.

All I gotta do: go through a bunch of documents and count how often each word in that bunch of documents occurs.  Easy-peasy–barely hard enough for a homework in Computational Linguistics 101.

Seulement voilà…

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 12.54.58

Easy enough to fix–I just failed to give the complete name of the program, and…. marde.

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 12.57.21

OK, easy enough to fix–I had written

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 12.58.58

…when I shoulda written

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 12.58.44

Shoulda: the typical spoken form of should have. 

(Note the square bracket near the end of the middle line–I had left it out.)  Great–avançons, alors.  But, no, fuckashitpiss:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.03.54

Easy enough to fix–turns out I wrote this:


Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.05.19

…when I shoulda written this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.06.35

(Note the dollar sign before the rightmost instance of words now.)  And so, on we go, but…

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.07.57

…and it’s easy enough to fix–I had written this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.08.57

…when I shoulda written this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.10.10.png

(Note the double quote before $frequencies{$words[$i]}\n”;) …and now I’m wondering:

  1. These errors were all on one single line–what other horrors have I hidden in this code, and will they be as easy to find as those were?
  2. What the hell was I thinking when I wrote that line?  Was I thinking about the upcoming dissertation defense at 2 PM?  Was I thinking about Trump giving my country to China?  Was I thinking about tomorrow’s colonoscopy? Who the hell knows, really–whatever it was, it apparently wasn’t this line of code…

Mais returnons… Ah marde, but at least this one will be easy to fix…

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.14.14

…except that I verify the existence of the directory, and then get this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.16.03

…which is the exact same error that I got before.  So, I go back and look at my code, where I see this, and remember that my error message is supposed to print out the name of the directory that it couldn’t open, but it did no such thing:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.22.00

…which is ’cause I never gave the program the name of the input directory.  So I take care of that, and also tell my program to print out the name of the directory that it couldn’t open if, it fact, it can’t open a directory–as we saw above, I had planned to do this, but of course left out that little detail:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.25.31

…and now I experience a tiny little bit of success, because my program does not crash.  Seulement voilà, it doesn’t actually produce any ouput:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.27.18

Note the lack of a bunch of lexical frequencies… So, I go back to my script, and I start looking around in the region of the program where I meant for the output to happen.  I don’t see anything obvious in that area, so: I go further up in the code, and start doing what I need to do to convince myself that the earlier parts of the program are working the way that I intended them to.  This means printing out the results at intermediate steps of the processing. The resulting code (leaving out a bunch of details) looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.32.22

…which does nothing different than it was doing before, so I know that I need to go even further up in the program and, again, print stuff out as I go, resulting in this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.35.57

…which, when I run the script, produces this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.37.25

…which suggests to me that the directory exists, and that I’m opening it correctly, but that I am either (a) reading its contents incorrectly, or (b) making a mistake when I make a decision about whether or not to open each file.  A quick Google search finds the problem for me–I had written this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.41.16…when I shoulda written this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.41.33

(Note that the text at the left end of the line was open, and now is opendir.)

Progress!  Now I get some output, but note the last line–I’m just getting a bunch of file names, and no word frequencies.  I can see the problem right away, though–I have the directory name right, and I have the file name right, but I need to combine them in order to be able to open the file.  Doing so gives me this code:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.46.55

…which results in my script running successfully for a while, but then crashing, and I know exactly what causes said crash…

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 13.48.10.png

…and I know that it’s a bear to fix, and I’ve been working on this fucking task that’s barely difficult enough to make a good homework assignment for two hours, and now it’s time to go to the aforementioned dissertation defense, and… Soupire…

Meme source: