Tears of Joy for Word of the Year

Face with tears of joyThe era of a new language has truly arrived. This year, Oxford Dictionaries has named an emoji as its word of the year.

It’s a bold choice, but a rock-solid one linguistically. No single word has dominated 2015, as Collins’ recent choice of binge-watch for their word the year vividly demonstrates. Instead we are at the dawn of a new way of communicating, and the Oxford choice confirms this.

The trend has been obvious for the last 12 months. The Global Language Monitor started the ball rolling by picking an emoji as its word of 2014. Then earier this year, a linguist described emoji as the fastest evolving language of all time. And so this decision will catapult recognition of that growth into the mainstream.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, said: “You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully. As a result emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders.” Amen to all of that.

For the record, the emoji which accepts the accolade on behalf of all its emoji brethren is 😂 –  ‘Face with tears of joy’.  According to mobile technology company Swiftkey, which partnered with Oxford to help decide on the winner, ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ was the most heavily used emoji globally in 2015. It comprised 20% of all emoji used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of all emoji used in the US.

This announcement will be greeted by criticism from some, derision from others. People will complain that it is not a word, will lament what is happening to our language, will somehow feel that Oxford Dictionaries itself is no longer the great arbiter it once was because it is making this decision. All utter nonsense, of course.

Instead, everyone should recognise that language is changing at a pace never before known, that a new lingua franca is emerging for the global, connected era in which we live, and that if hieroglyphs were good enough for the civilised ancient Egyptians, then using images to communicate with others should still be acceptable today. My linguistic tears of joy for this decision are all real.

Other shortlisted words:

ad blocker, noun:
A piece of software designed to prevent advertisements from appearing on a web page.

Brexit, noun:
A term for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Dark Web, noun:
The part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable

lumbersexual, noun:
a young urban man who cultivates an appearance and style of dress (typified by a beard and checked shirt) suggestive of a rugged outdoor lifestyle

on fleek, adjective (usually in phrase on fleek):
extremely good, attractive, or stylish

refugee, noun:
A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

sharing economy, noun:
An economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

they (singular), pronoun:
Used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

How to Muggle Things Up

Literature has been a common source of new words for a very long time. But I doubt whether the replacement of one word created by an author with a new word from the same author has ever created the uproar we have seen this week. But then again, JK Rowling is no ordinary author.

The story is simple. Rowling coined the term Muggle in the Harry Potter series to mean a non-magical person. But in information which has come out this week about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, next year’s film from Rowling’s wizarding imagination, that word has been changed. The film is set in America, a number of years before the birth of young Potter, and it has been revealed that the Americans don’t call their non-magical counterparts Muggles. No, they call them ‘No-Maj’, meaning they have no magic.

Cue the Twitter outpouring, cue the lamentations of Potter fans united in grief at what they see as the demise of one of their favourite words.

It’s nonsense of course. What might have been more surprising was if American wizards and witches had used the word Muggle. Do people not understand language variation across countries? Is it not entirely likely that a slang term, which is after all what Muggle really is, would be different in America from Britain. Star Eddy Redmayne has now done interviews explaining this and also saying that the term Muggle has not been replaced, as some have erroneously claimed. It is simply that a different word is used by people in a different country, no replacement involved. And when you say it with an American accent, you can fully understand why No-Maj sounds right in a way that the more British Muggle would not.

But the episode is interesting for a couple of linguistic reasons, aside from the social observation that yet again the internet is full of people focusing their energy and anxiety on the most trivial of things. What it does show is how beloved the language of JK Rowling is and how masterful she was with the words she coined and chose for her wizarding world. It would be an exaggeration to say that if she had come up with an inferior word for Muggle then her books would not have succeeded. But it does demonstrate that her consistent choice of the right word, finding ones which have really stuck with the public, gives us insight into why her books have succeeded.

The other thing to mention is that much of the reporting of this story has stressed that Muggle has even been recognised by Oxford Dictionaries. That’s lovely, and I must admit I was surprised by the idea that a reputable dictionary was including a definition for people who aren’t magical. But of course, it doesn’t. Muggle has taken on a new meaning for someone who is ‘not conversant with a particular activity or skill’. I can’t off the top of my head think of another example of a word from literature which has then gained a new meaning in the real world and been given dictionary recognition as a result of that.

So the supposed Muggle controversy isn’t really a controversy at all, and in fact demonstrates Rowling’s acute understanding of the English language. And maybe that is the greatest magic of all.

Binge-Watch the Surprise Choice

Word of the year season is upon us, and I have been wondering of late what words would end up taking the gongs this year, given the generally disappointing nature of the new words which have emerged during 2015.

So in that respect, the first winner out of the blocks is entirely in keeping with the less than stellar linguistic year we have been through. Collins Dictionaries has chosen ‘Binge-Watch’ as its word of 2015.

Now there is no denying that binge-watching, the viewing of multiple episodes of a television series in a short time span, is on the rise. New viewing habits and on demand video services have changed the nature of the way we watch television, and access to box sets is increasing. My concern is not with the word itself, it is more with the fact that it doesn’t feel to me like this year has been the year when binge-watching has come of age. I think it had already come of age and was already entrenched, and this year has not been significantly different to last year, though Collins do cite a 200% increase in usage. I suspect that growth probably happened the year before as well. I also don’t feel it defines the year, like a good winner should. And it featured in the Oxford Word of the Year shortlist in 2013.

To me, some of the other words on the Collins shortlist are more representative of 2015 than the eventual winner. Corbynomics, the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is included, and Jeremy Corbyn’s influence on the language has already been documented on Wordability this year. Transgender, relating to a person whose gender identity does not fullycorrespond to the sex assigned to them at birth, has been a big discussion point. And Contactless, making payments without signature or PIN, has gone increasingly mainstream this year and would have been a justified winner.

So the benchmark has been set for Word of the Year winners. I hope that subsequent winners will be able to exceed it.

Breastsleeping May be the Answer

One of the difficult issues facing new mothers is feeding their children overnight. The decision over whether or not to have your baby in bed with you is one often fraught with difficulty, with uncertainty over whether it is safe counterbalanced by the fact that for many tired parents, having your child close by is the only realistic option if you want to breast feed.

A pair of researchers may have now solved the problem by writing a paper analysing the practice and coining a term specifically to remove the stigma surrounding it. James McKenna and Lee Gettler propose the word Breastsleeping.

To make the point, they include the term in the title of their paper, which is called: “There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping.” In the abstract they comment that this new word will help to resolve the debate about bedsharing and help researchers understand in greater detail different ways of breastfeeding children.

There has long been a huge debate over whether sleeping with your baby is safe or not, and the creation of this new word is not going to close the issue down. However, it gives legitimacy to the practice by identifying it and analysing it, and the millions of people who do this with their babies may well feel support and backing for their actions by this, especially if the word starts to catch on. And because breastsleeping is so widespread, I think there is a chance that it will.

Charlie No Longer

Back iJe ne suis pas Charlien January, I wrote a blog suggesting that the word of the year might already have been coined. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I noted how #jesuischarlie had emerged not only as hashtag of solidarity with the French satirical magazine itself but also as a statement for freedom of speech itself. I further speculated that #jesuis may have established itself as a Twitter prefix that would establish itself as a statement of belonging.

No more.

The appalling decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to publish two cartoons mocking the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose image propelled the migrant crisis across Europe into the consciousness of everybody, has changed all of that.

I won’t describe the cartoons or reproduce them. They have had quite enough oxygen already. Instead let’s focus on the immediate change this has made on social media. Apart from a small number of supporters, #jesuischarlie as a hashtag and a word is now discredited. People are using it on postings as a way of distancing themselves from the mood a few months ago, using the term now becomes a way of emphasising what it stood for and what has therefore been abused.

Instead, #jenesuispascharlie is being used to condemn Charlie Hebdo. Rather than being a term which could take on generic significance, this is simply an attack on the organisation, anger directed at them for wasting the stock of goodwill they had been given, anger even for polluting the term itself.

Calls for freedom of speech will go on, of course they will, and other causes will be found and become the new focus of social media and comment. New terms will come forward to be the one of choice to express adherence to the philosophy. But #jesuischarlie will not be that term, #jesuis will not become a new prefix. That moment has gone.

We may still end up saying that #jesuischarlie is the word of the year. But the narrative we will now tell will be of how a word flourished and died within a year, rather than that of a word which become important and then continued to resonate for many years to come.

Your Thighbrow’s Connected To…

This week, I have been mostly looking at pictures of women in bathing costumes. For work purposes, you understand.

The reason? The latest fashion trend to sweep social media. It’s the thighbrow.

So what is a thighbrow, I hear you ask, if you can actually bear to. Well, it is the crease which naturally forms in a person’s skin when their hip meets the top of their thigh. Women in swimsuits show them off very well, and they are so named because the shape looks a little like an eyebrow, only it is at the top of your thigh. Social media is now awash with pictures of celebrities showing off their thighbrows for all to admire.

Made in KrisJenner™

A photo posted by Khloé (@khloekardashian) on

I can understand why the word has gatherered a bit of momentum. It’s fun, it sounds vaguely clever and moreover it gives people an excuse to post even more pictures of themselves, if they actually needed it. But will it last? Please no. And if so, will it spawn a never-ending trend of other body creases getting their own name as well, will we be subjected to the elbrow or the armpitbrow in years to come.

Hopefully it won’t be long before the thighbrow is given the boot.

From Corbynmania to Trumpism

There are currently election campaigns taking place on either side of the Atlantic, both of which have conspired to be a great deal more interesting that we might have expected. In the UK, the election of a new leader for the opposition Labour party would normally be something of no more than passing interest to most, until the result is announced. And yet, the story has maintained its place in the headlines as the result looms on Saturday.

Meanwhile in the States, the early skirmishes in the battle to become the Republican nomination for president in a year’s time might not normally be front page news as a bloated field battles to be winnowed down to a more manageable number.

So what has elevated these two stories to heights which might not have been expected? I think the answer is the presence of a maverick candidate in each one, somebody who has emerged wholly unexpectedly from the pack to lead the polling and thereby create a wave of momentum which opponents currently seem powerless to stop. In the UK, it is veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. In the US, it is business legend Donald Trump.

Wordability’s interest comes off the back of that. For each of the leading men, a word has been coined to become the key term for their campaign, and they are now bandied about as the standard ways to refer to what is going on. In the UK, we have Corbynmania. In the US, it’s Trumpism.

Of the two, I think Corbynmania is easier to explain and understand. The word refers to the groundswell of support for the 66-year-old and the general sense that he has created a new excitement and engagement in politics, there is currently a hysteria around him which appears to be carrying him to victory. The word describes the mood.

The big question is what will happen once the election is over. Clearly if Corbyn loses, then Corbynmania as a movement is over, in much the same way that Cleggmania is a historical reminder of 2010. If he wins, then it certainly continues, at least for the short term, but could then easily go the same way as the erstwhile Lib Dem leader if his tenure in the hot seat turns out to be less than stellar. Either way, I expect Corbynmania to be remembered as a key word of this year, even if it doesn’t have longevity.

Donald Trump campaign websiteTrumpism is an altogether different case. Rather than a description of support, Trumpism is an ethos and an ideology of itself, and is used in commentary as a way of distancing the Republican front-runner from the rest of the field. You either believe in Trumpism or you don’t, and increasingly, it seems that vast numbers of Americans do.

The problem for me, looking out from the other side of the ocean, is trying to get a true handle on what Trumpism actually means. Even the different definitions of it online seem to be struggling slightly. Is it an ’empty kind of mean-spiritness’, a form of fascism or ‘the whining of the privileged‘. I must admit I don’t entirely get it.

Maybe it’s one of those things you simply understand if you are in the States. If you live and work there, Donald Trump represents something appreciably different from what has gone before and taps into values which it is entirely possible we outsiders fail to grasp and which resonates with enough Americans to make it significant. That could explain why Trumpism may be here to stay for some time.

Well-chosen words have always had the power to influence political debate and campaigning. As these two election battles have shown, winning the lexical war can often be the path to winning the ballot as well.