Monday, October 24, 2016

Diddly Squat?

From the Alaska Dispatch:
“'There are people out there who don’t know diddly squat about our country,' said Peter Goldberg, the former Alaska Republican Party chair who’s now a member of the Republican National Committee. 'And I’m not comfortable with people that are total  ignorant about our system voting. [sic]'"
What first got my attention was the fact that he used the term 'diddly squat.'

But then I got annoyed by what he said. "I'm not comfortable with people that are total[ly?] ignorant about our [of] system voting."

I understand that sentiment.  It's problematic to have people walk into the voting booth and just vote based on what name sounded better, or which name was first, or longest, or shortest.  Nothing to do with what the person would do when elected.

But worse than knowing nothing, is knowing stuff that is wrong.  And being loud and obnoxious about it.  Like people whose only source of news is, say Fox News.

Some would say I should  be fair and balanced and also give NPR as an example.  But as politically bland as they have become, they do try to get their facts right and to counter their middle of the road perspective with a conservative voice as well.  And rather than get our attention by exhortation, they wrap the news into  formulaic story lines that usually have an uplifting ending.

But I still was thinking about 'diddly squat.'  Who says that any more?

Turns out not many people do.  Or ever did.  I used Google's Ngaam Viewer that looks at word frequencies in books.  The number was so low (.0000003586%) that I added some other words to compare with it.     I tried to think of an obscure term so I added 'leviathan'.  You can see that it's a little more frequently found than 'diddly squat.'  Then I added more common words to give more context.  The more common words make the graph meaningless - turning the rare words to flat lines at the bottom - but at least you can get a pop-up window with the frequency of each term.   I kept adding more common words.  In the chart below, the only word that shows more than a flat line is 'you' which was the most common word on the list by far.

But I wanted word more obscure than diddly squat,  so I googled "uncommon English words."  That gave me a long list.  From the list I picked 'blatherskite,' a word I don't recall ever hearing before and certainly not using.

Screen shot from Google Ngaam Viewer

'Blatherskite' also came out higher than 'diddly squat', though not by much.  Here are the two compared.  If you put the pointer on either line, you'll get a pop-up window with the frequencies for that year.

'Diddly squat' doesn't even show up until 1973!  But remember, this is a search of books - probably just the ones that google has the rights too.  If it showed up before that in newspapers or journals or speech, it wouldn't show up in the Ngaam Viewer.  I don't remember when I first encountered 'diddly squat,' but I would have guessed earlier than 1973.

It's a great term.  And it's one of those words that can be used with or without a negative and still mean the same thing.

Google's definition was "anything" but it listed 'nothing' as a synonym.  Think about that.

Merriam-Webster defines it as:
"the least amount : anything at all"
The Urban Dictionary defines it as:

So you could say, "He doesn't know diddly squat" or "He knows diddly squat" and it would mean the same thing.  I like linguistic quirks like that.

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