The Transracial Debate

There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has been coined for something new. There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has become a social media buzzword. But then there are times when the choice of a single word is so inflammatory it can define and fuel a debate and become the single term by which something is remembered. So it is with Transracial.

Transracial is not a new word, but it has now been given a new meaning. Correctly defined as ‘crossing racial boundaries’, and being used for people of one race who are raised in another, the word has shot into into public consciousness because of a redefinition which has proved divisive in the extreme.

The debate started following the story of Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who revealed that despite living as a black woman, she had actually been born white. When she went on television to explain herself, she said that she was ‘transracial’, in other words that she felt like a black woman in a white woman’s body and had made an apparently legitimate decision to change herself in order to satisfy this.

Linguistically, the move is borne of the same convention that allows Transgender or Transsexual, where the issue of someone’s sense of gender and actual gender are at odds with each other. But as many commentators have pointed out, this is not an acceptable parallel and therefore cannot be governed by the same linguistic parallel.

There have been a number of well-thought out and fascinating rebuttals of the use of the term, mainly pointing out that this is not a word of choice, not a word that people can use about themselves in this way. In fact, the argument confirms that it is a destructive term when used like this, because it is taking a word that is used to describe large numbers of people who have had difficult upbringings as a result of being transracial and belittling those difficulties by appropriating it as something that feels like a lifestyle choice. This argument has been well advanced in the media and across Twitter.

So linguistically,what does this mean for the future of the word? Well one thing is completely clear – transracial is not going to be changing its meaning any time soon, the original sense will remain the only sense and the semantic spin that Ms Dolezal utilised will not be adopted.

But that does not mean that the self-deterministic sense will be forgotten. When we come to look at the words of the year, Transracial will be right up there, because there is no disputing it is one of the year’s most used and controversial terms. And while the Dolezal spin will be remembered, it will ultimately be as an anti-meaning, a clear definition of what Transracial is not. In future writing on transracial people, I would expect it to become a touchpoint to rail against, a reference point for everything which people fail to understand about those whose lives this affects.

So, bizarrely, Dolezal has contributed to the debate and the issues of transracial people precisely by getting the term wrong. She has brought the issue as a whole to the wider population, and created a meaning which people can now remember and reject. Probably not what she had in mind.

Klittra Comes First

The votes are in and the decision has been made – Sweden has a new word for female masturbation.

Last year, Swedish Association for Sexuality Education announced it was holding a poll to find a new word for the act as an important step in establishing equality for the sexes. Now, from more than 1,200 suggestions, the winner has emerged as Klittra, a combination of Clitoris and Glitter.

The reaction to this new word has been general approval, and this has certainly not just been restricted to sexually satisfied Swedes. Commentators across the world have praised the word for many things, such as its construction or the generally positive nature of the campaign as a whole.

The word is not yet in the Swedish dictionary – that will take a little more time. But that will surely only be a matter of time, as it seems almost certain the term will catch on in Sweden and will thereby cement its place in the language.

But what about further afield? The reaction to the story in the English-speaking world suggests that there isn’t currently a suitable term for female masturbation in English, and the concept and etymology of the Swedish term make it a perfect candidate to fill a void that is just as pressing in English as it is in Swedish.

So don’t be surprised to see Klittra make the move across languages in the next few years and establish itself as the world’s universal term for what is, after all, a universal act.

Language’s Greatest Era

As Wordability celebrates its 200th posting, it’s time to pause for a moment and take stock of the state of language today.

When I started the Wordability blog, I knew that the constant stream of new words and phrases which flood into the English language would ensure that there would always be a steady flow of things to write about. Added to that, the reaction that such stories often engender in the media confirmed that there would also be an audience who would find such musings interesting.

But what has become increasingly apparent is that much of that interest stems from people who want to moan and complain about the way that language changes, and protest that terms that become recognised as words simply aren’t words at all and should be sent back to where they came from.

This has been particularly apparent in the last few weeks, when a couple of high-profile organisations announced additions to their corpus. The Scrabble dictionary updated to use many new terms, which allowed headline writers everywhere to condemn this ‘Ridic’ development as ‘Obvs’ not ‘Dench’. Then US dictionary Merriam-Webster revealed its latest additions, with WTF lending itself most obviously to people who wanted to criticise the move. And even the French got in on the act, with their much-proclaimed ban on English words seemingly being relaxed in some volumes and Selfie finding a place in their listings.

So what does all this mean? Well to a blogger like myself, it means I will never be short of anything to write about. For as long as new words keep appearing and people continue to react to them, I will continue to have a blog worth maintaining.

However, it means a great deal more than that. Because I think this is the most exciting era for language development that there has ever been. The digital era in which we now reside has changed everything in ways that we don’t recognise ourselves yet, and will only recognise perhaps when we have a little more hindsight and perspective on the radical times in which we live. It is undeniable that the pace of life has changed and the global nature of our community has changed. And all of this has meant that language evolution has sped up to such a degree that we almost can’t keep track of it.

It’s not just the new words which appear, it is the challenges to the structure of language itself. It is these things which make this the most exciting era of language evolution there has ever been, not only because of the changes but also because of the footprint of change which digital technology provides, meaning we can track and understand those changes better than ever. We have a record of what is going on. As parts of speech change, new parts of speech emerge, and even new languages appear with extraordinary rapidity, this is a period to be heralded as amazingly exciting and not one to be condemned by those who believe that language is set in stone. It isn’t.

So what do I expect to write about in my next 200 postings? Will the English language look the same in 200 postings’ time? Well there will certainly be abundant new words, but many of those will disappear after their brief flowering and never come back again. For every selfie there are 10 Bleisures. People will continue to use -gate as a suffix with stupefying monotony. Hashtags will continue to evolve and become ever more powerful as means of communication. Technology and the internet will remain the greatest drivers of change. English will also continue to invade other languages, as the lingua franca of mass communication continues to define itself.

And throughout it all, vast swathes of people will continue to complain that English is being ruined and violated by the changes that are unavoidable. I look forward to reading the stories, writing about the developments, and ensuring that Wordability keeps abreast of all of the key new terms that our enriching our magnificent language.

A New Language Emerges

I doubt there has ever been a more fascinating time to study the evolution of language. Change, a natural part of language, has been sped up in such a way that we can now see that evolution happening right in front of our eyes, as if an ape had simply hopped down from a tree right in front of us and immediately stood upright.

Technology and lighting speed mass communication tools are the agents of this change, and they are affecting not only individual languages but also the nature and structure of language itself. And now, a new language itself has been born out of the increasing use of symbols to express ideas – the language of emoji.

The global language monitor recognised this last year when it named the heart emoji as its word of the year, Now, Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University has declared emoji the fastest evolving language of all time, comparing their usage to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and given their increasing usage and ability to render more than just simple ideas, he clearly has a point.

Emoji

Emoji

“As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” he said. “Emoji is the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.”

To illustrate this, Talk Talk Mobile put out a quiz to see how well you know your emoji. More by deduction than anything else I came out with a respectable 50%, though I will still admit that I don’t know my emoji arse from my elbow (a phrase I so far seem unable to render in picture form). My wife and 10-year-old daughter blazed to much closer to 100%, to prove the point

But with emoji emerging as a universal language that, unlike Esperanto, people will actually use in the future, what does this mean? Will emoji have evolved to such an extent that in a few years’ time, it will actually become a lingua franca of digital communication?

Clearly the jury is still on that, but a form of communication based on iconography and human faces has the power to be understood by everybody. And as scholars look for clues about the universal language capability at the root of all of our speech, perhaps the growth of this form of communication can give us some genuine insights into the brain’s hard-wired ability to learn a language

Grexit Not Just for Grimbo

Whatever you may feel about the economic ramifications of Greece’s ongoing financial hardships, you have to acknowledge the contribution they have made to the English language.

First we had Grexit, the prospect of Greece leaving the euro, which spawned many sub-genres of alternative exit word. And now, with economic paralysis because Greece has still not left the eurozone but still might, there is a state of limbo. A Greek limbo. Or Grimbo, if you will.

Citigroup, the economics experts who gave us Grexit back in 2012, are responsible for the latest word. In a statement, they explained the economic backdrop and concluded that “Grexit in the next few months is not inconceivable, and it is certainly more likely if we consider Grimbo durations of a year or more.” No gobbledygook there then.

Sadly this will not be the end of the Greek neologisms. Economists at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch have responded with Grexhaustion, the definition of which frankly escapes me at the moment but is unlikely to be ‘being fed up with the coining of new words to describe the Greek economic crisis’.

But the one thing that is certain as this situation rolls on is that for as long as people are reporting it, then they will be vying with each other to coin the next Greek-inspired word to describe the crisis. The ultimate game of Grone-upmanship, perhaps.

Mobilegeddon not Apocalyptic

If you really want to stress somebody out about an impending technological disaster then give it a really scary name. Just think Millennium Bug.

Of course the turn of the millennium proved to be less parasitical than had been predicted, and the downside of crying technology wolf is that when you incorrectly predict the apocalypse, so dire warnings that are important might end up being ignored. And so that brings us to Mobilegeddon.

Last week you could barely avoid articles about the subject and could have been forgiven for thinking that the mobile network was about to melt, such is the impact of coining a -geddon word. But no. Instead, Google was making a change in its search algorithm, meaning that websites not in tip-top condition when viewed on mobile phones would be penalised in mobile search results, potentially hitting traffic to them.

When I write that sentence, I can see the need for a catchy term of some sort to promote interest, as clearly there is nothing sexy about the subject matter when you come to describe it. But by coining something so over the top, and the website Search Engine Land has been credited for it, it overplayed something which might not otherwise have made the national press but equally might not have deserved to as it’s not really that interesting.

The dearth of coverage outside the techie press since Mobilegeddon Day on April 21 confirms this was never really a mainstream story and not really deserving of the growing usage of -geddon as a suffix. It is not a word that will be with us for long.

And because I know you’re wondering, Wordability passed its mobile-readiness test with flying colours. So there’s no excuse for not reading.

Wordability

Wordability passes the test

Fracas Outbreak on the Way

It’s interesting how old words sometimes become new words, especially when it’s a row about dinner which creates the transformation. But so it is for ‘fracas’, which has rapidly become one of the most overused words in the UK in the last week following TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s unseemly spat with a producer over an allegedly missing steak.

Amid the outbreak of analysis and comment about Clarkson’s future job prospects with the BBC, there has been one almost consistent theme, namely that the word ‘fracas’ is being used in inverted commas almost universally when appearing in headlines.

I think there are two reasons for this. The journalistic and legal explanation is that this was the word used when the altercation first came to light, so it is not only a direct quotation from the original sources but also offers no judgment on the outcome of any hearing, it is the neutral word that describes rather than finds fault.

But I think there is a little more to it than that. New words often appear in inverted commas when they take their first tentative steps into the English language, especially if they find themselves swiftly elevated to headline status. I think that fracas appearing in this way confirms that for many people, it is a very unfamiliar or new word to many, and should be treated as such. Some of the coverage given to the word itself supports this.

So what of the future. Will fracas return to its normal humble routine once the whole Clarkson thing dies down? I’m not sure that it will. I suspect that fracas will now gain a new lease of life and will start to be used in myriad other contexts when there is talk of any sort of an angry coming together. It will always reference back to the Clarkson affair and mean things are seen within that prism, but expect to see fracas being used with greater alacrity in the weeks and months to come as the new word for this kind of incident.