While tirelessly displaying wordmaps for inquiring minds around the world, the Visual Thesaurus has another, equally demanding life that takes place behind the scenes. The dictionary that underlies the VT is widely used in linguistic research, mainly as a tool in various NLP applications: the art and science of getting computers to deal effectively and efficiently with huge bucketfuls of human language.

In this connection, this Loungeur has been beavering away in a quiet corner over the last few months on a project for the Linguistic Computing Laboratory. The task was to map the words in a large database of common English collocations to word senses in the VT in order to discover and document patterns. For example: if you see the verb-noun combination snap fingers or the verb-noun combination snap photo, your knowledge of English tells you that two different meanings of snap are in use. Similarly, when you hear fumbled snap and brandy snap, you recognize that two different noun senses of snap are being used.

Elementary as this may seem, teaching a computer to recognize distinctions such as these in a natural context is a time-consuming and laborious process - and that process is a growth industry these days, with researchers around the world hammering away at English, coaxing it yield up its secrets so that computers can process terabytes of text at lightning speed.

An interesting sidelight of looking at collocations by the cartload is that it easily identifies clichés and idioms. If you hear the noun-verb combination wheel grind, you probably mentally supply to a halt before you hear the words. Collocations like wheel grind that occur with some frequency in a database can be the basis for teaching a computer to recognize chunks of text at a glance, the way humans do: it is statistically safe to bet that when wheel grind (in any of its various inflections) is encountered in text, it is an instance of this idiom, whether literally (i.e., to describe a vehicle coming to rest) or figuratively (to describe a process abruptly ending, as in "the wheels of justice ground to a halt"). In other words, the wheel in wheel grind nearly always denotes the wheel of a (real or imaginary) vehicle and not, e.g., the wheel of mill or a steering wheel; and the grind in wheel grind has a meaning that is more or less limited to this idiom and does not mean, for example, "reduce to powder" or "dance by rotating the pelvis." (Again, elementary, but how would a computer know this?)

For ordinary speakers and writers of English, the idioms and clichés embodied in a database of collocations is both a gold mine and a mine field. You have the opportunity to check your words against thousands who have gone before you, to see how your words stack up. For a learner of English, your question may simply be "can you actually say that in English?" For a native speaker, your question may be "is this such a tired and worn cliché that using it is going to mark me as an unimaginative hack?"

Take, for example, the noun-verb collocation note creep. At first glance, it did not occur to us that these words ever belonged together in English. But as it turns out, notes are constantly creeping: into peoples, voices, that is. Here are some examples:

had been back all night . " A worried note      crept     into her voice . " You mean she 's not
say it comes as a shock . " A stern note        crept     into Mr. Fenton 's tone . " I 'd be very
would they be ? "  A note of impatience         crept     into her tone and Wesley noted it , deciding
calmly , though a slight note of amusement      crept     into his voice . Hunters ' brother
I 've been to . " A note of resignation         crept     into her voice . In James ' heart , a flash
added , though he allowed a note of doubt to    creep     into his voice . Elary closed her
? " Elaine asked , that note of caution         creeping  into her voice . She had spent her first
" Heart cut her off , a note of sadness         creeping  into her voice . " Please don't say you really
father , Lord Pillaton . " A note of pride      crept 	  into Humphrey 's voice as he said this

Another collocation that stymied us at first sight was skill desert. But in fact, people's skills desert them all the time: particularly, one assumes, when this is least desirable:

reference site . My Excel skills have             deserted   me - I was unable to make a graph that
situation . So why had all of these skills        deserted   her over an insane boy ?" Isis ,
book at me . " Or have my telepathic skills       deserted   me ? You won't believe the I
however , the champ 's undoubted skills           deserted   him and - more than once or twice - a glove
normally unerring passing skills seemed to have   deserted   him . After six minutes of the second
crest of his skills , those skills would          desert     him . Untimely losses and remarkable come

In both of the above cases, there is no question that you can use the noted words in combination: the question is, do you want to? Is it going to make you sound like a cheesy second-rate wannabe Hemingway, or is there enough life left in the expression that it will do the job you intend?

When we saw the collocation face float we were immediately transported to the finale of the great Busby Berkeley musical "The Gang's All Here," in which the singing heads of the film's main characters float around the silver screen on Technicolor backgrounds. But it turns out that for many writers, a floating face is merely a literary (or hackneyed -- you decide!) device to suggest that the thought of one person has entered the mind of another -- often in an admonitory fit of conscience:

like a warning bell,  My mother 's face         floated   to mind , a pale reproachful moon , at
should have been used to them by now . Faces    floated   behind his eyelids of past boyfriends ,
longer . Meara 's and Reef 's faces             floated   through my head , swaying me to stay .
Sarah , what 's wrong ? " Darren 's face        floated   through her mind , the last thing she saw
anymore . His grief stricken face               floats    in my memory , and causes tears to burn
standing . My doctor 's lined grave face        floated   in front of me as I remembered my visit
he felt . But an image of her sweet face        floated   into his mind . Abruptly he opened his

The noun face figures pretty high in the collocation stakes and it is nearly always the sense that first comes to your mind: the expressive front of a person's head. We found, for example, that not only do faces float: they also flame, twist, and harden, though these events are hardly ever a Good Thing:

                                 Her          face   flamed and she glared at him, wondering if there wasn
oked from him to the Woman and back again and his  face   twisted into an expression of complete scorn.
                                           Her     face,  with its Roman beauty, twisted up suddenly, hostile.
it fell off and then Hayman's monkey-like	   face   twisted into a vicious scowl just thinking about it.
ed by Linda abruptly stopped crying; her	   face   hardened, and she almost snapped out, `She was killed!
ared at the unfamiliar car for a moment, then his  face   hardened as he recognised her.
comatants in order to announce his victory ? His   face   red and twisted in a perpetual grimace
n't let them take me ! " Blake 's                  face   and voice hardened . " Up . Now
You know me very well . " Kiara 's                 face   flamed at what he was implying . " Fine

Writers have firmly established that when something untoward has happened, you can signal it with a face (or a smile) that freezes:

he comes from the West Indies. ' The smile        froze   on Mr Rochester's lips, and his face went white. 
, it was a full minute before the smile           froze   as well and then fell . Brooke grabbed
attend tonight . "She felt her smile              freeze  . " Oh . " " He was very remorseful
did n't smile back at him , and the smile         froze   on his lips . " How long are you
glanced over and saw that Madam's smile           froze   on her lips.
off cliffs . I noticed my friend 's face          froze   when I mentioned " Japs . " He never spoke
really means anything? " His smile                froze   , as her words hit home . Brooke
The Duke's jest was grim, then his face           froze   into a chill smile as Rossendale ushered Jane fo.
thght that nothing had gone wrong. But his smile  froze   as Tristan appeared and set down the tureens bef

In all of these cases, the verb freeze can be safely nailed as the sense that means "become immobilized" rather than the "change to ice" sense, although the notion of coldness that lives inherently in freeze is certainly present in the case of frozen smiles. Devotees of English literature will be pleased to see that the first quote in the group above is from no less a figure than Charlotte Brontë (the line is from Jane Eyre), and that by using this figure of speech, you will be standing on the shoulders of a giant. On the other hand: after 160 years of exercise, is it time to put this old chestnut out to pasture?

At the other end of the temperature scale, we found that collocations suggestive of higher temperatures usually indicate that either love or anger is splashing onto the scene. Metaphors equating heat with love or anger are probably as old as language itself. It's interesting, however, that collocations around the verb melt -- something that you expect to happen when temperatures rise -- are only about love and passion. Who knew, for example, that both flesh and bones are subject to melting when a young man's (or woman's) ardorometer goes off the charts?

ing soft kisses, making her soul quake inside her,    melting   her bones. 
he said tremulously against him, feeling her flesh    melt      off her bones into puddles of helpless weake
and fell to the floor. His lips were fiercely hot,    melting   every bone in Isabel's body, despite the dawning 
of her life and giving her kisses that were fit to    melt      her bones ? Slowly his lips left hers .
dropping into their feet , through their bodies ,     melting   into their bones . It was as silent as
instead, but go easy... step lightly.. my flesh had   melted    into my bone , i was on fire , and yet
with their senses dimmed , and his flesh seemed to    melt      . He slid from Kayty 's arms and onto the

Usages such as these tend to make our flesh crawl rather than melt since we are not normally readers of this genre (the cites are all from romantic fiction). A group of such examples, however, tell the writer all he or she needs to know about the aptness of a particular expression and whether it is likely to be just the right thing, or horribly out of place, in whatever it is you're writing.

We recommend the study of collocations to all: they are a great place to observe many important patterns of English that go largely unnoticed in dictionaries. The data we used in our research project is based on the British National Corpus. It is accessible at a website called "Just the Word":

The Linguistic Computing Laboratory is a delightful haven for big-brained word wizards who toil tirelessly at the rockface between language and computers:


The tricky business of acquainting computers with the wiles of polysemous words comes under the heading of Word Sense Disambiguation (WSD in the trade), which you can read about here:


Finally, if you have never seen "The Gang's All Here" and its spectacular finale, the "Polka-Dot Polka," it's never too late. Faces don't float until rather late in the number, but the ride there is enjoyable. We should warn that there is the potential for serious time-wasting here and that you should only click the following link if you have an office with a door that closes!


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 1st 2007, 8:03 AM
Comment by: Larry B.
This is the first article I have read about this subject, and I found it to be quite fascinating, as well as helpful for my own writing. I will visit the suggested cites - but not the one to watch the "Polka-Dot Polka" - at least not now! Thanks.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Valerie B.
Very interesting. I had never given a thought to the fact that someone must feed the computer accurate information about words in order to keep them serving us efficiently. Kudos to all
the lexicographers and linguists who devote their time to this fascinating subject. "I can't find
the words" to express my appreciation, but I'm sure you'll help me find them.

Perhaps the simple word "thanks" will do the job until we find a better one.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 9:57 AM
Comment by: J. G. K.
I, too, had never thought about word input and overtones to make our PCs sing and dance. I had always heard "garbage in - garbage out".````Never thought about howrefined the garbage had to be.
Congratulations. Keep up the good work. I am interested in reading more.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 11:05 AM
Comment by: David H.
A most interesting and informative article. Thanks for posting it. I hope to follow-up on it to learn more.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Christine B.
NLP is also an acronym for the still-controversial neuro linguistic programming, a area of communication research I explored in the 1980's. The research group was in part based in Palo Alto CA and the people I remember most were Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and authors named Watzlawick, Bander, Grinder and Bateson.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Roger B.
In the realm of pronunciation irregularities, my father used to tell a story about a Russian who was very proud of his mastery of English. A clever fellow wrote out the following and dared him to pronounce the words correctly.

"Though the tough cough and hiccough plough me through."

The Russian flunked the test.

Roger Bachman
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 12:38 PM
Comment by: David D.
I loved this article. The applications are not only to convince our computers to reflect our meaning, but shows what can make our prose sing. We usually do not dare to use the inventiveness of James Joyce or Kurt Vonnegut in a business report, but we can make our words lively so long as the computer is not confused. I know that to "put this old chestnut out to pasture" does not suggest putting a tree nut into a field, but does my computer know that "chestnut" is a popular descriptive term for a horse of a certain color?
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 5:15 PM
Comment by: Bettie S.
I feel a smile overtaking my face.
Wednesday August 1st 2007, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Christopher E.
Thank you for this article. Before I read it I had always thought of idiomatic language as somewhat as a collection of parochialism. Your examples now have be thinking of it as a normative phenomenom that reflects our everyday effort impart the richness of our beings back into our language.

Thursday August 9th 2007, 8:52 PM
Comment by: sharon s. G.
I look forward to working with all the information I will gain with this subscription.

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