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Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 1, 2012, page 41)

Translation and code breaking

Before computers, code breaking was the “Everest” of translation. The secrets of the lost languages of the Rosetta stone and the Maya codices were not discovered in one day. A New York Times article published in October 2011, “How Revolutionary Tools Cracked a 1700s Code,” explores the link between translation and code breaking. The author explains that Warren Weaver, a pioneer in automated language translation, suggested to the mathematician Norbert Wiener that translation be treated as a cryptography problem. “That insight led to a generation of statistics-based language programs like Google Translate….”1 Computer scientists and linguists are now collaborating to apply statistics-based translation techniques to code breaking and are solving the most unsolvable mysteries.

Recently, there has been some exciting news about the Copiale Cipher project to translate a 105-page enciphered 1866 German book of a secret society. Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer used a computer to help them crack a previously undecipherable code and presented the material at the 49th annual meeting of the Association of Computational Linguistics on June 24, 2011.2

In more local news, William Osler’s collection at McGill’s Osler Library includes a rare book of herbal remedies written in the 12th century by the great botanist and pharmacologist Abu Ja’far al-Ghafiqi. To date, no one has been able to translate the “herbal,” which is written in ancient Arabic. A multidisciplinary team at McGill University has digitized the book and is now trying to unlock its secrets.3

Circuit breakers

After the flash crash (krach éclair) of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on May 6, 2010, circuit breakers, also called trading curbs, were introduced to halt trading to prevent losses in one security from spreading throughout the stock market.4 For example, Kodak’s shares plunged on Friday, September 30, 2011, and trading on the NYSE was “halted four times by circuit breakers.”5 At the Montréal Exchange, this type of trading halt (suspension de cotation) is called a coupe-circuit.6

Buckminsterfullerene: an eponym for the designer of the US pavilion at Expo 67

In 1996, Richard E. Smalley, Robert F. Curl Jr. and Sir Harold Kroto were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of buckminsterfullerenes (buckminsterfullerènes), named in honour of Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome.7 Fullerenes are a class of carbon molecules whose structure resembles a soccer ball. One type is called buckyballs (I kid you not), consisting of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a sphere, C60.

Nano Nano! (for Mork & Mindy fans)

Nanotechnology is a unique field that explores the unique chemical and physical properties of matter at the nanoscale (1-100 nanometres). An important aspect of nanotechnology is the development of a wide array of new materials known as nanomaterials.8 An explosion of new terms has resulted from nanoscience research on the nanoscale. The neologisms range from whimsical to futuristic high tech. Some examples are nanarchist, nanochips, nanocomputer, nanogypsy, nanohacking, nanomanufacturing, nanomaterials and nanomedicine.9

Top new words for 2011

Not surprisingly, the top new word for 2011, according to the Texas-based Global Language Monitor, is Occupy with a capital o. Occupy (les indignés, in French) is not entirely new, of course, but it has a new resonance. After shortlisting the Occupy movement’s slogan, “the 99%,” the Oxford Dictionaries’ pick for the top “word” of the year 2011 is squeezed middle, referring to people on low or middle incomes.10


  • Back to the note1 John Markoff, October 24, 2011,
  • Back to the note2 “The Copiale Cipher,” September 14, 2011,
  • Back to the note3 Julia Solomon, “Ancient Secrets Revealed,” headway: Research, discovery and innovation at McGill University, Vol. (Language Update, volume) 5, No. 2,
  • Back to the note4 “Trading curb,” Wikipedia, August 11, 2011,
  • Back to the note5 Jonathan Keehner and Jeffrey McCracken, “Kodak Said to Weigh Bankruptcy Filing to Clear Path for Selling Patents,” Bloomberg, October 1, 2011,
  • Back to the note6 “Options sur action,” Bourse de Montréal,
  • Back to the note7 “Fullerene,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online, November 24, 2011,
  • Back to the note8 Government of Canada, “NanoFLASH #01 - Nano-Regulation,” December 2011,
  • Back to the note9 “Nanotechnology Glossary N,” Nanotechnology Now, June 27, 2009,
  • Back to the note10 “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011: ’squeezed middle’,” Oxford Dictionaries, November 23, 2011,