Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shovels at the ready

In an effort to get Britain moving again, the Coalition Government has announced a new series of building projects. And to show just how imminent they really are, the press has been describing six as ‘shovel-ready’.

From what I can see, this is the first time that this particular phrase has crossed the Atlantic. Shovel-ready, basically meaning that building can start immediately, seems to have emerged at the end of 2008 in a Barack Obama interview. So it’s a phrase you can believe in.

Now I am no building expert, but given the enormity of modern building projects, a shovel seems quite the least of it. Breeze block-ready, concrete mixer-reader, giant crane-ready – these would have carried the same meaning and also been more evocative of what was actually going to happen.

To give the Government its due, it doesn’t seem that Nick Clegg, who was promoting the policy, has actually used the phrase ‘shovel-ready’ in speeches or interviews. It’s probably a good job. If he had, some of his opponents might have wanted to know what he was shovelling.

The World’s Most Expensive Haircut

Many industries appropriate words for their own devices, but their peculiar internal language doesn’t permeate through to the masses. But there are occasions when a piece of linguistic jargon breaks free, and the current financial crisis in the Eurozone is one such example.

All over the UK, newspapers have been debating – what do you think about the haircut?

Now you could be forgiven for thinking that this is no time to be focusing on coiffures and tints, and you would be right. But of course this isn’t really about a visit to the local salon. This is about well-established financial jargon hitting the mainstream.

Understanding it is somewhat harder. The online Financial Dictionary defines a haircut as the value to securities used as collateral in a margin loan. And lots of other stuff as well. I’ll be testing you on that shortly.

I have had it explained to me a lot more simply. Basically, if I lend you £100 and then take a 50% haircut, as the European banks have, I can only expect to get £50 back. Take that, securities and collateral.

But what has actually been irritating about the coverage is the way that haircut has been liberally sprinkled throughout media reports in a kind of knowing way, without it really being defined properly. It confers a kind of legitimacy on the writers and creates the sense that they are in the know and are experts. They must be, just look at the way they effortlessly use the jargon. Many journalists would have been a lot better just avoiding the term and finding a cleaner way to express their thoughts. Hiding behind the jargon is sometimes plain lazy.

But maybe Wordability should campaign for more haircut-related financial terminology to enter common speech. Should commentators have been discussing whether the European banks should have accepted a trim, a short-back and sides or maybe a perm? Who needs to talk in percentages when you can talk in split ends instead?

Or maybe another term connected with cutting things off would have been more appropriate. But I’m not sure that headlines about the kind of circumcision the banks were going to get would really have worked.

The Unspeakable Awards: What is the Worst New Tech Word?

Technology is a rich source of new words, as Wordability has mentioned on more than one occasion. But it’s probably fair to say there are good technology words and bad technology words fighting for their place in the lexicon.

To mark their ever widening influence, Computeractive magazine has revealed the winner of its first “Unspeakable” award. The dubious distinction is bestowed upon the “most annoying or horrible” new word to enter dictionaries in the last 12 months, with the results decided by an online YouGov survey of 2,054 people.

Before I tell you the winner, I will say that I don’t think it is one I would have voted for. If pressed for a view, I find all the twee twitter words the most aggravating, governed as they are by the contention that you can put tw- at the front of anything and make it intelligible. I think that’s a load of old twosh.

Twitter words make three entries: Twittersphere, which means means the Twitter world at large and is ironically the only Twitter word I actually like; Tweetup, which is a meeting organised on Twitter and is much more representative of the kind of ghastly effect that the micro-blogging site has had on language; and Twitpic, which is a picture on Twitter and has ‘Twit’ front and centre, which seems about right.

But let’s hail the winner, which picked up 24% of the vote. The first recipient of the “Unspeakable” award is Sexting. Its victory probably owes much to popular news over the last 12 months. After all, there has never been such an era for the sending of explicit imagery via mobile phones in the whole of human history.

Paul Allen, the editor of Computeractive, believes in plain English, and his publication prides itself on its jargon-free advice. He worries that Techlish, a technlogy-laded version of English, is about to swamp our everyday language unless we are careful about it.

Wordability spoke to Mr Allen about the survey. He agreed the growth of technology inevitably meant a sprouting of new words, and added: “A lot have become very useful, they define a shift in human behaviour, such as Google as a verb.”

But he added: “People in marketing have spotted how these new words have become ways of getting coverage so they keep inventing them. Sexting is plain silly, a tabloid dream come true.”

Mr Allen also said that tech words have a way of bestowing a sense of exclusivity on the people who use them. “You may make other people feel a bit silly. It’s not intentional, but they can be exclusive words which are not inviting people in.”

Here’s the top 10. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Why don’t you leave a comment on what you think should also have been in the list:

1. Sexting: The sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages by mobile phone

2. Intexticated: Unable to concentrate while driving because of being distracted by texting.

3. Defriend: To remove someone from one’s list of friends on a social networking site.

4. Twittersphere: The collective noun for all postings/Tweets on Twitter.

5. Tweetup: A meeting or get-together that has been organized via Tweets on Twitter.

6. Hacktivist: Someone who hacks into computer data as a form of activism.

7. Clickjacking: Maliciously manipulating a web-user’s action by concealed hyperlinks.

8.= Twitpic: A picture posted as a Tweet on Twitter.

8.= Scareware: A malicious programme designed to trick users into buying unnecessary software such as fake antivirus protection.

8.= Dot-bomb: An Internet venture (dotcom) that has failed and/or gone bankrupt.

All Together Now: It’s Singalongability

An academic has published a study about what makes us join in with certain pieces of music – what gives them, to use her brand-new term, singalongability.

Now Wordability loves the fact that English allows us to put -ability at the end of another word and create something intelligible. Frankly without this, Wordability wouldn’t be, well, it wouldn’t be Wordability. It is the English language’s great wordability which allows it.

So Wordability salutes Dr Alisun Pawley of York University, who worked with Dr Daniel Musselsiefen of Goldsmith’s University, to decide what makes a song singalongable.

They identified four key factors: longer phrases, a greater number of pitches in the chorus hook, male vocalists and higher male voices with a noticeable vocal effort. Their research put Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ top of the singalongability list.

But what makes singalongability such a great word is that it has an almost onomatopoeic quality. Its multi-syllable nature, and jaunty rhythm when you say it, make it the kind of word you could actually join in with.

Don’t believe me? Well then, I give you the type of music which is surely the most singalongable in the world – nursery rhymes. So easy to sing along with, even a two-year-old can do it.

Now, try replacing the words of Pop Goes the Weasel, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Humpty Dumpty with just one word – singalongability.

Go on, try it. You’ll soon get what I mean.

Text Neck and a Bowl of Guacamole

Wordability always enjoys seeing a new term sweeping across the internet. However, this is tempered when that term is, frankly, a bit silly.

Yes, technological advances have inevitably produced new ways of behaving and the possibility of new medical conditions. Yes, it is probably true that hunching over a mobile phone while texting can cause problems for your neck.

But Text Neck? This is the new name for this condition and it has received mass coverage in the last couple of days. American doctor Dean Fishman, who dreamed up the term and the definition, has even renamed his entire practice and website after it.

But Wordability’s problem is that the name trivialises a condition which is clearly worth thinking about, because it sounds glib. Frankly, it feels like something dreamed up to get headlines and to give people something to joke about, and means they will remember the name but not really think seriously about what it means.

And my personal problem with it? Every time I hear it, I think of Tex Mex. And then fajitas. And then burritos. And then I wonder whether you can get any chiropractic problems from leaning over a bowl of tortilla chips. Guacamole Neck anyone?

iLanguage: How Steve Jobs Changed English

It is rare for somebody to have a profound influence on the way we live our everyday lives, but Steve Jobs was just such a person.

My interest in technology is not of the flashy buttons and whizzy gadgets variety. I am far more taken by the fundamental ways that technological innovation has utterly transformed our lives, and in this respect, the products that Steve Jobs and Apple brought to market achieved exactly this.

But Wordability’s interest is inevitably in the usage of new words, and to that end, I have been pondering how much of a linguistic legacy the Apple co-founder will leave behind.

I think there is one, but it is not as obvious as might first appear. For example, it is a stretch to say that without him, a mac would still only be a rainproof coat and the only thing we would picture when talking about a mouse would be a fairly cute rodent.

As for personal music players, I don’t think that iPod has quite become generic in the way that Google has, as I discussed in a previous post. Users of differently branded MP3 players would be quite aghast to have them called iPods, even though it is used by many as the standard term.

It is also interesting that the phrase iPod generation, coined in 2005 to describe the difficulties faced by those under 35, is more of a play on iPod rather than a description of their musical listening habits. iPod here is an acronym for Insecure, Pressured, Over-Taxed and Debt-Ridden.

But the iPod does give us a clue as to where the Jobs influence is truly felt in newly coined words. In fact, if you just put a lower case ‘i’ in front of any word, it transforms it into an Apple inspired version of itself. If I said I was thinking of producing an iRadiator, an iRockingHorse and an iSunHat, you would instantly picture these items playing music, affording their users instant communication and giving easy access to games of Angry Birds. So he has certainly left us the ‘i’ prefix, and #iSad was a top trending topic on Twitter in tribute, to prove the point.

However, I think that Steve Jobs’ biggest contribution to language is outside the normal remit of Wordability and is more in the realm of what linguists call pragmatics, the study of all the other factors surrounding language which help us to understand it.

Possession of a smart phone means that you can now embellish your everyday conversation with pictures, videos and access to other information instantly, as you talk to people. Touching and swiping have become gestures in conversation every bit as normal as nodding and shaking your head. And access to all this material makes conversation multimedia – instead of trying to describe that picture to the person you are talking to, you just show it to them instead.

So it could be argued that the ubiquity of Apple devices has made language different by adding all manner of elements to it so it is not just verbal, and the way that we communicate with people in person is now different because of the sophisticated devices in our pocket. And that would mean that one of Steve Jobs’ legacies is a subtle but permanent shift in the way we talk.

An Indian Summer for Older Ladies

One of the positives of the recent unseasonal heatwave to hit Britain has been the lack of ‘phew what a scorcher’ headlines.

However, the sight of bright blue skies and sandals in October has had Wordability wondering about the phrase Indian Summer.

Technically, this has not been an Indian summer as it has not been preceded by frost, which is apparently the appropriate precursor. Mind you, it has also not been preceded by American Indian raiding parties, which is suggested as one of the many etymologies of the term.

But given that we are now part of Europe, Wordability thinks it may be time to abandon the colonial term and instead adopt the description used by many of our eastern neighbours. In Russia, an autumnal period of heat is a Grandmother’s Summer, and various other translations and arrangements of old ladies and summer dominate many other countries.

Or maybe we should accept that China is the emerging power, and refer to it as “a tiger in the autumn”.

There is another approach. If our weather patterns are really changing, and summer is now coming in April and September, maybe it is time to come up with a new term. Perhaps we could call it summer. And then May to August could just be called the wet and cloudy bit in the middle.

Or failing all of that, what would be a suitable new phrase? Wordability invites you to decide.