“It’s all sex and celebrity now”: Page three corpus linguistics

On Monday (16th October) on page three of the Daily Mail, the readers could come across a short article about changes in the English lexicon with a title: “Forget supper and soup… it’s all sex and celebrity now”. (A longer version of the article is available online.) The article quoted some data from the New General Service List (new-GSL) and compared these with Bauman and Culligan’s version of West’s GSL. Bauman and Culligan offer a list of words from West’s GSL (1953) combined with word frequency rankings based on the Brown Corpus (1961).

It comes as no surprise that the word ranks in Bauman and Culligan’s version of the GSL differ from the ranks in the new-GSL. This might be given not only by the time factor, but also by the composition of the source corpora. The new-GSL is a wordlist based on four different language corpora (three British English corpora and one corpus representing the language of the internet) of the total size of over 12 billion words; Bauman and Culligan’s counts, on the other hand, rely on a single one-million-word corpus of American English compiled in the 1960s. The comparisons in the Daily Mail therefore need to be interpreted with caution. In particular, the following points should be considered:

  • The language changes and there is no doubt that over time, some words become more popular  and other words fall out of fashion. The new GSL lists 378 lexical innovations including words such as Internet, website, online, email, network, client, mobile, file and web.
  • On the other hand, the research shows that there is a large stable lexical core (2,116 items in the new-GSL) including frequent nouns, verbs and adjectives such as time, year, people, way, say, make, take, go, good, new, great and same.
  • In order to interpret the social significance of lexical changes, we need to look at the contexts in which different words appear. A good example of this is the word “sex” quoted in the headline of the Daily Mail article.

Let’s talk about “sex”, shall we?

The word sex is polysemous and can mean either physical activity or biological dimorphism (male or female). I suppose the phrase “it’s all sex now” in the headline of the Daily Mail article alludes to the former meaning of the word sex, because the fact that we talk about males and females (the latter meaning of the word) does not sell newspapers. Let’s have a look at some corpus evidence.

Brown (1961)American writing EnTenTen12 (2012)Internet language
form “sex” per million words 82.7 86.6
sex as activity 75% 90%*
sex as dimorphism 25% 10%*

*based on a random sample of 250 lines

A quick comparison of the evidence in the Brown Corpus (which the Daily Mail uses as the point of departure) and the EnTenTen12 internet corpus (one of the sources of the new-GSL) shows that the frequencies per million do not differ very much. There is a difference, however, in the proportions of the two meanings (sex as activity and sex as dimorphism) which can be explained by the difference in the genres sampled in the two corpora. In contrast to the Brown corpus, EnTenTen12 includes also pornography (as you would expect from an internet-based corpus); This is also reflected in some of the prominent collocates of the word “sex” such as oral, anal, hardcore, gay, lesbian and toy in EnTenTen12. However, the fact that “it’s all sex now” (as the Daily Mail puts it) has even a more simple and prosaic explanation:  When compiling the original wordlist, Michael West very likely decided to exclude the term “sex” as something that does not need to be mentioned in the classroom context.