Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fuck, Mom, and Baseball: Wherein the Comma is Important

Brittany posted a comment to my entry concerning the recent legal article on fuck jurisprudence that cited a section of the article with an intriguing fact:

“One recent Internet search revealed that fuck "is a more commonly used word than mom, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet."”

The internal quotation bears a footnote directing the reader to “See Eric Vanatta, The F-Motion, 21 CONST. COMMENT. 285, 288-289 (2004) (noting fuck had 24.9 million hits compared to baseball, its closest competitor, with only 13.6 million hits)”

This is an interesting tidbit and claim, and I thought it might be fun to look into it. My guess is that if we look at the originating document we could probably find specifics about when this search took place, using what search engine, and the other details that were used to come up with this fact. Then, for kicks we could replicate it and see what’s changed, if anything. So here we go.

A small amount of research reveals that this apparently comes from a relatively famous (won 2003 Legal Document of the Year at Smoking Gun) motion to dismiss charges against a teenager who called his principal a “fucker” and a “fucking fag.” The basic gist of the motion is that “fuck” ain’t no big thang, and Eric Vanatta, the student’s public defender, goes about proving this in as many ways as possible. One of the ways he does this is by citing the number of hits he gets when he did an Internet search. The relevant part of the document reads like this:

“8. A search of internet web sites suggests Fuck is a more commonly used word than mom, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Google Search Engine at Google.com on June 25th, 2003.

9. Mr. [blacked out] is alleged to have spoken two different variations of the root word Fuck. The following table depicts the number of internet search engine hits for [blacked out] alleged “Fucker” and “Fucking” statements as compared to fuck itself and other commonly heard words or phrases. All results are approximate.

Word (Approximate number of hits)
Fuck (24,900,000)
Fucking (24,700,000)
Fucker (735,000)
Mom (9,040,000)
Baseball (13,600,000)
Hot Dogs (607,000)
Apple Pie (308,000)
Chevrolet (4,090,000)
Freedom of Speech (542,000)
First Amendment (933,000)
Unconstitutional (691,000)
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones (7,360)”

You got to love how he sneaks these last four examples in there. The last entry in particular, the first part of a saying that ends “… but words may never hurt me,” is simply one of the most clever jabs I have ever seen in a legal document. But that’s, not my point, I want to focus on the Google hits.

I think that it is safe to assume that the hits results for the table in #9 were arrived at by doing a Google search on June 25th, 2003 as noted in #8. Also, although, nothing is specified I am going to assume that the searches were conducted by searching Google for the listed item as a phrase (in quotation marks). So now that we have a method, let’s run the phrases and see what happens when we search using Google, three years later.

Word (Approximate number of hits)
Fuck (139,000,000)
Fucking (109,000,000)
Fucker (18,400,000)
Mom (260,000,000)
Baseball (419,000,000)
Hot Dogs (14,200,000)
Apple Pie (8,270,000)
Chevrolet (81,400,000)
Freedom of Speech (24,100,000)
First Amendment (35,900,000)
Unconstitutional (23,000,000)
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones (178,000)

Ok, so we have two big changes from the data collected in 2003. The first big change is that the original argument and quotation doesn’t stand. “Baseball” and “Mom” occur with much greater frequency than “Fuck.” “Baseball,” the most popular, has nearly 300 million more hits than “Fuck.”

Which brings us to the second big change, and perhaps the more interesting: there are a lot more hits for everything. Every single phrase got several times over the number of hits that they received in 2003. “Baseball,” on the high end, gets around thirty times as many hits as it did in 2003, while “fuck,” on the low end, gets around five times as many hits.

What caused this? Well, I know that the Internet is growing, but I didn’t really expect that it was growing so rapidly. Has Google gotten better at rounding up every site? Probably, but we still have a hard time accounting for the vast discrepancy in growth between hits for “fuck” and “baseball.” Has there been a massive boom in interest for baseball in the past three years (at least on the internet) while the interest in fuck has remained constant? I have no idea.

One idea for solving this, involves calculating a sort of base growth of Google’s reach by examining records for hits to functional words like “the,” “of,” and “an.” By comparing past and present hits for a number of these words we could come up with a base rate of increase for Google (since the functional nature of these words ensures that they only track an increase in general relative scope of Google), then zero that out from the increase we detected in other phrases to note abnormal or extra growth of a phrases occurrence within the tendrils of Google.

So if someone wants to do that, get on it. In the meantime, be content to know that “mom” and “baseball” have risen above the menace of “fuck” and its so-called progressive kin.

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