Linguists and others who are interested in discourse analysis are enjoying a golden age. Advances in computation mean that it's nearly effortless these days to capture things that people say and write, and convert them to a form that can be parsed, tagged, and indexed. This means that sophisticated tools for analyzing natural language are within easy reach and what was formerly a time-consuming and labor-intensive aspect of the work — gathering the data — is now done with speed and ease.

After noticing how pundits in the media are fond of attributing various phenomena to particular effects, I thought of looking into much larger piles of data to see what patterns emerge. It's certainly natural for people to talk about effects: we want to know why things happen (causes) and what the results are (effects). Characterizing effects is a natural and frequent component of everyday language. We typically categorize effects as adverse, immediate, negative, devastating, significant, positive, beneficial, harmful. But when we introduce an effect with the definite article (the), we're often signalling to our listeners that we've identified a category of explanation that goes beyond the case at hand to a more general way of understanding what has happened, or will happen.

I looked at some patterns in large corpora, drawn from journalism and from more broadly-based collections, that met this criterion: the __________ effect(s), where the blank was filled by a single word or hyphenated compound. There are some interesting differences between ordinary and academic English — surely not surprising — and some differences between British and American English.

Wikipedia has more than 1,900 articles with effect in the title! This suggests that we have come up with a lot of ways to pigeonhole the results of actions. A small fraction of these effects, however, turn out to be the ones that people talk about most. Here are two lists of the top six, in descending order of salience: one for simplex nouns, one for hyphenated words:

                            the greenhouse effect            the long-term effect 

                            the side effect                        the knock-on effect 

                            the placebo effect                  the trickle-down effect 

                            the multiplier effect                the yo-yo effect 

                            the domino effect                   the Dunning-Kruger effect 

                            the ripple effect                      the short-term effect

Now, a few observations:

  1. People talk about long-term effects nearly ten times more often than they do short-term ones. Why is that? Perhaps it's because we think they need calling attention to, in a way that the short-term ones do not, because everyone notices them.
  2. I thought it was curious that knock-on effect figured so high on the second list, and this is surely to some degree an artefact of one corpus having a sizable portion of British newspapers. American dictionaries that define knock-on effect usually mark it as mainly British; one dictionary glosses it as "chain reaction," which misses the mark, to my mind. Knock-on effect is surprisingly infrequent in American writing, and you wonder how Americans do without it, given that it occurs so frequently in British English. Is a domino effect the same thing as a knock-on effect? My sense is that domino effect suggests failure (i.e., "all fall down!") in a way that is not present in knock-on effect.
  3. Two-thirds of the terms in the top 12 noted above are popular coinages. Or put another way, only four of the "effects" (greenhouse, placebo, multiplier, Dunning-Kruger) are attributable to phenomena arising from science or scholarship. This suggests that when we talk about effects, we're usually talking about things that are intuitively or observationally knowable by most speakers.
  4. Most terms in the group of eight popular coinages depend on image schemas, a kind of metaphor that enables us to easily connect an abstract phenomenon to a visual representation of it. To illustrate: we come to an understanding of trickle down by visualizing the way gravity naturally pulls a liquid downward and around things that may be in its path; we get domino effect and ripple effect by having observed dominos falling and ripples propagating outwards from a disturbance. This is consistent with a widely respected view that metaphors are "central to the task of accounting for our perspectives on the world: how we think about things, make sense of reality, and set the problems we later try to solve." That's a quote from philosopher Donald Schön, who was in turn inspired by the work of German philosopher Ernst Cassirer.

How is it that the four terms of art from science have made their way into mainstream discourse? For two of them, greenhouse effect and placebo effect, I expect it is because they are so important for our understanding of the world today. The greenhouse effect is supported by innumerable observations and is constantly brought to our attention by climate scientists. The placebo effect features ever more prominently in medical literature as it becomes clearer that our minds have a great deal to do with how and whether we respond to various therapies.

What do you know about the multiplier effect? If you're an economist, probably a lot. Most of us aren't economists, and many speakers who use multiplier effect seem to do so in the hope that you're not an economist. Contemporary usage in the news suggests that multiplier effect has some buzzword status, especially in the pronouncements of politicians. If you generally subscribe to the idea of "more is better," you will like the sound of multiplier effect without having a clear understanding of what it means. There's an explainer here, and it's probably not a bad idea to bone up if you're not familiar with the term. After all, you don't want to fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Of all the terms noted above, this last one is surely the most surprising, both for its specificity and its relatively recent appearance in the lexicon of English. The Dunning-Kruger Effect arises from research first published in 1999 and has been confirmed many times since. Put somewhat formally, "People are typically overly optimistic when evaluating the quality of their performance on social and intellectual tasks. In particular, poor performers grossly overestimate their performances." Or put more crudely: the dumber you are, the smarter you think you are.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect provides experimental proof of a widely held intuition, and this is probably what has brought it into public discourse so successfully. Or perhaps it has become popular because there is a pleasing effect in being able to point out that people are often not as smart as they think they are!

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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.