Along with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Language Lounge is asking this month:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

The question, posed in the first line of her poem Spring, is answered somewhat cynically by the poem's end - but not without noting, along the way, some of the things that bring April to mind: beauty, flowers, "little leaves opening stickily."

This got us to thinking, as the rain tapped against the window of the Lounge, about whether we could form a reliable picture of April (the month mind you, not the word) by looking at the linguistic company it keeps. We set off to examine April (the word mind you, not the month) in a way that is only made possible by the technology of today, by using components of our electronic word tool kit: these include the Visual Thesaurus, a concordancer, and a corpus. Here's what we found.

Virtue by Association

The Visual Thesaurus appears at first to tell us little about April. Centering the word only brings up its three letter abbreviation to keep the month company. But if you center the red dot that connects these two, pieces of April suddenly come to life: the main holidays associated with the month appear, along with some other things that April partakes of: spring, and the calendar of course. A full picture of April? Not yet, but we have only begun.

Another April opening is that provided by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land. This might, indeed, be April's most famous appearance in poetry:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The cruelest part may seem unwarranted (Eliot lived in London at the time, where April is not dependably pleasant), but here are some rich associations that probably reinforce what you already think of April: lilacs, desire, roots, spring rain. The VT connects us with numerous varieties of this form of precipitation, which should put you very much in an April frame of mind.

April Observed

On the strength of this we decided to go the distance with April and poetry: check out a whole slew of English poems that mention April, to see what the collective picture adds up to. We went to Representative Poetry Online (see below) and did a concordance search on April - that's a search that finds all the instances of April in the whole database of poems. Now, equipped with 75 lines of poetry containing the word April, we cranked up our own concordancer to see what words co-occur most frequently in English poetry with the name of the fourth month. Once we knocked out all the function words (to, that, which, etc.), there are several words that are regular companions of April in poetry: rain is in there, not surprisingly, but also birds and flowers. Wow! Green makes it into the list as well, as do sweet and wild. After you've had a look at those word maps, it will be surprising if you haven't got big chunks of April floating around in your brain.

A More Prosaic Approach

We decided to take a look at the behavior of April outside of poetry - that is, in prose, in the ordinary language that flows out of the mouths of babes, from the pens of hacks, from the chatterboxes of radio hosts: in short, wherever ordinary language exists. The best place to do this is in a corpus: a large collection of natural language stored digitally, usually along with some tools to access it. Language Lounge has a few of them in the sideboard; we grabbed the first one we found.

Corpus access software enables you to slice and dice words in just about any way you want. One of the most interesting features to emerge from corpus study is a much more definite idea of collocation in English: the habitual nearby co-occurrence of a word with any other particular word. The main collocates of April in prose, as in poetry, are function words. Interestingly, however, they are different function words: first, all the numbers are there, reflecting the fact that when people write "April," it is often followed by, e.g., "21"; this is a good reminder to us, perhaps, that April does in fact have to be lived one day at a time. But after the function words are swept aside, prose collocates of April also have good associational credentials: fool is a big one, for obvious reasons, and also showers and morning.

With all these Aprilesque words swimming in your head, you may be ready to write your own poem about April, and Language Lounge hopes that you will: the Visual Thesaurus is at hand to provide directions for your imagination to expand into. For further inspiration, here is the whole of Edna St. Vincent Millay's lovely poem called Spring:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

If word research rather than poetics is more in your line, you can trawl English poetry for any other subject that suits your fancy. The Representative Poetry Online database is a great place to start. It's at:

http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/index.cfm

An essential tool for prying insights out of huge volumes of text is a concordancer. This handy piece of software enables you to do all sorts of things, including the generation of a list of all the words that occur in a chunk of text, alongside with their frequencies and frequent neighbors. Many concordancers are available to download from the Internet; some allow you a free trial before you commit yourself. A sampling of the ones available is at

http://www.ims.uni-stuttgart.de/euralex/tools/Concordancer.html

Finally, if you'd like a huge bucket of words to cast your line into to see what comes up, you need a corpus (plural: corpora). The Internet makes many corpora available; a good place to explore some of them is at: http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/concord_e.html

There is a concordancer built into that website. For your information: the Brown Corpus is a corpus of American English. It's getting on in years now, but for all but the newest language, it's a good place to look. The BNC (in both spoken and written versions) is the British National Corpus; it's ginormous and fairly up-to-date, but contains mainly British English.


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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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