I've often joked with people that I kind of wish the NSA would track what I research at work all day. I mean... I'm an editor, and I frequently have to work on books whose subject matter might otherwise be outside my wheelhouse.
There have been times when I've spent weeks with my browser open to topics like Nazi history, or infectious diseases, or the proper names of deadly herbs. Or, this week, I have a Bible search site, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and something called "rosary-center.org" all up at the same time in the background.
I almost always have at least two dictionaries open on my screen, and I'm usually in search of the arcane meanings of words, trying to figure out if authors are totally wrong, or just trying too hard.
Today, I came across a version of the last of those. An author trying a little too hard on his word choices, who ended up saying something he really probably didn't mean. But, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, I tossed his word into the dictionary to see what came out. And, wouldn't you know it? One of the definitions of "bestiality" does, in fact, simply mean "in a beastly fashion, without humanity."
Yep. That's right. I was checking dictionary.com to see exactly how bestiality was defined. That, of itself, was fine. The weirdness came in when I was offered a follow-up by one of dictionary.com's advertisers, which is a visual thesaurus company.
Now, you may or may not know that a "visual thesaurus" is not the same as a "visual dictionary." A visual dictionary typically has pictures of the things that it is defining. A visual thesaurus, on the other hand, gives you a bunch of words connected by lines, and if you choose the intersection points, it tells you how they are related. Which is all well and good.
But, the ad for the visual thesaurus takes the form of an "if...then" problem. ("If you're looking up acrimony, then you can find similar words on the visual thesaurus.") Only it doesn't use those terms. Instead, it suggests we "explore" the term using the visual thesaurus. You know, throw "acrimony" into the mix, and watch the little lines go out to connect it to other words. Find out why it's connected to "spite" or "animosity" - that kind of thing.
(Can you see where this is going?)
In what was a totally inadvertent (you assume) act of the algorithm, instead of "Explore acrimony in the visual thesaurus" my screen offered the following follow-up to my search:
"Explore bestiality in the visual thesaurus."
Umm... yeah... No.
(For the record, okay, yes, I did search it just to see what would come up. It's linked to a few other words which are pretty much what you'd expect and, yes, I decided to suggest one of them - inhumanity - to the author as a substitute.)