TCS Daily

The Pelican, Briefly

By Robert McHenry - August 8, 2006 12:00 AM

You know how words, phrases, images, half-formed ideas, flit through your mind as you skim more or less idly through your favorite websites? Mostly they go as quickly as they come, leaving no trace, but occasionally something sticks just long enough for you to wonder consciously "What about that?" Even then you may let it go; you judge that it's not all that interesting after all, or perhaps you make a subconscious cost-benefit calculation that pursuing it would not profit you.

But once in a while you find yourself looking into it. This morning it happened to me. Something, I cannot recall what, prompted me to half-remember that old limerick about pelicans. "Something something pelican, something something belly can, some more somethings, how the hell he can." How did that go? I decided to look into it.

There was a time when, had I been sufficiently motivated, I'd have stepped down the hall from my office to our research library. Since I knew my way around it pretty well, I'd have gone directly to the shelf that held several books of quotations and looked in the index of one and then another until I found what I wanted. Having found it, I'd have had that warm sense of comfort that comes with curiosity satisfied. You know that feeling, yes? Question answered; knowledge secure.

I almost certainly would not have stopped to consider the assumptions that lay behind my search method and justified my embrace of its result: the assumption that the publishers of the books I consulted had engaged knowledgeable and responsible editors; the assumption that the editors had worked conscientiously and their staffs competently; the assumption that our librarian had chosen the books that stocked our library judiciously. All this and more I'd have taken for granted.

But that, as we say, was then. This morning, already sitting at my desk and with computer poised, I was able to make that same inquiry much, much faster and -- praise be! -- to get back not merely one, or two, or three, but many, many answers. Such a wealth of answers, among which may be the correct one, though I can't be certain. Truly a marvel.

Let me illustrate what happened with just the first line of the limerick. I'm pretty sure it's "A wonderful bird is the pelican." But it might be "A marvelous bird is the pelican." Or it might be "An amazing bird is the pelican." Here are the possibilities, as returned by Google:

rare old
unusual (or most unusual)
wondrous (or wonderous)
wise old
strange old (or strange ol')
funny old

Or it might not be a "bird" at all but a "marvelous beast." Or the line might actually begin "Pity the poor...".

At least I know that it was written by Dixon Lanier Merritt/Ogden Nash/Edward Lear.

All this in mere seconds, and I didn't have to talk to the librarian.

As I said, I'm pretty sure it's "wonderful." I am that not merely because "wonderful" occurs more often than any of the other candidates, but because it seems to occur on the more persuasive looking sites. What's a persuasive looking site? Well, one that doesn't have a lot of misspelled words; one that isn't a message board; one that looks carefully designed; one that seems to be dedicated to a topic somehow relevant to my query; that sort of thing. These are ill-defined criteria, to be sure, but what else have I to go on?

What we have here, of course, is the flattening effect of the World Wide Web. This is not Thomas Friedman's flattening. It's the dissolution of categories, the collapse of hierarchy, that used to help us navigate information in a way that Google cannot. Time was, we understood that what is written in a scholarly monograph is different from what is written in a reference book, which is different from what is written in an informal essay, which is different from what is written in a news bulletin, which is different from what is offhandedly jotted down, which is different from what is scribbled on the bathroom wall. Different in intent, different in style, different in reliability. And not only did we understand that they were different, we could tell which was what, usually at a glance.

What the Web brings me via my choice of search engine is an undifferentiated jumble of high and low, serious and unserious, true and false. Where once I could choose to seek or avoid the rantings of paranoids and the drivelings of celebrities and their retainers and a hundred other sorts of matter in which at a given moment I had no interest, now, will I nill I, these clutter my life and take my time as I try to ferret out a grain of wheat from a boxcar of chaff. The filtering that used to be performed by choice of media and by various sorts and degrees of expertise cannot be had; instead I am offered a spurious "wisdom of crowds." Memo to crowd: Come see me when you know something.

Fortunately, it doesn't make a great deal of difference to me just now whether the right word is "wonderful" or "farcical." No bar bet depends on the answer, nor am I compiling a collection of favorite lyrics. But there are serious questions, and under certain circumstances even this might be one. What then? I don't know about you, but I go back to the library.

For the nonce, then, and provisionally, it's "wonderful." The pelican, not the babelsphere.

Robert McHenry is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



The pelican example does not disprove the "Wisdom of Crowds..."
First off, search for "pelican limerick" on google and you will find four sources in a row that have the same poem by the same guy (Dixon).

Second, the pelican limerick example does not hold up to strict scrutiny. The first reason is obvious: The wisdom of crowds depends on harvesting the wisdom of AGGREGATE knowledge as opposed to the specific knowledge of multiple individuals. The value of tools like the Iowa Electronic Markets does not come from the fact that many of the people there have knowledge of the subjects on which they are betting, but from the fact that the IEM provides a means of collecting and aggregating that individual information. The Web provides a means of quickly locating the information posessed by several individuals.

Third, the second website that the above search located had three seperate versions of the limerick itself all written by the same author. ( When there are multiple versions of the same thing, of course you are going to encounter different versions during a search. If the author didn't produce a definitive version, what makes you think that any book is going to have a definitive version?

Fourth, the web gives us the means to access multiple different sources of information and to evaluate it based on how often others view it and make use of it. The websites that consistently produce the best information are visited, linked to and discussed more frequently. It is possible to seperate wheat from chaff just by looking at counters and who is advertising on that website. If you see a lot of "Viagra!" and "XXX ******* Chicken-lovers!!!!" you are probably not looking at a very reliable website.

Fifth, I think that the characterization of the Web as a source for wildly innaccurate information is unfair. People know that if they find a piece of information on the web they should check and see if it is confirmed elsewhere. This is exactly the same process one would go through if one were reading a book or a magazine article and wanted to verify the information therein. Condemning the central idea of The Wisdom of Crowds because a few numbskulls on the Web didn't know the exact wording for a limerick is absurd.

Sixth and finally, it is a mistake to pretend that other sources of information are not occasionally wildly innaccurate. Little Green Footballs recently exposed a Reuters photographer's doctoring of photos. Dan Rather's hit-piece on the President's National Guard service used fake documents to make the case. I will not even begin discussing all the lies told about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Books, television, radio and print all suffer from the same problem: The information is provided by people who have a viewpoint, and who quite frequently get facts wrong.

The web might offer a platform for idiots (myself included) to spout off about all the topics under the sun, without any knowledge required, but it also gives you the ability to find out if those idiots are correct or not. By letting the market operate, we find that people are drawn to websites whose idiots consistently produce the best results. Idiots who get it wrong lose readership and disappear. For example, Mr. McHenry, you have lost mine.

The Pelican, Briefly
When you are done with the pelican, you may then begin to research the lyrics to "Barbry Ellen". Limericks, like folk-songs, are subject to the folk process. If you work very hard, you may find the earliest version - but there is no such thing as the One True Version.

As Kipling said, "There are nine and twenty ways / of constructing tribal lays / and each and every one of them is right." Or perhaps it is nine and sixty ways - I got both results when I Googled to find out.

What you have found is proof that the pelican limerick interests people enough for it to have entered the folk process.

Too much junk information is boring
Today from all side bulk of information is pouring in our brain, this is really most harmful. no one has time for thinking.
T.V. Internet all new midia are destroying wisedom.Too much is always worse. I very reary open internet, never see T.V.. only good book give me wisedom joy.

Here you go
Simple little google on "limerick pelican"

Good article and I agree
I also try to use a form of that ame heiarchy on the web, I.E. reputable university, reference and other such sites get first priority in searching for information.

But, I do agree, that it gets tiring to try and sift through the thousands to millions of hits on a subject just to find the actual, informational, site. This is one area where the Wiki is a useful tool as further, more reputable,references can often be found there (or a beginning in the right direction towrads the same).

Finding things on the net
I'm a self-taught Googler and I had no difficulty finding both the poem and the author (and even a parody of the original) with one Google query, to whit, pelican belly hell. It was the second entry on the first page, and the first entry I checked as the relevant parts of the quote appeared in the entry listing.

"A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His mouth can hold more than his belly can,
He can hold in his beak,
Enough food for a week.
I'm damned if I know how the hell he can!"

(mistakenly attributed to Nash, but actually written by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910)

I haven't checked this information by an Advanced Search (I'll leave that to you, if you wish); I just wanted to show how it's done. When you don't know the exact quote, instead of trying out different possibilities of the unremembered words, it's quicker to work with the words you do remember, if they are distinctive enough. You will usually find that three apparently unrelated words are enough.

Time was...
"Time was, we understood that what is written in a scholarly monograph is different from what is written in a reference book, which is different from what is written in an informal essay, which is different from what is written in a news bulletin, which is different from what is offhandedly jotted down, which is different from what is scribbled on the bathroom wall."

That well may have been, but the passing of that age is not the fault of the World Wide Web. Virtually all of those institutions- academia, journalism, the not-mentioned judiciary, have become less respected and less respectable, because of the behavior of those who prostitute them for political purposes.

Since the 1960's, these institutions have been used to advance a Left-wing agenda, at the expense of journalistic integrity and scholastic reliability. Put bluntly, one simply cannot trust that a scholarly article is accurrate or well-researched, when in fact it may be (and often is) nothing more than a thinly-disguised political polemic. And, as Dan Rather and the New York Times show, news is very often chosen, formed, or simply manufactured to support a partisan Left-wing position.

The reputation of these institutions has declined, and as a result "alternative" sources may now be more reliable than the formerly respectable scholarly monograph or news bulletin. The fault can be laid at the feet of the erzatz scholar or newsman, not the Web.

Time Was...

It's a poor workman who blames his tools
"What the Web brings me via my choice of search engine is an undifferentiated jumble of high and low, serious and unserious, true and false. "

Had the search been conducted by submitting, enclosed in quotemarks, as large a fragment as could be remembered confidently - "bird is the pelican," for example - it more successfully would have yielded

"* A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His mouth can hold more than his belly can,
He can hold in his beak,
Enough food for a week!
I'm damned if I know how the hell he can!

" Dixon Lanier Merritt, a Southern newspaper editor and President of the American Press Humorists Association, penned this famous limerick in 1910."


The fault, dear Brutus...

stencil sends

It works fine if you have a pretty solid foundation to work from. With that you can refine the search and get what you want pretty easily. However, Garbage In, Garbage Out; when you are searching somewhat blind it can get frustrating. Finding exactly what you looking for can take more time that just going to the library.

Overall, I love the internet as a research tool. It is usually quick, and easy to use; plus I don't have to worry that someone has the reference out.

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