Monday, October 26, 2009

Word Clouds

Odds are you've seen a word cloud, whether you know it or not. More and more websites - especially blogs*, but not exclusively - use them to generate tags and inform readers of the major content. If you've never played around with one before, head over to and try it out. As you'll see, the program takes all the words in the text you give it, and counts how often each word appears. The more frequent a word is, the larger it is. Other than that, it just kind of jumbles the words together according to an algorithm that is probably a lot more complicated than the results indicate.

*On a scale of Alanis Morissette to William Shakespeare,** how ironic is it that the spell-check for my blog thinks that "blog" is misspelled? I'm thinking that's about a Joyce (for writing a Great Book that is unreadable).

**Ok, I should explain the logic here for those who haven't heard or heard of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Basically, the entire song is a list of things that are, actually, not really ironic at all (the good advice that you didn't take?). Except Ms. Morissette continuously prompts us to consider how ironic they are. This, I have come to believe, is "meta-irony." That is, none of the supposedly ironic things she says are ironic, but the song itself is supremely meta-ironic because it is about irony, and yet contains none.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses irony quite deftly in a number of his plays, and doesn't even need to call that irony "ironic." Of course, that was a more sophisticated (or something) time, when irony was not, in the words of Urban Dictionary: "One of the most misused words in the entire English language." Which, when you think about it, is pretty ironic. Or maybe meta-ironic...

What use is a word cloud? On some level, it's simply an aesthetic production. The most frequent words in a given text aren't always the most meaningful or important, even after you cut out (as Wordle does by default) all of the common words like "the" and "of" and "and." Nevertheless, it certainly can help to identify major themes, and, for a writer, can point out overused diction.

Rather than blathering on, I think we should take a look at a couple word clouds (hint, click on them to make them bigger). Here's the first five paragraphs of Finnegan's Wake:

Wordle: riverrun, the opening of Finnegan's Wake

No, most of those are not actually words.

Here's Morissette's Ironic:

Wordle: Ironic - Morissette

Here's my post about Peter Quince at the Clavier:

Wordle: Peter Quince Blog Post

Here's Peter Quince at the Clavier itself:

Wordle: Peter Quince at the Clavier

Unfortunately, Wordle doesn't differentiate between "like" as a verb, and "like" as a preposition, so it tends to show up, especially in poetry.

Useful? I'll let you decide. It certainly is fun, though, and an example of how technology can help us look at something we take for granted - like writing - a little bit differently.

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