On borrowing and the richness of language

One of the things I love about language is its staggering combinatorial possibilities. I revel in a Google game – picking a seemingly ordinary phrase and doing a search to see how many times it has appeared in the vast body of language indexed by the search engine. It is amazing how relatively few times even the most compact phrases have appeared.

It was with that in mind that I read Emily Green’s piece today in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the similarities between her epic Las Vegas Sun series Quenching Las Vegas’ Thirst and the discussion of Vegas water in Alex Prud’homme’s The Ripple Effect. Emily quotes two passages, first hers and then Prud’homme’s.


Las Vegas lies at the intersection of three deserts. To the west is the Mojave, to the south the Sonoran, and to the north the Great Basin.


Las Vegas sits at the intersection of three deserts. To the south is the Sonoran, to the west is the Mojave, and to the north lies the Great Basin.

Savor that simple four-word phrase: “intersection of three deserts”. In the entire corpus indexed by Google, that phrase appears to have been written only three times – once by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to describe three Australian deserts, once in 2008 by Emily Green to describe Las Vegas, and once by Alex Prud’homme in his new book – also to describe Las Vegas.

Sadly for Emily, Prud’homme’s book is the first Google hit.


  1. Thank you, John. That means a lot, particularly from you. There’s a funny story behind that line, which comes very close to the opening of the series. Back from the desert(s) with a full satchel of ragged notebooks, using my bedroom as a temporary office because it had the wall space to cover with maps, tearing my hear out as to how to begin the series, I remember pacing the room, getting in the worst kind of writer’s block funk. Las Vegas is hot, I thought. Las Vegas is in the Mojave and the Mojave is hot. And then, suddenly, staring one of the maps, I realized, Holy crap. Las Vegas isn’t in the desert. It’s at the intersection of three deserts. So began the writing of that series. So seeing it lifted stung hardest of the various borrowings.

  2. I once saw Julia Child vote. She was below me, in the “pit” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Remarkable person, but I wonder what she would’ve voted if the evidence Emily presents here were on the ballot.

  3. I think that Prud-homme owes Emily a zeitgeist beer — for tapping a stream of consciousness that she appears to have created.

    In the academic world, there’s a VERY STRONG incentive to find forebears (yes, even of a clever phrase) and either cite the source or note the coincidence (and there are many of those too!).

  4. Pingback: Journalist Claims Julia Child's Nephew-Author Is a Plagiarist | Con Games

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