26

OK, this is going to seem to be either a ridiculous question or there is something there.

I have noticed that Asimov is a huge fan of the word "sardonic". Maybe it's just that I notice it because I wouldn't normally use this word. Maybe it's just that sci-fi stories lead to greater likelihood of characters being sardonic.

Am I imagining this or does Asimov really use the words "sardonic" and "sardonically" particularly frequently?

I have seen this in Niven and Brin too. Are they also using this word a lot, and is it under influence (intentional or not) from Asimov?

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    I'm not sure that "I just noticed" is really evidence of a pattern. People are notorious for overly aggressive pattern "matching", and once you get started down that road the confirmation bias takes over. – dmckee Sep 17 '14 at 14:58
  • @dmckee-- yes, admittedly possible, hence my caveats. But if there's something to it, someone might be able to cite evidence. It is not unknowable. – ThePopMachine Sep 17 '14 at 15:02
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    Generally speaking, science fiction authors have large vocabularies and are quite articulate. Asimov particularly so. He had a PhD in chemistry, and his circle of close friends were all either in academia or were authors themselves. If the word appears strange to you it doesn't mean you are dumb, but it probably means you were exposed to such at an early age. – John O Sep 17 '14 at 16:30
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    My first thought is that writers have a 'quiver' of words which they turn to first. Authors quote themselves whether they mean to or not; Piers Anthony (yuk) continually seems to reference very young females finding genuine security in older male partners and the concept of "a deal under duress is meaningless" is revisited in Killobyte, the Mode series, etc. Moreover, influential artists shape the landscape of their medium. How many sax players quote Coltrane, Parker, Cannonball? It's the same with writing. In my non-answer opinion. Which I can't back up. So I won't post as an answer. So. :) – Stick Sep 17 '14 at 18:22
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    It's not just you. Both my wife and I have noticed this as well. – Null Sep 17 '14 at 18:28
44

Oddly enough, you might be right. I ran a search on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and it turns out that the word sardonic does indeed appear more in sci-fi than in "straight" fiction:

enter image description here

As you can see in the image above, sardonic occurs at a frequency of 3.86 per million in sci-fi/fantasy compared to 2.74 per million in general fiction. That said, the difference is really quite tiny. Sardonic occurs one more time per million, I very much doubt that this is in any way statistically significant.

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    Nice! This is 40% difference. I don't know how you say this is not significant. Does your search cover "sardonically" ? – ThePopMachine Sep 17 '14 at 15:27
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    It is significant as a proportion of the population: 2.74 vs 3.86. – AncientSwordRage Sep 17 '14 at 18:08
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    @Pureferret is it? I am no statistician, which test did you use? Is ~3/10^6 really significantly different to ~4/10^6? – terdon Sep 17 '14 at 18:10
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    Whether 3.86 per million is significantly different from 2.74 per million depends on the sample size, and the expected variance of the quantity. Basically, if I randomly sample a million words from all of fiction, I'll find a different number of occurrences of 'sardonic' every time, the spread in number of occurrences characterizes the variance. Then you have a sub-sample (sci-fi), if the number of occurrences in sci-fi is outside the variance -> significant, otherwise, it's not. Short answer: we need more data ;) – Kyle Sep 17 '14 at 21:50
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    What an age we live in that we can actually answer the question "is sardonic used more in sci-fi?" with a precise answer. – Tim S. Sep 18 '14 at 23:15
36

The words sardonic and sardonically were most frequently used just before the period when Asimov began writing. So I'd say he was just using the popular language of the time.

Here's a Google Ngram graph of the word uses.

Google Ngram graph for sardonic and sardonically

  • 1
    The bump in the eighties lines up with Brin pretty well. – ThePopMachine Sep 18 '14 at 14:42

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