A Word With Weird Al Jankovic

I feel a bit said that Weird Al Jankovic is probably not a fan of Wordability. The noted creator of parody songs has just released his new album, Mandatory Fun, which contains the song Word Crimes, a musical diatribe against the breaking of the rules of grammer and what is generally regarded as correct English.

I am in two minds about this song. On the one hand, I am a stickler for correct English, and have been noted for my pedantry over correct English over the years, especially when working in professional media organisations with my sub editing hat on. So I agree with the song’s sentiments when it comes to the written language in formal and published contexts.

On the other hand, Wordability‘s brief has always been to applaud the new words which come into English and make a difference, while to also acknowledge that as a living, breathing entity, English is changing, and the rules which people have worshipped for many years may ultimately be ripped up by the language’s users. Changes which are increasingly prevalent in spoken and digital language will almost inevitably be accepted into the grammatical and lexical rules of the future. Weird Al’s support for apostrophes and the alleged misuse of literally suggest he would have have disagreed with my postings on the subject.

But a small part of me wonders whether Weird Al really is as prescriptive as his song makes out. Word Crimes is a pastiche of Blurred Lines, the 2013 hit by Robin Thicke described by some as the most controversial song of the decade. The song describes apparent ambiguity in the way that men read women’s signals, but the lyrics have been interpreted by many as date rape, while the accompanying video has been accused of sexism, and the song has been banned in many places.

If Weird Al had truly wanted to stand up for grammar’s rules, might he have picked a less ambiguous and controversial song to use as the backbone for his apparent tirade? Or does his choice of song suggest that while he wants to get his grammar beefs off his chest, an element of him is trying to suggest that the situation is not as straightforward as might first appear?

I may be completely wrong. All of the commentary on this song suggests that it is a straightforward diatribe against bad English, and celebrity support from luminaries such as Kelsey Grammer, whose Twitter feed is dedicated to grammatical issues, would suggest I have a minority interpretation.

But we are dealing with a performer whose stock in trade is pastiche, and who has chosen a vehicle for his diatribe whose own meaning has been debated to death over the last 12 months. Perhaps Weird Al is not quite as obsessed about his rules of grammar as appears to be the case.

Internet Has Fun at Brazil’s Expense

While Brazilians have been licking their wounds at their extraordinary thrashing at the hands of Germany in the World Cup, the internet has been awash with jokes at the unfortunate hosts’ expense.

There are a number of aspects of language change and communication that are demonstrated by the memes which have spread across the globe in the 24 hours since the match. The first is that the word meme is now firmly established as the term to describe creations of any sort, picture, video, joke, which are spread quickly around the world via social media and other technological means. I think this is a word that is still not properly understood by most people, but its jump from being a word for those in the know to the wider mainstream will have been helped by the enormous coverage the Brazilian memes have enjoyed since the final whistle.

Related to this is the idea that the nature of language itself is being changed by memes such as this. People want to say something about the game, they want to be part of the discussion and join in the fun. Now, rather than having to use words to formulate an idea, they create a picture or video as a way of making their point and then distribute it to spread that joke wider. And then others, who also want to join the conversation and say something about what has happened, simply pick their favourite meme and send it to their friends, in effect making a comment themselves. The tone of what they want to say is encapsulated by the meme they choose to share. So people are talking to each other by sharing jokes, rather than by using words. It is a key part of linguistic evolution and actually demonstrates a lingua franca that exists outside any spoken language which is currently active.

Finally new words will emerge as a result of this game, and the first is Mineirazo, named after the Estadio Mineirao where the game was played. This follows the word Maracanazo, coined after Brazil lost to Uruguay in the World Cup in 1950 in the Maracano Stadium. The new result is already being referred to in the media as the Mineirazo, and so this word will remain as the linguistic touchstone against which all future Brazilian performances, and possibly disasters, will be measured.

A New World For Columbus

We all know that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Actually, we know he discovered it on behalf of the western world, because the country was already inhabited when he arrived.

This nuance over the meaning of ‘discovered’ has seen a new word created in the last few days. A sketch on the College Humor website pokes fun at the idea of white people stumbling across things known to others for many years and then claiming ownership and therefore discovery of them. In honour of the fabled Christopher, this practice is known as ‘Columbusing’.

Columnists have already had lots of fun with this idea, with Miley Cyrus and Twerking featuring prominently in the commentaries of many as she is associated in the minds of lots of people as having discovered twerking, when it had in fact been around for some time.

I think it’s an interesting word as it is a really neat way of encapsulating a quite complex concept, which has both political and social overtones. Whether it has any life beyond this week’s flurry of media activity remains to be seen, but I can see it hanging around as a satirical term online, even if it never makes it into mainstream conversations and dictionaries.

Interestingly, a similar meaning of Columbusing appears to have been submitted to the Urban Dictionary over a year ago. So have the writers at College Humor Columbused Columbusing?

Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

Spornosexual the New Metrosexual

We all know about the phrase that difficult second album. However, we don’t tend to hear about that difficult second neologism. The appearance of a sequel to a highly successful neologism this week has certainly made me think about the concept.

Back in 1994, journalist  Mark Simpson coined the term Metrosexual, There is no doubting its success as a new word. Metrosexual has certainly established itself as a word to describe a particular type of man with a meticulous approach to his own appearance, and it even carried off the American Dialect Society Word of the Year accolade in 2003.

So 20 years on, Mr Simpson has returned with an attempt to update his term and give us a new word for a new type of man. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he gives us Spornosexual.

A spornosexual is a step on from a metrosexual. A fan of sport and pornography, he is a body and selfie-obsessed individual, and rather than just using clothes as a way of defining himself, he uses his body itself, by either tattooing it or honing it to perfection in the gym. And if that is not enough, he will even photoshop his own selfies to get that body image just so.

Given Mr Simpon’s history, and taking on board the veracity of his observations, it is not a suprise that the media have taken to his theory and his new word extremely quickly, with an outpouring of articles and analysis of this new trend he identifies.

But has he coined a second word which will have the same success as the first? I think probably not. Because I don’t think it is as neat a nelogism as his first effort. Spornosexual is actually a combination of three previous words, sports, porn and metrosexual. It’s a little like he has created the neologism sporn and then tacked it onto another word to get yet another word. This multiple method for creating the word makes it difficult to understand immediately, you really need someone to explain it to you to make sense of it, and that is where I think it falls down.

Metrosexual was so successful not only because it defined a clear new trend but the word itself was easy to understand and clearly represented its meaning. To be successful, a new word has to fill a semantic gap and be easy to understand and use. I think Spornosexual fails the latter of these criteria. It is a hard term to understand when you first hear it, and it is not at all obvious what it means. So for this reason, while Mr Simpson may have been spot on with his observations, his new word seems to prove the old adage that a sequel is never as good as the original.

A Phrase That’s Just Too Death Eaterish

JK Rowling may have achieved many things during her illustrious career, but trying to add a new term to common English usage is probably not one of them.

It’s certainly true that she coined many terms as part of the Harry Potter universe, and in one way she has created neologisms which have stuck. But words such as Quidditch, Muggles and Mudblood, which are now familiar to many and whose meanings are widely understood, are still Harry Potter words, and have not crossed over into everyday usage and other contexts.

All of which explains why her linguistic addition to the debate about Scottish independence this week received such a muted and almost hostile response. Rowling donated £1m to the No campaign, and in a lengthy defence of her position, especially criticisms of her connection to Scotland, she wrote: “When people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.”

There was inevitable debate about the meaning of the term Death Eaterish,  while with my Wordability hat on, I start to wonder whether it is something which could make the leap to the dictionary. But I think the fact that there were articles about what Death Eaterish actually means confirms that it is not a term which has any chance of being taken on more widely. For what it’s worth, Death Eaters rail against those who are not of pure blood, so you can see why Rowling used it when she was defending her right to a view on Scotland. She was not born there but lives there now. But Death Eaters cast a pall of despair wherever they go, while they are led by the most evil person in the Wizarding kingdom, so it does seem a little harsh to describe those who disagree with her in the same way.

Certain names from literature, such as Svengali, Don Juan and Utopia, have entered the language as regular terms. Death Eaterish, with its slightly esoteric meaning, and its ‘-ish’ formation, which makes it a little flimsy and wishy-washy in any case, does not seem to be one of those terms likely to have an equally successful linguistic future.

#weareallmonkeys #newpartofspeech

New word production seems a bit thin on the ground so far this year. We’re nearly a third of the way through 2014, and I find that the annals of Wordability seem to have less to report on than normal.

But one area that is as fertile as ever is Twitter, and in particular reminders that it has spawned an entirely new type of word.

I refer of course to the hashtag, which is both a word and yet not a word. Originally an easy way to search for content, the hashtag has evolved into something which in time might come to be recognised as a new part of speech altogether. By taking a short sentence and sticking it together with no spaces, a new term is formed as a way of summing up the sentiment expressed in the tweet which precedes it. The hashtag becomes a commentary, or maybe a contextual aside to give more depth to what has been said. In a medium where 140 characters are king and each character has to count, these hashtags have come to be a way to express far more than the tweet allowance normally permits.

I found myself thinking about this following this week’s incident involving Barcelona footballer Dani Alves and a racist taunt from the crowd. His brilliant riposte at having a banana thrown at him was to pick up the offending fruit and take a bite, before continuing with the game.

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez

Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez

But what was more magnificent still was the social media reaction. Many notable footballers took to Twitter to post photographs of themselves eating bananas, and the banana habit swiftly became a viral phenomenon. But rather than new term such as Tebowing coming to the fore, at least not so far, the tweets all came with a hashtag of solidarity, namely #weareallmonkeys.

So what does the use of this hashtag tell us about language? Well firstly, it’s a bit like a badge, you in effect wear it on your tweet to show that you support the cause. Secondly, it’s a great example of words run together to create a meaning above and beyond that which is expressed in the original sentence which spawned it. If you had to define this example, you’d end up with something which nods to support for Alves’ action, is a general support for anti-racism work and also articulates the point that humans are all derived from the same source and that those who fail to understand this really should learn to. Not bad for four words strung together.

But finally we need to consider its status as a new word. It’s clearly not a word that will have a long life and end up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But in the language of Twitter, it is a new word, and it is used to mean all of the the things I have suggested whenever anybody appends it to their tweet. In this context, it has all the attributes of being a new word, though not in the conventional sense.

It is clear that as technology changes the way we communicate so the words that we use will change to keep pace. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the structure and formation of language itself is going to start to change, with new rules, new formations, and as hashtags suggest to us, new parts of speech. Or as they say on Twitter, #theenglishlanguageisalwayschanging.