On Rogeting

Amongst the (currently 40 or so) blogs that I keep an eye on is the Guardian news blog. Generally I just skim the headlines and only occasionally stop to read the full article if it particularly leaps out at me.

One such article turned up today, with the intriguing title Rogeting: why ‘sinister buttocks’ are creeping into students’ essays.

If you are familiar with Roget’s Thesaurus you may be able to guess, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that the term refers to using a thesaurus to more-or-less randomly replace words with supposed (and often inexact) synonyms.

The word was apparently coined fairly recently by a business studies lecturer called Chris Sadler (the article didn’t mention where he is based) and is specifically used to refer to the situation when students do this as a way of trying to disguise plagiarism by altering the words of the online text that they’ve nicked but (they hope, usually vainly) retaining the meaning.

Unfortunately for those who resort to such nefarious tricks, it isn’t as simple as that since, as mentioned, synonymns are often not exact.  Any given word will have a semantic range, i.e. a bunch of things that it can mean, and words will be considered synonymous if there is an overlap, or even just a fairly close approach, in their semantic ranges.  So, indiscriminate substitution of one word for another (either by flicking through a thesaurus yourself or by using a computer program/app to do it for you) can quickly lead to semantic drift and often humorously inappropriate results.  The situation is compounded as soon as you start to get several words together or if you make substitutions at the level of subwords in a compound word (one which springs to mind without having to resort to actually looking in a thesaurus is that you could turn “manhole” into “person orifice”!). [NB I’ve just spotted an unintentional pun there with the use of the word “compounded”, but I don’t think I’ll rewrite the sentence.]

As an example of gratuitous rogeting, let’s take the sentence “The cat sat on the mat”.

It seems reasonable to leave the articles (“the”) alone, but we can pick nice sounding synonymns for the nouns (“cat”, “mat”) and verb (“sat”) and probably also the preposition (“on”).  In order to emulate a careless student (of the kind who would plagiarise somebody else’s article in the first place), I’ll go for the first synonym offered by my thesaurus for each of these words, without regard for how close I’m sticking to the meaning of the original word.  I will, however, try to make sure I at least get the right part of speech (e.g. not getting a verb for “mat”).

The nouns are nice and easy: “cat” -> “feline” (probably just as well that came before “pussy” on the list!) and “mat” -> “floor-cover”.

The verb is a bit more work, since we have to convert “sat” to the dictionary form (“sit”) and then convert the result back to past tense.  The first result given for “sit” is “place oneself”, so that will give us “placed itself” as the verb (+ pronoun, in this case) of the sentence.

It appears that my thesaurus doesn’t cover prepositions.  However, it does give several translations for “on” as other parts of speech.  Assuming the role of a slightly confused student, I’ll pick the first adverb that comes to hand (since the adverb is generally a good, handy catch-all category for any grammatical stuff you’re not sure about).  In this case, that is “concerning”.

The net result of our rogeting is:

The feline placed itself concerning the floor-cover.

And, since the object of that exercise (apart from having a bit of fun) was to show why rogeting is a bad idea, it only remains to say “QED” (or draw a little box, which for a mathematician means the same thing).

While the article (and evidently the originator of the word) concentrates on rogeting as a way of trying to evade detection of plagiarism this isn’t the only possible use of the practice, so I don’t see why the term can’t be applied to any indiscriminate use of a thesaurus to alter a text.

The most obvious other situation in which rogeting may be performed is by somebody trying to make themself sound cleverer by using bigger words. There was a lad in my GCSE English class who used to do just that on his own essays. The really sad thing is that the first draft of each essay, before he re-wrote it, was generally excellent (at least the bits I read) – well-argued and written in plain, no-nonsense English (and, I’m fairly sure, all his own work – this was certainly before the days of easy access to online sources and we used to write all our essays by hand). By the time he’d finished with the thesaurus (essentially following the procedure outlined above, except that he’d generally pick the fanciest sounding synonym rather than the first-listed) it was generally little more than pretentious sounding gibberish. He was basically shooting himself in the foot (or, to use a rogeted version of that phrase, photographing himself in the extremity).

If you set out, as I did earlier, deliberately to produce wacky results, rogeting can actually be quite fun so I suppose it could also be used a game for a rainy afternoon. I don’t envisage it particularly catching on though.

Of course, although it can be abused (and rogeting is, pretty much by definition, thesaurus abuse), a thesaurus can, if wisely used, be a very handy tool. As with a bilingual dictionary when translating between different languages, it can be excellent for finding an elusive word, but it’s necessary to cross-check and make sure that the word you’ve found makes sense in context.

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Going to work on my bike

Today I had a day off work.  This was partly to use up one of the handful of days of annual leave that I have left, which are supposed to be used by the end of March, and partly because I needed to do a bit of bike maintenance (specifically, adjusting the gears after having done some work on the rear hub the other day).

As I was getting up this morning and trying to figure out how to fill my day, I found myself thinking “I’m going to work on my bike” and then realised that I could say the same thing, albeit with different intonation and a completely different meaning, most mornings.  It struck me that, while the spoken language makes fairly clear the difference between the two meanings (which could be paraphrased as “today I’ll be mostly doing bike maintenance” and “I am travelling to my workplace by means of my bicycle”), there’s no obvious way (e.g. by punctuation) to indicate in written English which meaning should be attached to this particular combination of words.  Obviously, it can always be rephrased to make the meaning clearer, or in the context of a longer passage of prose it would probably be fairly obvious what was meant, but as it stands it does seem to be an inherently ambiguous sentence in written form.

Thinking about this put me in mind of several other examples  of ambiguity I have recently encountered in written English.

The other day, while reading up on the different usages of the em-dash (—), en-dash (–) and hyphen (-), I came across a delightful example of a phrase whose unambiguous interpretation in written English relies upon correct punctuation (unlike the bike-related sentence above, it’s quite easy to disambiguate this with punctuation).  The phrase is “three hundred year old trees”.  This could be interpreted in 3 ways, which can be distinguished by insertion of hyphens at appropriate points.  They are:

  • three-hundred-year-old trees; i.e. an unspecified number of trees that are 300 years old
  • three hundred-year-old trees; i.e. 3 trees, each 100 years old
  • three hundred year-old trees; i.e. 300 trees, each 1 year old

In spoken English, of course, you would differentiate these three cases by where you placed the stresses and pauses in the utterance.  The context would probably also help to determine the meaning in both the spoken and written phrases if they were used as part of a longer speech.

A few days earlier, I found myself writing another phrase which had a potentially ambiguous interpretation.  I wrote about an event finishing with “a short talk by the town clock”.  Although it was clear to me that the “by” in this sentence indicated a physical location rather than the agent of the talk, and it would have been clear enough from the context what I meant, I decided it would be safer to rephrase it as “a short talk near the town clock”.

I’m sure pretty much any other language (with the  possible exception of Lojban) is also susceptible to ambiguities.  Of course, that’s all part of the fun of language!