Letter: Widdecombe and powers of night

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Sir: As a linguist in a research unit monitoring change in language, I was fascinated to note the occurrence pattern of the word "prestidigitation" in The Independent of 20 May.

Our vast corpus of newspaper text estimates the rate of occurrence for "prestidigitation" to be once per 17.5 million words. Thus, I would expect your newspaper to carry the word less than twice per year. Indeed, our statistics show no "prestidigitation" whatsoever in The Independent newspaper during the 18-month period ending March 1990.

However, yesterday's Independent contained five "prestidigitation"s in a single edition, as many as have appeared in your newspaper in total since October 1993. By my calculations, this defies odds of approximately 50,000 million to one. As, perhaps, Michael Howard must now do to become the next Tory leader.


Research and Development Unit for English Studies

University of Liverpool