Friday 26 September 2014

On word-cloud calligrams

My correspondent this time is Nicola Burton of Oxford University Press, who's been looking after the publicity for my recently published Words in Time and Place, and who has come up with a novel way of presenting the word-clusters in the book. She's taken the word-cloud motif on the cover - all the words for nose formed into the shape of a nose (with more than a passing resemblance to my own hooter) - and extended it to the other thematic categories covered by the book. You can see them here, but this is an example, using the words covered in the category 'terms of endearment'.

I've been wondering what to call them. They clearly fall into a tradition of visual poetry, sometimes called 'altar poems' (after the poem by George Herbert), and they are the hallmark of concrete poetry. But the practice of making words or sentences visually resemble entities in the real world goes well beyond poetry. Lewis Carroll's famous mouse-tail is an example. The term that is most obviously applicable is calligram - from calligraphy. I have examples in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language of some of Apollinaire's. But word-cloud calligrams are so distinctive that I think they deserve a term of their own. Any suggestions?

Since the OUP blog post went up (yesterday), the calligrams have entered social media, and have been significantly retweeted. I sense a new art-form here. My book was commissioned to provide a general introduction to the enormous Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, and any semantic category of that work, large or small, could receive this treatment - and there are tens of thousands available. They can all be accessed through the OED online site, where there's a button allowing any word to be related to its location in the HTOED lists. Concrete words like nose or lavatory are likely to be relatively straightforward to handle (though they still need artistic ingenuity to be appealing). It'll be the abstract words that present the real challenge. But seeing as Nicola managed effectively to deal with death and endearment, I doubt whethere any word will be beyond the reach of the new generation of word-cloud calligrammers.


  1. νεφέλη {nephele} is Greek for 'cloud', so it could be a 'nephelogram'.

  2. No idea what to call them, but they look great! Congratulations on the new book, by the way. You are tireless!

  3. Thanks, Mike. Don't know about tireless, though. When you're up to the middle of letter P (in my OP Dictionary), with the mountain of S looming up ahead of you, you feel VERY tired!

  4. The first time I saw this was via I've always thought of them as "wordles", but they trademarked that word, so maybe not.

  5. I suspect there have been few private purchases of the book form of the HTOED. Even in a library, the online version must surely be easier to use.

    So, ironically, it takes a printed book to allow us (most of us) to use an online source — indeed to show us why we might want to use it.

    Online publishing of information is not, after all the famous all-conquering force that is making books obsolete.

  6. Interesting point. But I find myself using both, depending on the nature of my enquiry. If I have a very specific query, then the online search is great. But if I want to cast my eye over a group of topics, such as all the word-classes for a particular topic. or a group of related topics, or even the entire superordinate category, then the hard-copy pages can't be beaten. They allow you to see lexical relationships and overlaps between categories in a way that can't easily be done online, without opening innumerable windows.

  7. Well, I can think of several phrases -- in addition to your "wordcloud calligram" it could be a "calligrammatic wordcloud" or a "pictorial wordcloud" -- but before we give it its own word, I would like to ask how to delimit it.

    Some calligrams that aren't exactly wordclouds are still very much akin to wordclouds. One could take the view that they are wordclouds of a sort, but not prototypical ones.

    Last year I created a calligram in which the words expressed the values of a certain organisation and were arranged in the shape of a tree. But unlike a wordcloud, this was partially structured: words in the soil represented general values (e.g. "equality"), words in the trunk represented things the organisation tries to do for its employees (e.g. "support"), and words in the minor branches and leaves represented qualities the organisation tries to cultivate as a result (e.g. "fulfilment").

    Would you count this as a borderline, non-prototypical example of the category you would like to christen (perhaps a "composite calligrammatic wordcloud"), or is it an entirely different type of calligram?

  8. Interesting point, Adrian. What you did was add semantic structure to the calligram. Traditional calligrams are organized in a purely graphetic way, i.e. with the form of the letters conditioning the character of the result. So there's no reason why other dimensions of linguistic structure shouldn't also be used. I can imagine a graphological structure, where related spellings organize the material, or a grammatical structure, where the material follows inflections or word order. And so on. They would all be linguistically structured calligrams. I don't know if anyone has created such things.

  9. They’re much more calligram than word-cloud, aren’t they? For me a “word-cloud” should represent word frequency in a source text by the size and/or position of the word in the “cloud.” Perhaps it could represent some other information about the word in the corpus (e.g. its dates of use, in this case?), but there should be some metatextual information represented. Yet to see a useful one. Yours aren’t "useful" either (not any more-so than a plain list of historical synonyms), but they’re nice to look at, precisely because they aren’t shaped like clouds.

  10. Good point.

    Re usefulness. I've found word-clouds of character names in Shakespeare illuminating. For example, which name comes out largest in Othello?

    No, it;s not Iago. Or Othello. Or Desdemona.


  11. Kaleidogram? - as eidos ='shape'