Arts and Culture

Mary DeForest's Epic Adventure Led to the Latinometer -- a Classic Bullshit Detector

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Mary DeForest started thinking about etymology -- where words come from -- in college, when she read George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language."

"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details," Orwell wrote. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

Reading Orwell, DeForest realized that unclear language often cloaks agendas. But while her inspiration came from Orwell, her passion remains decoding the puzzles of language and literature. So the Latinometer became not just a means of exploring Jane Austen's secret life, but also a way to expose any writer's level of pretentiousness.

On, a user enters a passage of text and clicks "Submit Query." The program will calculate how many of the words come from one of four languages: French, Latin, German or Greek. The more Germanic, the more grounded; the more Latin, Greek or French, the more fraudulent. And then the Latinometer ranks a writer's pretentiousness from 0 to 100 percent.

DeForest believes that the terse words and guttural sounds born of Germanic languages yield clear, direct speech. Words rooted in Latin, French and Greek muddy communication with needless prefixes and suffixes. Academics, lawyers and politicians often resort to words based in dead languages to sound smart and to cover up violence and ignorance with civilized talk.

Kids killed by bombs are referred to as "collateral damage." Rape becomes "nonconsensual sex." Death becomes "expiration."

When she first tested the Latinometer, she found that "the Unabomber and the Founding Fathers scored high," she says. "George Washington and Lincoln toned it down. Ernest Hemingway got a 17 percent."

After the Latinometer went public, some users complained that she was creating a database of their texts. They worried that she would pilfer their ideas, invade their privacy.

But the only part of any texts the program keeps are words that aren't already in the existing database. Every twenty minutes or so, DeForest checks the site for new, unidentified words to research and enter by hand. As a language detective, her first stop is at the Online Etymology Dictionary, which often has what she needs. If that fails, she looks up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Etymology is an old people's sport," she jokes.

Word origins delight her. The word "glamour" comes from "grammar," which was once considered mysterious and magical. The word "secretary" means "able to keep a secret." One of her favorite words is "fundamentalist." It has a relationship to the Old French word fondement, which translates to "anus."

"When people call themselves fundamentalists," she notes, "they are actually calling themselves assholes."

She has little tolerance for fundamentalists. She raised herself on Greek myths, aspires to be a theosophist -- and thinks of her life as an epic adventure.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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