17 Feb 2013

Stupid Memes

Submitted by Karl Hagen
[UPDATED 2/19/13: added a few more comparisons, and by popular request, appended the list of non-a produce from WordNet.]

On Facebook today, I saw several people referring to a meme "Name a fruit or vegetable that does not contain the letter 'a'." with the comment "not that easy" above it. My immediate thought was that this was silly. Lots of non-a words occurred to me (cherry, lime, plum, beet, celery, turnip, etc., etc.)

But easy or not, the implication behind the challenge is that fruits and vegetables have the letter a so often that counterexamples are hard to think of. That's a testable proposition. We want to know what percentage of English terms for fruits and vegetables contain an a, and how that compares to the overall percentage of nouns with a. In other words, is searching for a non-a item of produce any more difficult than searching for a non-a noun in general.

I wrote a quick Python script to find all the produce (fruits and vegetables) in WordNet* and count how many contained an a compared to the overall frequency of a-containing words. [UPDATE] I also checked a couple of other categories to see how produce compared with medicine names and (non-human) animals. Here are the results:

Type Has-A No-A Total %-A
Fruits/Vegetables 410 196 606 67.7%
Medicine 726 323 1049 69.2%
Animals 5290 2113 7403 71.5%
All Nouns 80700 37098 117798 68.5%
All Lemmas 97360 49946 147306 66.1%

So not quite 68% of produce terms in English contain the letter a, a clear majority, but essentially identical to the proportion of all English nouns with an a. It should be no harder to find a non-a containing produce term than a non-a containing noun of any other type. Nothing to see here. Move along.

* I counted as a fruit/vegetable any noun that had one of the following synsets in its hypernym path: produce.n.01, edible_fruit.n.01, vegetable.n.01, vegetable.n.02.

[UPDATE: Appendix]
Here are all the non-a-containing produce terms identified as such in WordNet. You may thing that some of these terms are "cheating." For example, it contains variant spellings, specific varietal terms for types of fruit where the generic term does have an a, and a few processed foods (e.g., french fries). But I'm not going to skew the list by imposing my own judgment, and the a-containing terms have a similar spread of terms, so I don't think their inclusion really affects the overall percentages, although you may get complaints if you try to use them in response to this question.

beet beet green beetroot bell pepper
berry bibb lettuce bilberry bing cherry
blueberry bok choi bok choy bosc
boston lettuce boxberry boysenberry broccoli
brussels sprouts buttercrunch celery celery root
celtuce checkerberry cherry chicory
chile chili chili pepper chilli
chilly chinese celery chinese gooseberry chinese jujube
chipotle chips chop-suey greens chou
citron citrous fruit citrus citrus fruit
clementine cling clingstone coco plum
cocozelle cole common beet common sorrel
cos cos lettuce coss courgette
cowberry cress crookneck cucumber
cuke curly endive delicious dewberry
dried fruit edible fruit eggfruit elderberry
emperor empire endive fennel
fig finocchio florence fennel fordhooks
freestone french endive french fries french sorrel
fries frijole genip gherkin
globe pepper golden delicious gooseberry green
green goods green groceries green onion green pepper
greens grimes' golden gumbo hog plum
home fries honeydew honeydew melon hot pepper
huckleberry iceberg iceberg lettuce jujube
julienne juneberry kentucky wonder key lime
kiwi kiwi fruit leechee leek
legume lemon lentil lettuce
lichee lichi lime lingonberry
litchee litchi litchi nut lychee
mcintosh melon mombin morello
mulberry murphy mushroom muskmelon
net melon netted melon newtown wonder northern spy
nutmeg melon onion pepper persimmon
pigweed pimento pimiento pippin
plum plumcot pomelo potherb
produce prune pulse pumpkin
purple onion quince red delicious red onion
red pepper ribier scuppernong seckel
serviceberry sloe sorb sorrel
sour cherry sour gourd soursop soy
spiceberry spring onion sprout spud
summer crookneck sunchoke swede swedish turnip
sweet cherry sweet cup sweet melon sweet pepper
sweetsop thompson seedless truffle turnip
turnip greens ugli ugli fruit veg
veggie white turnip whortleberry wild plum
winter cress winter melon wintergreen witloof
yellow delicious yellow mombin yellow turnip zucchini


I saw that also and discovered the same thing.