Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wednesday Search Challenge (May 4, 2011): How common are adjectives describing animal-like characteristics?

In yesterday's post I talked about writing puzzles.  But the Wednesday search challenges here are somewhat different--they're (mostly) real search problems that people have had  Usually I'll be talking with someone and they'll say "gee... I could never find out about foo... " and away we go into another challenge.  

As you know, I love words.  Recently a friend and I got into a discussion about how common various kinds of adjectives are.  The easy ones are easy to estimate:  red is common, angry is common.  But what about others?  How common is something like florid?  

When word people talk, they often end up talking about extreme cases--and this conversation went that same way.  "What about animal-adjectives like piscine, lupine, vulpine, or bovine?"  

You might think this is just so much how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pinhead kind of discussion... but no... gauging relative term frequency (the fancy way to say how common a word is) is a very useful bit of knowledge when constructing search queries.  If a term, say vulpine is very common, then you'd wonder if it means something other than what you might think.  You might wonder if there's a common usage that's unknown to you.  

So this all leads to today's search challenge:  What is the relative frequency of the animal-adjectives piscine, lupine, vulpine and bovine

And... because we're word people here, how has the relative frequency changed over the past 100 years?  For instance, was the word "vulpine" much more common in the past?  (It's relatively rare now.)  

To spare you the lookups: 

piscine... like a fish
lupine... like a wolf 
vulpine... like a fox 
bovine... like a cow 

Any ideas? 

Search on! 


  1. When I searched for [frequency lists] in Google I found a link to Wiktionary (the lexical companion to Wikipedia):

    There I searched the Project Gutenberg frequency lists. These lists are the most frequent words, when performing a simple, straight (obvious) frequency count of all the books found on Project Gutenberg (typically book editions published before 1923). Frequencies listed here are per billion.
    bovine = 484.174
    vulpine = 109.176
    lupine = 90.9804
    piscine = 34.8099
    So the relative frequency is:
    bovine: 13.9
    vulpine: 3.1
    lupine: 2.6
    piscine: 1

    Another hit linked me to the British National Corpus
    The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of British English from the later part of the 20th century, both spoken and written.

    A search on this page: gave me the following results (number of hits in the corpus):
    bovine 216
    piscine 6
    vulpine 5
    lupine 1

  2. Went to

    piscine Reached a high usage around 1870. Dropped and leveled during the 20th century

    lupine Reached a high usage around 1930. Recently growing in usage.

    vulpine Reached a high usage around 1900. Has since dropped and leveled off.

    bovine Low frequency usage until the 20th century when usage began to grow reaching a peak in the 1980's. Has since dropped off.