Ignobel Prize for Literature, 2007

On 4 October 2007 Glenda was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature for an article she had written in 2001 on the problems encountered when alphabetising index entries that start with ‘The’.

The rules differ depending on the type of entry, and they don’t always reflect the way people think about the terms being indexed.

The Ig Nobels are presented at a ceremony at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University. They are a spoof on the true Nobel Prizes, and are awarded for research that makes people laugh, and then think. What they think is up to them. Ten awards are given each year from a pool of about 7000 nominations. Most of the winners this year travelled to Boston at their own expense, coming from 5 continents. Most are offered the opportunity to refuse quietly, but are delighted to win. One said it is a great compliment to have done research that is important enough to be published in a serious journal, but vivid enough to be awarded an Ig Nobel.

The Ig Nobel presentation ceremony

There are two Ig Nobel events. The awards are presented at Harvard University, in the beautiful Sanders Theatre. The theme this year was Chicken, and there were a number of chicken-related events including a mini-opera, and a short presentation in which the only word was chicken, illustrated with various figures and graphs, and supported by a bibliography and so on (but no index!). And any time anyone said the word ‘chicken’, the audience would respond loudly.

My award was presented by Nobel Laureate Roy Glauber (Physics 2005). He had been a ‘Keeper of the Broom’ (sweeper-upper of paper aeroplanes) for 10 years before he was awarded a Nobel Prize and became eligible to present the awards. He insisted, however, that he also wanted to retain his traditional sweeping role!

Winners receive a certificate signed by Marc Abrahams (founder of the Ig Nobels) and 5 real Nobel Laureates plus a hand-crafted wooden statue topped with a rubber chicken attempting to devour a plastic egg.

Glenda Browne and Marc Abrahams, igNobel convenor
Glenda Browne and Marc Abrahams, igNobel convenor


The winners get one minute each to speak about their research. The time limit is kept by an 8-year old girl with ice-water in her blood. If you go over time (as I did), she stands next to you and repeats loudly ‘Please stop, I’m bored. Please stop, I’m bored’. I had planned to finish my speech quickly when she took a breath, but hadn’t counted on the laughter of the crowd, so I had to yell my last sentence.

My speech is here (www.webindexing.com.au/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=456&Itemid=69), and the video of the ceremony is available at www.improbable.com/ig/2007/2007-details.html.

The Ig Nobel Informal speeches are presented at MIT two days later. Here the winners get 5 minutes to speak, and take 3 questions from the audience. My speech is here:http://webindexing.com.au/ig-nobel-5-minute-mit-informal-lecture/.

Ig Nobel winners, Nobel Laureates and chicken and egg opera singers, 2007
Ig Nobel winners, Nobel Laureates and chicken and egg opera singers, 2007

I was asked how often ‘the’ is filed incorrectly in indexes, so I mentioned the first book of Ig Nobel awards which inverted ‘the’ but retained ‘a’ at the beginning of entries (Abrahams, Marc. The Ig Nobel prizes. New York: Dutton, 2002). The second question was from someone who had been examining a ‘concise’ book on the topic and wondered whether there was something shorter he could try. I guessed he was talking about the concise AACR2, and recommended he try The Indexing Companion (which was for sale at the MIT Bookstore stall outside). The third question was how I felt about the band ‘The The’. They had been mentioned in my initial article – I like the way they make ‘The’ take on undeniable importance.

Glenda with Ig Nobel Prize certificate
Glenda with Ig Nobel Prize certificate

Other audience members asked Diego Golombek, who presented the research on ‘the effect of Viagra (sildenafil) on jetlag recovery in hamsters’ which of the team had given up their own prescriptions to do the research. Someone asked Maya Yamamoto, who isolated vanilla from cow dung, whether her HPLC (a delicate machine) had got clogged. Her translator apologised that he was a literary translator and didn’t know what the guy was talking about, but it turned out that she had filtered the stuff first. And Dan Meyer, the sword swallower (www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6ikGz4ZFEY&mode=related&search=), confirmed that the main reason for doing this job is attention seeking, although he does also like the thought that he is maintaining a dying art.

The speakers are kept to their time limit at MIT through the use of two volunteers from the audience. One gives her mobile phone number to the other, and sits on the stage. He phones her every minute. When her phone rings she calls out ‘4 minutes left’, ‘3 minutes left’ and so on. When the 5 minute call comes she takes the phone to the speaker and says ‘There’s a call for you’.

The The research

I won this award for an article on alphabetising index entries that start with ‘The’. (Thankyou to Maureen McGlashan for quickly making my article available on The Indexer website at www.theindexer.org/files/22-3/22-3_119.pdf. I was sworn to secrecy, so few people knew about the award beforehand). The article was published in The Indexer in 2001. It was then discovered by Marc Abrahams, and written up in The Guardian and in a special The issue of the Annals of Improbable Research (vol. 12, iss. 4).

It hit a chord with a number of people who came up to me after the ceremony and described their own filing problems. These included:

  • A German woman whose video collection is mainly sorted at ‘Die’. She doesn’t like the large collection there, but says she wouldn’t find things if she moved them.
  • Johanna van Bronswijk, the Dutch winner of the Biology prize, who says she has to remember what country a book is from when looking for names starting with ‘von’, as they are treated differently in The Netherlands and Belgium (as well as in South Africa).
  • Someone whose friend has two columns in her music database – one with ‘The’ included, and one without. This allows her to download files from iTunes, but keep them compatible with her own system. This person also mentioned problems with free music downloads from the web which are often inconsistent, with artists entered, eg, by some people as ‘The Grateful Dead’ and by others as ‘Grateful Dead’.
  • One of the participants said her mother works for a subscription agency and said ‘This is so important, how can they think it’s funny’. Others had aunts who were archivists, or had been ‘brought up by a pack of librarians’, and said their family would be chuffed by the award.

Commentators’ filing problems

Media reporters had their own experiences to report. Maria Isabel Garcia wrote on Thursday, October 11, 2007 in the Philippine Star (www.philstar.com/index.php?Science%20and%20Technology&p=49&type=2&sec=36, no longer available, but cached by Google, and retrieved on Oct 16, 2007):

“The IgNobel for Literature goes to Glenda Browne who took it upon herself to finally articulate and wrestle with what has been a constant and dreadful annoyance for anyone trying to organize their files in alphabetical order, particularly those who index files – the ‘indexers.’ Not only is this funny sounding word a word, it is also the name of the journal where Ms. Browne’s award-winning work appeared…

Glenda Browne with 2007 Ig Nobel Literature prize chicken and egg statue
Glenda Browne with 2007 Ig Nobel Literature prize chicken and egg statue

Since it has been six years since Ms. Browne undertook such a feat, maybe she could now be ready to come here and look over the student records of some universities and look at the problem of names starting with ‘Maria’ (including its abbreviation – ‘Ma.’) and see the many ways it causes problems for anyone who tries to fit her name in an inch-long line in blank forms and find her record in a university of a country whose records are bursting with names of girls that start with ‘Maria.’ Her research would be much appreciated. If it had been earlier, she would have saved the outburst of someone years ago who was told that the registrar’s office took weeks to find her record because she spelled ‘Maria’ in full, instead of ‘Ma.’ like most. Perhaps it was just a failure of miscommunication between The Abbreviators and The Indexers which I think could have been solved had they consulted their ‘Thinkerers.’” [This comment is also interesting in light of my comments in the October 2007 issue of the ANZSI Newsletter on the filing of names with the first name first].

Daithí Mac Síthigh brought to light another ‘Mac’ filing problem (www.lexferenda.com/08102007/nobel-ig-see-ig-nobel) – in this case, the treatment of a separate ‘Mac’ within a name as a middle name. In his report titled ‘Nobel, Ig (see Ig Nobel)’, he reports:

I particularly enjoyed the paper that won the Literature prize, which will interest the more library-minded readers of this blog. It’s a paper on how to treat the word ‘the’, concluding that the best solution is making sure to have a cross-reference for whichever option you choose to follow or not follow. The paper by our new celebrity Glenda Browne is very readable (so that’s one point for the improbables over the probables!)…Ironically (or not), it was published in The Indexer – or should that be Indexer, The?

(I also prescribe a good reading of the paper for all those airlines and ticket bookers who record my name as Síthigh, Daithí M and then say that my name doesn’t match. Of course it doesn’t. Or the conference organisers who file my name badge in the S pile (despite my filling in the surname field as Mac Síthigh) and then give me a dirty look for not telling them).

Michael Kaplan wrote the following on his MSDN blog (Microsoft Developer’s Network, 5 Oct 2007, http://blogs.msdn.com/michkap/archive/2007/10/05/5295391.aspx). I think it refers to issues involved in making computer ‘indexes’ for searching.

“I’ve actually been asked several times in the past why NLS API functions like CompareString/CompareStringEx don’t ignore “initial THE” or “initial A/AN” in string comparisons. So I immediately felt grateful that colleague Sergey Malkin pointed out Glenda Browne’s honor to me, because there is nothing like something I get to talk about! :-)

…our mythical NORM_IGNORE_ARTICLES would need to support the notion across all languages, not just English, and every last EL/LA/LE and so on would have to be in there, all with the simple rule of being ignored when it is a prefix to a string. And what about languages like Hebrew where these articles are actually prefixes…

Then consider whether it should also be ignored in the sentence as well — after all, that is what search engines tend to do, right? Should The Dawn of the Dead and Dawn Dead sort together? Everybody knows that THE and OF are so unimportant that we don’t even capitalize them in titles unless they start the title…”

As a comment to this blog, Carl noted (6 Oct 2007) “ITunes handles this interestingly. By default, it gives everything a “Sort Name,” “Sort Artist,” “Sort Album,” etc. For artist names, the sort key will move what the locale considers to be articles to the end, so that by default “The Beatles” have a sort artist of “Beatles, The”.”

And, as an interesting example of the ways in which indexing and tagging are context-dependent, here are the tags used on this article: Collation/Casing, Locales/Cultures, Linguistic, Int’l Programming Bloggers

Other bloggers have noted:

  • It had to happen. The worth of our profession has finally been acknowledged by the most prestigious of organizations, the Ig Nobel committee! (In a piece titled ‘woohoo-librarian-wins-ig-nobel.html’).
  • Oh, come on! Tell me this hasn’t screwed over a few of you in the past.
  • Hey, my wife is a librarian by trade: this is a big deal.
  • yes! this drives me mad!
  • And, for someone who is constantly annoyed by inconsistency, I give a hearty hat tip to Glenda Browne of Blaxland, Blue Mountains, Australia, who channeled her annoyance into a published paper and an Ig Nobel!
  • I can also relate to the literature studies and suggest the author to enlarge her study by investigating the troubles that article ‘the’ brings to (the?) Russian-speaking population.
  • We all need to know more about ‘the’.
  • It’s funny enough that there is an international journal of indexing.
  • Blimey. so I could have won an award if I’d devoted more than 7 seconds’ thought to this problem. I’ve robbed m’self.
  • It’s almost worth having a daft name like ‘the the’ to give indexers pause for thought. although what it does for stammerers is quite inexcusable!
  • I haven’t read Browne’s paper yet, but I immediately thought of a most bedeviling example: the band The The, which caused a great deal of consternation when I was working at Amazon.com preparing to launch the music retail site, back in 1998. I think we eventually dealt with it by treating the entire string-both words and the space between them-as a single unit, but I don’t quite recall because it’s been almost 10 years.
  • Once in a while, something jumps the queue-such as a librarian winning the Ig Nobel prize for Literature… Where does The Hague belong? (One answer: Use the proper name of the city, Den Haag-but I jest, of course.) It belongs in the T’s… Of course, if you use most any PC-based system that sorts (for example, music organizers), there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find The Beatles and all those other groups down in the T’s-but some systems are clever. Sometimes… I love the last sentence: ‘Similar arguments apply to ‘A’ and ‘An’ but these are beyond the scope of this article.’ Indeed.

Sour reports

A small minority of reports was sour. The Press & Sun-Bulletin (Greater Binghamton, NY) failed to see the point of any of the research, and noted ‘This would be extremely funny if the winners paid for their own research.’ [which I, for one, did] Taxigirl (Mon Oct 08, 2007) put them in their place, however, with support for a number of the projects including:

The IgNobel for Literature: It may not be a cure for cancer, but when your career is building index after index for people, questions like “Where should you look for The Who or The Royal Tenenbaums in an index? ‘Who, The’ or ‘The Who’? I mean, the ‘The’ is part of the name!” are going to occur to you — Browne’s idea was to save the bit of frustration that readers find when they look for these titles-with-built-in-article by putting both versions into indexes. Not exactly ridiculous, and the sort of thing that anyone who’s ever spent more than thirty seconds trying to figure out how exactly something was listed in an index would find helpful.

She concluded: “The goal for the IgNobel awards is to present research that makes you laugh, then think. You missed the ‘think’ part, P&SB.”

In April 2008, on an episode of “BBC University Challenge – The Professionals”, the host (Jeremy Paxman) asked:

The Australian Glenda Browne won the 2007 IgNobel Prize for
Literature with a study of which word, and the problems that it causes
for indexers. She conceded that a blanket rule to incorporate it into
indexes often leads to long lists of titles starting with the word in

At this point, one of the contestants correctly answered “THE” to loud applause, under which the host can (apparently – I haven’t heard it) be heard muttering “completely fatuous project.

Linguistic reports

Julia Keenan sent me a link to a posting on Language Log (itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004990.html#more) which lists various posts which have discussed ‘the’ over the years. They noted: …we have devoted quite a lot of attention to the word ‘the’, and I would tell you about it if only I could figure out how to search our old posts to find the ones that are relevant. [It helps when the posts use the phrase ‘the definite article’, or duplicate ‘the’, or if you can remember a specific discussion – otherwise it is a very difficult search task.]

Some discussions that are of interest to indexers include:

* whether you should write ‘The The’ or ‘the The The’, or perhaps ‘the The’ for the band’s name. Capitalisation of definite articles in rock group names is quite variable, with The The much preferred, The Who somewhat preferred, but the Grateful Dead much more likely than The Grateful Dead – itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/002359.html. [This variation is one of the things that makes it so difficult to set global rules for indexing practice.]
* the musical culture of unreduced articles. That is, the use of ‘thee’ instead of ‘the’ in names of bands. The reasons for doing this include distinguishing the band from another with a similar name, and making sure that the band files in the T’s. Examples include Thee Headcoats and Thee Hypnotics. There is also a bar in San Francisco called Thee Parkside (www.theeparkside.com) where bands of that genre sometimes play live –itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002357.html.
* Universities that insist on the use of ‘The’ at the beginning of their full names. The reasons for this include the desire to stress that they are the only one of their kind (eg, there is only one Ohio State University, but there are many California State Universities), legal protection of trademark for licensed athletic gear and pride in (perceived) status as the premier public institution of higher education in the area… One correspondent noted that The Evergreen State College (in Olympia, Wash.) almost always has the definite article included, and capitalized. She said: “The abbreviated name is Evergreen (never Evergreen State), and the accepted acronym is TESC (never ESC). As a student I was told that the reason for the ‘the’ was that the name should be analyzed not as ‘The ‘ but rather ”.” That actually makes some sense. Back on the Ohio State front, several correspondents have reported the web abbreviation ‘tOSU’ — note lower-case ‘t’ –itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003537.html anditre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003548.html.
* The use of ‘the’ in place names. Apparently strong proper names such as Holland and Argentina do not require the definite article, while weak forms such The Netherlands and The Argentine do. There are a number of countries that have both strong and weak forms. The weak forms are used a bit more often in Britain [than in the US] and are tending to be replaced by the strong forms –itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004861.html.

Searching and cataloguing problems with the Ig Nobels

I did a quick library Internet search for ‘Ig Nobel’ to see which library communities were lucky enough to have these books in their collections. Then I got sidetracked looking at the way in which they had been catalogued. The first book I encountered was the ‘chickens prefer beautiful humans’ volume. Its cover features a cartoon of a red-head in green hotpants, surrounded by an admiring bunch of handsome chickens. Despite the obvious frivolity, the book was given the subject heading Nobel Prize winners! The other books were more correctly catalogued with headings such as: Science-Awards-Humor and Research-Miscellanea. There are also retrieval problems caused by the use of ‘IgNobel’ as one word instead of ‘Ig Nobel’. This occurs on the web too, although fortunately the main sites are retrieved with both forms.