Monthly Archives: September 2011

Tevez Scores a Language Success

When Carlos Tevez apparently refused to come on for Manchester City in the Champions League this week, it is unlikely that he was thinking much about language, unless of course you count his claim of the whole thing being a misunderstanding.

But unknowingly, the Argentinian striker may have added to the tapestry of the English Language. Within a day, the phrase ‘doing a Tevez’ started to be used, to basically mean to refuse to do your job when politely asked to carry it out.

It’s a bit of a linguistic comedown for the superstar – if you Google “doing a Tevez”, you find a mixture. As well as the references to this week’s events, it seems that doing a Tevez had a previous meaning, referring to a hip-swivelling goal celebration. Amateur players were previously quite proud to do a Tevez if they scored, and many have even put their efforts on YouTube. Not sure how many people will follow suit with the new meaning.

Of course, the delicious irony to all of this is that after five years of playing in England, during which time he has managed to display little mastery of the language, Tevez’s most lasting contribution from his time here might end up being a permanent addition to the vernacular.

To Facebook or Not To Facebook

One of the most common drivers of new words is technology. It is a subject to which Wordability will often return.

For my opening gambit though, I am going to spurn the obvious. Currently, I think the obvious is Twitter and the plethora of tweeps, twebinars and retweetings which it has spawned. Loath as I am to send you off somewhere else, the BBC recently published an admirable account of some of these developments, though please don’t think of following that link until you have finished reading this.

No, my current interest is technology words as verbs. Now this may not sound like a particularly enthralling avenue to go down, but come with me. Because it is actually fundamental for showing us which branches of technology have established themselves as the de facto standard. It is the linguistic rule by which we can see which brand has won.

If you think I am overstating this, think about the ubiquity of Hoover or Xerox. Everybody knows that these are brand names that have become the standard verbs to describe the act that they perform. When a brand name has triumphed to become the verb of choice, then it’s game over.

So where has the battle finished in the current technological world? I think Sky has been victorious in the world of home recording. ‘To Sky Plus’ now seems to have become the accepted phrase for recording television on any Sky Plus style box. Sky wins.

When it comes to altering images with a computer, we ‘Photoshop’ them, whatever software we have actually used. Go Adobe.

And when we search on the internet, we all know that these days we ‘Google’ for stuff, rather than search for it. In fact, you only have to look at what came before for a clue as to why Google was always going to win this battle. ‘I Yahooed myself’ conjures up an entirely different set of images altogether.

But Google could be about to become embroiled in a linguistic battle to come. It will be one which will really show us who’s boss.

There is much discussion online about whether Facebook can be used as a verb. A friend of mine commented on Facebook recently that he was watching a film while ‘Facebooking’, and then wondered whether it was really a verb.

Well, I think it is, but I think it currently has quite a specific meaning. ‘To Facebook’ is very much to use Facebook itself, to look at it, and to contact someone via Facebook. ‘I Facebooked that girl I chatted to on the bus last week’ makes sense, even if it is socially suspect.

But Facebook has not become a generic verb to describe all types of social networking, and this is where Google enters the fray. Google Plus is the company’s answer to Facebook, and the next few months will give us a clue as to whether it can halt the Zuckerberg express. And I think that linguistic usage will provide us with a clue as to how that battle is playing out.

Because it will only be when we use ‘Facebook’ or ‘Google Plus’ as a verb to describe any act of social networking that we will we truly know which technological monolith has come out on top.

Welcome back to Glee

I am not a fan of Glee, which is returning to UK TV screens, but I am amused by the word doing the rounds to describe its fans. Apparently, they are known as Gleeks.

I’m sure there are other TV shows which have spawned unusual words to describe its fans. But instead of making me rush to my TV set, the word Gleek may be setting me off on an alternative quest.

It turns out that Gleek was a popular card game around 400 years ago, where cards were exchanged to try and gain sets. A Gleek was three of a kind, while a mournival was four of a kind. There was a range of other delightful terminology.

It’s a lovely example of a word changing its meaning over a very long period.

A Feast of Lexicography

It’s been a fertile few weeks for lovers of new words. The Oxford English Dictionary has just issued its quarterly update, with details of its newest entries. This follows hot on the heels of new editions of two concise dictionaries, both of which achieved media coverage for their particular choice of trendy new word.

The OED has highlighed a number of the new words in its update. These include ambo, a member of an ambulance crew; kewl, an exagerrated version of cool; and Britcom, a British situation comedy.

What is interesting is how long it has taken for some words to actually be included in the OED. Wordability will always be interested in new word updates from dictionary publishers. But this blog will primarily be looking to pick up on new words and usages before they are finally legitimised by lexicographers, especially given how long this appears to take.

For example, the OED is now including stitch-up, which is of course the framing of an individual. It is, I’m sure, a word that most of us are familiar with. The OED even cites the first usage as 1980, making its 30-year wait hugely surprising. Zaatar, a middle eastern spice mix, has waited even longer and was first cited in 1917. A Zaatar stitch-up perhaps?

Also interesting are some of the words in the full list of newbies which are not highlighted by the editors. These include afterfeather, framboidal, house conventicle, picocell and take-no-shit. This week’s homework from Wordability is to find out the meaning of the above words and then put them into a coherent sentence. I expect many of you will find a suitable usage for the last word on this list in response.

Other dictionaries have recently put new words on bookshelves. Back in August, The Concise Oxford Dictionary celebrated its 100th anniversary with offerings such as mankini, jeggings, sexting and cyberbullying.

A week or so later, the new edition of Chambers Dictionary appeared, with words such as crowdsourcing, paywall and staycation, though interestingly, sexting did not pass the Chambers test, pointing to an interesting difference in criteria between rival dictionary editors.

But almost more eye-opening was the outpouring of nostalgia for words being removed from dictionaries. Oxford’s decision to discard cassette tape led to much online breast-beating as people pointed out that they were still using cassette tapes, and that despite CDs, MP3s and others, cassettes were still a valid way to listen to music.

But even more bizarre was the reaction to an announcement from Collins. Collins has not even released its new dictionary but did take the opportunity of the flurry of dictionary news to announce that some words would not be making the cut for its next edition later this year.

There seemed to be particular sadness over the loss of charabanc, a mode of horse-drawn transport which is clearly outdated but seemed to affect people disproportionately by its departure.

I don’t think this reaction was anything to do with a group of disenfranchised charabanc drivers fighting back. It seemed instead to point to a wistfulness for a golden age and an acknowledgement that former, more innocent times have long since passed.

Having said that, any declaration that a word is going out of date is clearly a challenge for hacks everywhere. Within days, the Sun, writing about Arsenal, said: “The night they lived to fight another day when, at one time, the whole out-of-control charabanc seemed to be heading for the rocks below.”

Charabanc may yet be saddling up for a reprieve.

What is Wordability?

There is no such word as Wordability. But then again, there is. Because I’ve just used it. So let’s start again.

Wordability is the ability of a language to create and assimilate new words. English is particularly adept in this regard. English has great wordability. And that is the subject of this blog.

Of course, I made that definition up. But when I was toying with blog titles, Wordability emerged as a currently non-existent word which nonetheless sounded like it should exist. Moreover, it felt like it aptly summarised what I was trying to get across. And that is that we should celebrate the English language’s remarkable ability to create new words. It skilfully adds prefixes and suffixes to existing words, it borrows with reckless abandon from other languages, and it brutally ascribes new shades of meaning to old words. And myriad other things as well.

In some ways, I am an unlikely champion of the ever-changing nature of language. I am linguistically pedantic by nature, and can rant with the best of them over an error or usage which I find aurally offensive. But as a post-graduate linguist, I learned to acknowledge that language is defined by its users, not by books, and that it changes all the time according to what speakers are doing. I am both a pedant and a non-pedant by turns. If only there were a word for someone who can straddle both states simultaneously. Bi-pedant? Schizopedant? Pedant-on-the-Fence? All suggestions welcome.

If you search for wordability, you won’t find it in any official dictionary, so it can’t currently be added to the more than one million words in English that have been identified by the Global Language Monitor. It does appear in the online Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “being able to create a new word and having the skill to place it in casual conversation, without anyone else noticing that it’s not really a word.”

When I found that definition, I almost ruled out Wordability as my title. But The Urban Dictionary is not an official arbiter. It is an admittedly wonderful collection of words and usages contributed by online users around the world. But it has no actual jurisdiction if I wanted to choose a different meaning. So that’s what I did.

I did briefly toy with alternatives. Wordalicious? Too much like a description of cake. Wordaging? Too much like a definition of some depraved sexual activity. New Words in the English Language? Too much like something that would simply make you go to sleep. So Wordability it was.

What did surprise me was finding a punchy web address to support it. Wordability.com was gone, snapped up by a Canadian transciption service. Wordability.co.uk was registered to a yet to be revealed online presence. Wordability.ltd.uk, which hadn’t occurred to me anyway, was taken by an online game called Wordability, which appears to be a variant on Scrabble, its main innovation seeming to be that it cares little which direction your word runs in, so long as it runs.

But wordability.net was available, and is now starting its quest for some of the odder and more entertaining new words and usages entering the English language. Let the journey begin.