Editor at Large

More Terms for Language Maniacs: the Infrequency Illusion

Last Thursday I mentioned that I’d found three terms on Language Log that describe common mistakes word watchers can make. The first was the recency illusion: the belief that an interesting neologism, grammar mistake or spelling change you’ve just noticed is something new, when in fact it’s been floating around gaining currency for much longer—years or decades longer.

Today’s term is the infrequency illusion: the belief that the peculiar linguistic construction you’ve just heard, or read, or seen on your favorite guilty pleasure blog, is a rare usage.

We can make an example out of the gender-neutral usage of the @ sign in Spain that I looked at a few weeks ago: if the only Spanish-language blog you visited was this one, you might think that Silvia’s use of niñ@s to denote both male and female children was her own unique way of including men and women in her written work. This is why it’s important to do research on these phenomena before jumping to conclusions about them.

But sometimes even regular old research will not do the trick. One of the best things that you can do is to publicize your hypothesis on a well-read blog, and see what others have to say about it. Just another reason why Language Log rules.

And do follow that link to the “guilty pleasure blog” mentioned above—this could be another case of the infrequency illusion, but certain people (cough, cough Nick Denton cough) seem to be spreading it around.

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