A rainy Saturday afternoon. Driving home from errands, I was drifting-in-and-out listening to the program, Radiolab, on the car radio when I heard the words, “Bible concordance.”
“What in the world is that?” I wondered. Not a term I’d heard before.
Turns out, “concordance” means, an alphabetical index of the words used by an author or in a book, noting the context and the frequency with which they are used. This was done, for example, several centuries ago by monks who could spend a lifetime parsing Bible text. One learns, for example, that, in the King James Version of the Bible, there are 10,867 different words used in the Old Testament and 6,063 in the New Testament. Pretty interesting stuff! Wonder why?
The discussion then moved to conversation with Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at University of Toronto. Lancashire has spent much of his career making concordances of different texts in an effort to understand their authors, Agatha Christie among them. He commented that he’d read her second-to-last novel, Elephants Can Remember, and thought it was terrible. There were gaps in the story, time sequences didn’t match up, and so on.
Curious about that, Lancashire and a colleague digitized and analyzed the first 50,000 words of 16 of Christie’s novels, looking at vocabulary, repeated phrases, and use of indefinite words like “thing” or “something” instead of more specific words. They found that, up to her 72nd novel, she had been very consistent. But something changed when she wrote Elephants… She used 20 percent fewer words than she’d used in her more recent books and 31 percent fewer than she’d used in Destination Unknown, written 18 years earlier. An astounding loss of vocabulary. These changes, they said, are not consistent with normal aging but with Alzheimer’s disease.
Based on the analysis, their view evolved from “Christie has lost her edge a bit” to “Christie was showing signs of Alzheimer’s”.
Had Lancashire told me, “Don’t waste your time with Elephants Can Remember; Christie has lost her edge,” I would have taken him at his word and not read the book.
And, “How often,” I wondered, “do we take our clients at their words when they say that ‘X isn’t working well’, or take the order when clients say, ‘we want to buy this or that solution?” without really digging into it a bit, as Lancashire did with Ms. Christie’s novels, looking at the data, counting things, working out the facts under the surface to see the real picture before drawing conclusions.
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