Hein? Hunh? Hey? Hrm?

Ou l’on constate que l’anglais possède le mot hein.

In my pursuit of acquiring at least some of the trappings of British geek and pop culture, getting a basic grasp on Doctor Who I came across a word that I hadn’t been aware the English language possessed.

This is from last Staturday’s episode (”Utopia”), about 7 or 8 minutes in. The protagonists have just arrived in an unknown location and are walking through a dark rocky landscape. While the Doctor is rather pensive and monosyllabic, his companions, Captain Jack Harkness and Martha Jones, are chattering away. There is an undercurrent of jealousy, and at one point Martha gets a bit snippy. Here’s how the Doctor calls them to order:

To me, the interjection after “end of the universe” sounds pretty much like the French word hein. Moreover, it has here exactly the meaning of hein: something like a rather aggressive question tag, which could be glossed as “right?” or “isn’t it?”

But here’s the problem. If I transcribe this passage as:

  • You two — we’re at the end of the universe, hein? Right at the edge of knowledge itself, and you’re busy … blogging! Come on.

… then it looks to the reader as if the speaker was speaking with a French accent, which would be misleading.

I asked some irquaintances for other, more English-looking spellings. The suggestion that might fit best was hunh.

(That this was one of the funniest TV quotes I’ve encountered in a while may have contributed to my noticing this.)

Now that’s certainly a paradoxical term; it even sounds vaguely self-contradictory. The underlying facts are just as surprising:

By combining quantum computation and quantum interrogation, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found an exotic way of determining an answer to an algorithm – without ever running the algorithm.

Using an optical-based quantum computer, a research team led by physicist Paul Kwiat has presented the first demonstration of “counterfactual computation,” inferring information about an answer, even though the computer did not run. The researchers report their work in the Feb. 23 issue of Nature.

Further down, Paul Kwiat gives a slightly clearer definition of counterfactual computation in the context of quantum computing :

“It seems absolutely bizarre that counterfactual computation – using information that is counter to what must have actually happened – could find an answer without running the entire quantum computer,” said Kwiat, a John Bardeen Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at Illinois.

Should you have online access to Nature, you can read the article.

From here to eternity

Comme me l’a fait remarquer mon ami Michel, certains photographes amateurs confondent eternity et infinity.

  • 2006-02-22
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My friend Michel Valdrighi has been browsing photography web sites. And, as he pointed out to me the other day, he’s found quite a few people who who set their lens focus (or extend their depth of field) to … eternity:

  • Likewise, you will find that a greater depth-of-field (bigger f-stop number) will make everything from here to eternity appear in focus. (link)
  • At that f-stop, you focused the camera at 5 to 7 feet away and the DOF extended damn near to eternity ;-) (link)
  • To increase DOF against far distance/eternity, turn to left side. (link)
  • It makes a nice, clean image from corner to corner and closes down to f/22 for depth of field from inches to eternity. (link)
  • A couple of them are built as rigidly as possible, allowing for an equivalent F-Stop of 100, which gives me focus from here to eternity. (link)
  • Digicam (secret for now)
    aperture ~5
    shutter 1/100
    focus eternity

A blend of time and space conceptualisation into one? The word infinity doesn’t only relate to space, though, but also to number and quantity.

The search phrase "from here to infinity" yields only 24,400 raw Google hits, compared to 717,000 for "from here to eternity" (the results for Yahoo! are even more unbalanced). But the latter the title of a novel and (multiple-oscar winning) film.

The usage of the verb snob

Le verbe snober vient du nom anglais snob, emprunté par le français. Mais il ne se dit pas snob en anglais — je parle toujours du verbe —, mais snub. Peu surprenant que certains anglophones s’y perdent. Et même plus que ça : on trouve une foule de formations verbales faites à partir de snob, toutes absentes des dictionnaires.

  • 2005-10-29
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When the sentence “He [Karl Marx] would probably snob his nose at it [blogging]” flickered by me on IRC some hours ago, I just thought that this was a nice blend of snob n., snub v. and the idiom turn up one’s nose at sth., possibly influenced by the semantically less pertinent snub-nosed. […]

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Amuse-bouche to zaibatsu

Des entrées nouvelles dans le Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, l’un des dictionnaires les plus réputés de la langue anglaise.

  • 2005-10-04
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New entries in the 2005 edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary. I was slightly surprised about the new sense of neoconservative. There must have been some semantic variation over the last few years.

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  • 2005-09-26
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It is reassuring to know that the Paris police Préfecture has been making plans in the event of terrorists attacking several places at once, like in Madrid or London. According to a Libération article, the first step would be to get everyone out of the public transport network: Si un jour, un attentat […]

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Euphemism of the day: concertina wire

Appeler ces barbelés meurtriers aux lames aiguisées comme des lames de rasoir fil accordéon est un euphémisme quelque peu extrême.

  • 2005-09-11
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From the Washington Post (reg. req’d I think; you can also try to access the article via bugmenot). National Guard crews are setting up double rows of coiled razor wire in front of the tracks and will continue to do so until the fencing blocks the ravaged coast for 30 miles. […]

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Non-eggcorn: “equilateral(ly)”

Une liste d’exemples du mot «equilateral», notamment sous sa forme adverbiale (que le français ne connaît pas, de ce que j’en sais), dans des contextes surprenants.

Ce n’est pas un poteau rose, pour autant.

My first sighting was in a report from a tech volunteer in the Astrodome in Houston, quoted on BoingBoing. There are plenty of issues that need to be discussed, but the evacuees are keeping the area very clean and equilaterally said they were happier to be in the Astrodome than stuck in the Superdome […]

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  • 2005-09-04
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The canonical example for a speech act that can cause real harm has long been “screaming ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre”. Maybe this should be replaced with “screaming ’suicide bomber’ in a packed crowd”. All in all, last week has been rather too murderous. (I am aware that neither of these utterances is a performative act the […]

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On Culture Vulture, the Guardian’s cultural news blog, Sarah Crown reports on the difficulties of turning Philip Pullman’s excellent and complex His Dark Materials trilogy into a film. The putative director, Chris Weitz, has just resigned from the job. A little further on, there’s a paragraph on something I’d heard about before: Weitz, who […]

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