“Data, data, data! I can’t make bricks without clay!” the iconic literary sleuth Sherlock Holmes once declared. Over a hundred years after his debut, Adam Frost and Jim Kynvin went back through Conan-Doyle’s stories to in search of data to explain Sherlock’s enduring appeal. Above are some of the fun tidbits they uncovered.
For my book Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve, I created a computer program to sort through thousands of books by the most revered and popular authors to find out their “cinnamon words” – relatively rare words that a particular writer uses often. Obviously every author used function words such as “the” and “from” at a high rate, and basic adjectives like “big” or “fast”, but cinnamon words are the words that each author uses disproportionately compared with other writers.
Nabokov used the word “mauve” 44 times as often as one would expect, which makes perfect sense in hindsight. He had synesthesia or, as he called it, “coloured hearing”. When he thought of a specific letter and sound he would see colours at the same time. Unsurprisingly, he uses colours at four times the rate found in standard English writing.
Sometimes, if you look at an author’s cinnamon words, you can already hear their voice. Consider these three: civility, fancying, imprudence. If you guessed Austen, you are correct. These are the three words that, compared with the rest of written English, are mathematically the most used by Austen.
Given Nabokov’s emphasis on colour, it’s safe to assume he was aware of the words he favoured in his writing. However, it’s possible many authors are unaware of the words they are using at an abnormal rate. Sometimes the words are inescapably linked to the topics they write about, as in Christie’s case (inquest, alibi and frightful). At others, you get a sense of the author’s tone through their most uniquely used words. While Charles Dickens preferred hearted, pinch, rejoined, JRR Tolkien favoured elves, goblins and wizards, and Wharton has the polite nearness, daresay, compunction, John Updike’s three are rimmed, prick and fucked. It only takes three words (and just one four-letter word) to zero in on each writer’s style and set it apart.
Using the 2013 Dictionary of Cliches by Christine Ammer, I scanned through the same collection of books to find cliches that writers use most often. There was a clear frontrunner for the title of “most cliched writer”: James Patterson. The bestselling US author averages 160 cliches per 100,000 words, about twice as many as JK Rowling and Gillian Flynn.
Patterson writes the phrase “believe it or not” in more than half his books, but he’s not the only author to use at least some cliches. Austen loved to write “with all my heart”, Dan Brown uses “full circle”, Stephenie Meyer books are filled with “sighs of relief”, and Rowling has her “dead of night”. Even literary authors are fond of a cliche, with Zadie Smith falling back on “evil eye”, Donna Tartt on “too good to be true” and Salman Rushdie using “the last straw” in more than half his novels. Not all cliches are bad, but it’s clear some authors rely on them more than others. EL James is in the upper tier of cliche users, with one of her favourites being “words fail me”. [full article]
Mischief managed: illustrations from the new edition of Harry Potter | See full gallery
From the multi-coloured sorting hat to the red glow of Ron’s hair, we revel in Jim Kay’s glorious pictures for the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter. Have a look, Muggles, and see more at The Guardian.