Zipf's Principle of Least Effort

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The following thread occurred on the Pynchon List in October 1996:

Andrew Dinn, Fri, 18 Oct 1996:

"Zipf's principle of least effort" (p.32, line 5) is this just the linotype layout principle that you put the most frequent cases near to hand? Or is it a more general principle in coding theory?

Alan Westrope replies:

The latter. Zipf was teaching at Harvard around the time that Slothrop was hanging out with Malcolm X and JFK; his writings were cited by no less an authority than Claude Shannon in his seminal papers on information theory, including "Prediction and Entropy of Printed English." A-and George Miller's Introduction to the M.I.T. Press reprint of Zipf's 1935 book The Psycho-Biology of Language contains this interesting sentence:
"But who would have thought that in the very heart of all the freedom language allows us Zipf would find an invariant as solid and reliable as the law of gravitation?"
Zipf dealt with word frequencies, not letter frequencies, and he found that analyzing texts in many different languages throughout history produced strikingly similar results, which when graphed were always close to a straight line. One interesting graph shows very similar patterns for Homer's Iliad and Joyce's Ulysses.

Page 216 of The Psycho-Biology of Language confirms Gloaming's remarks about pathological speech:

"Although many diseases are not revealed by an immediate effect on the normal stream of speech, it is surprising how many illnesses are... Especially in nervous and mental diseases, particularly when functional, as, for example, in anxiety-states, obsessions, manic-depressive psychoses and schizophrenia, distortions of the stream of speech are major symptoms, if not the major symptoms."
Interestingly, Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort wasn't published until 1949. I suspect Gloaming learned of it from all those clairvoyants who were always hanging around... :-) —Alan Westrope

To which John Mascaro replies:

Plunging back in all akimbo, I note that Alan Westrope mentions an interesting Zipf fact:
"Interestingly, Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort wasn't published until 1949. I suspect Gloaming learned of it from all those clairvoyants who were always hanging around... :-)"
No doubt, though GR's use of things Zipfian raises some interesting questions on the book's chronology. To my knowledge the actual expression — Principle of Least Effort — wasn't used by Zipf until the 1949 book. But more interesting to me when I actually read this book is the very bizarre drift of Zipf's thought. This Principle of Least Effort he uncovered gradually became his total obsession, and the 1949 book absolutely crosses a line [...], blending statistics with paranoia as Zipf — not sounding at all like a statistician- pleads to the reader that his Principle lays bare nothing less than the secret structure of all social relations — not just linguistic, but economic, political. etc. He waxes utopian about the explanatory power of the Principle. But then gets really weird, a strange note creeps in, just like the one that creeps into Gennaro's performance of THE COURIER's TRAGEDY. Zipf starts talking about (I'm going from memory here; this was in my diss) the injustices visited upon him by jealous rivals and the forces of repression generally, forces which DO NOT WANT knowledge of the Principle to be disseminated.
For a lover of TRP, reading the Zipf book is an amazing experience — as the reverse echoes start sliding up and down your brain. I'd bet a dollar our man immersed himself in this book, and found, natch, a way to incorporate an entire lost history (Zipf firmly believed he had revolutionized EVERY area of human inquiry; that all social research would be altered permanently; and that this fact would be self-evident to anyone who understood the Principle) into what to many readers must seem like a toss-off comment or two exploiting an unknown guy's funny, and probably fictitious, name. — john m
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