Monthly Archives: November 2011

Squeezed Middle Named Word Of The Year

Oxford Dictionaries has announced its word of the year, and it is a true reflection of British society over the last 12 months.

“Squeezed Middle”, a term coined by Labour leader Ed Miliband to describe the large portion of society most affected by Government cuts and the economic downturn, has won the accolade in both the UK and the USA, which normally selects a different word.

Some press reports have complained about the fact that the winner of word of the year is a phrase, but compound nouns have distinct meanings and therefore act like words, so that argument is a red herring. Instead, we should focus on just what this year’s winner and runners-up say about the state of the country today.

Wordability has frequently mentioned that new words and usages come from all sides, with technology a particularly rich vein, though music, sport and television also contribute their fair share of neologisms.

But squeezed middle comes straight from news reporting and shows that this year, minds have been concentrated on serious issues. This is reflected by the other words on the shortlist, which are other brand new words, new usages of existing words or words gaining particular prominence: Arab Spring, describing events in the Middle East earlier this year; Occupy, the movement to occupy prominent buildings as a protest over perceived economic injustice; Phone Hacking, the much-publicised practice of intercepting people’s phone messages; Hacktivism, gaining unauthorised access to networks for political reasons; and Sodcasting, the only non-newsworthy item on the shortlist and the act of playing music through your mobile phone in a public place.

What this list shows us is the power of the media and the way that when particular stories start to grow and gain coverage, they have to have a neat word to encapsulate their essence. Coining the right one can help to define the argument and create a perception in people’s minds about what the story is about. The internet and 24-hour news need these words and then become the perfect vehicles for disseminating this.

As well as really getting to the heart of what the economic crisis means for millions of people, I think there is another reason why squeezed middle works so well. It sounds like it always existed. When you hear the phrase, you assume it is a demographic description that has been used for eternity, rather than a phrase of the times, and this slightly timeless quality probably explains why it has stuck.

As for my word of the year? Well, since this blog has only been operating for a short time, I can suggest Doing a Tevez, Shovel-Ready and Haircut as possible candidates. But of course, there can only be one winner, and I look forward to seeing it in every dictionary next year. For me, the word of the year for 2011 is of course Wordability.

Goldlicks Planets: Why Science Needs Fairy Stories

I was recently sitting in the back of a taxi in Adelaide talking to the driver about whether life exists on other planets.

There were two things that struck me about the conversation. Firstly, I was in the back of a taxi in Adelaide discussing extra-terrestrial life. But secondly, it was the casual way that the driver referred to “Goldilocks” planets.

“Goldilocks” planets are those located in what scientists refer to as the habitable zone around a sun. Such planets can support life because their temperature is not too hot and not too cold. In fact, it is “just right”. And there was me thinking that a Goldilocks planet was one being roamed by small families of amiable bears with a healthy attitude to nutritious breakfasts.

Even though this term has been around for some years, it seems to me that it has only recently begun to be used more generally in conversation and news reporting. And yet, a couple of developments this week have led me to consider whether this term is enough, or whether we need to extend fairy tale terminology further in order to encompass the latest developments in the field of astronomy.

NASA announced this week that oceans had been discovered underneath the frozen surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Europa is millions of miles away, far outside the Goldilocks zone. But what if life is present there? Scientists may then have to refer to life being possible in the “Snow Queen” zone as well.

Separately, it has also been revealed that the Goldilocks zone is larger than first thought. Scientists have suggested that the Goldilocks zone around some red dwarf stars may extend further because of the type of radiation that these stars emit, as it could melt ice and snow on planets a greater distance away than first suggested. So rather than a Goldilocks zone, we might want to start to refer to a “Snow White” zone instead. But to support this, I think we would also have to name the red dwarf star as well. “Sneezy” would be ideal, as it would suggest the projectile nature of its radiation waves.

I wonder as well whether we should extend the concept and accept that fairy tales offer us the perfect linguistic metaphor for discussing all scientific phenomena. Just imagine how much easier it would be to teach. For example, if scientists have developed a material that is robust to all manner of natural forces, following much trial and error, that could be a “Three Little Pigs” material, able to protect itself from a “Big Bad Wolf” force. If scientists are convinced they have not achieved the best result they could from an experiment and they need to wait for what is coming next, it could be termed “Billy Goats Gruff” research, with the boffin taking the role of the deluded troll. And when there is only one solution to a complex problem, scientists could be said to be searching for whatever fits the “glass slipper”.

It’s not just me who is mining this path. This week, there have been reports about the formation of the Gamburtsev mountains in Antarctica, with theories on how they came to be. It seems that they were covered with ice 34 million years ago and were then, quite literally, frozen in time. Or as it is being reported round the world, “Like Sleeping Beauty, they retained their eerie youthfulness.”

But scientists also need to be careful. Once again this week, the world has been reading about the Cern research facility in Switzerland, and the fact that for the second time, neutrinos seem to be travelling faster than the speed of light. The Cern researchers had better be right. If it turns out they are wrong after all, will anybody ever take them seriously again. Or will they come to be known as “scientists who cried wolf”.

Brad Pitt Quits Acting to Produce a New Word

The world of acting may still be coming to terms with Brad Pitt’s announcement that he will quit acting in three years’ time, but the world of lexicography may soon be welcoming a new innovater.

In making his announcement that he is going to hang up his script at the age of 50, the actor announced that instead, he is going to go behind the camera, as he has enjoyed “the producerial side”.

There seems no obvious reason why “producerial” doesn’t work as a word, even though it clearly doesn’t. Sometimes a word just sounds wrong, and that is enough reason to feel uncomfortable around it. Words ending in ‘r’ which have an ‘-ial’ tacked on the end can work. Managerial is a perfectly fine word. Or if Brad Pitt had wanted to go behind the camera in a different way, he could have had a successful directorial career.

But this is not a universal linguistic rule, it seems, and unlike some situations, where you can add a prefix or a suffix to make up a word that at least sounds OK, with this suffix, you can’t. Teacherial, actorial, hookerial – none of these add a sensible adjectival element to these professions.

It could be as simple as the fact that they are not filling a linguistic need – we don’t really need an adjective from these words, they are not filling a linguistic hole, so they simply sound wrong.

And to prove that such words are not necessary, you only have to check out the Spanish versions of the Brad Pitt story. “He disfrutado mucho el lado producerial,”, the translation declares. Producerial is not translated into a neat Spanish alternative, it seems to be producerial in any language. And so the first thing that Brad Pritt has produced since his announcement is a word that nobody needs.

What’s In a Name? Just ask Newcastle fans

There was a predictable outcry after Newcastle United announced that their St James’ Park ground is to be renamed the Sports Direct Arena. But putting aside football loyalty, why was this reaction inevitable from a linguistic point of view?

Names may not seem an obvious choice of subject for Wordability, interested as it is in new words and usages in the English Language. Proper names seem somehow outside the normal run of language, and when they are coined, it is not part of a language’s evolution. But proper nouns are fundamental to language and are words we use all the time, so when new names are used, our reaction to them is just as valid as it would be to any other kind of new word. Justification over.

I actually think about people’s names quite often. It is one of the most defining characteristics we have, and yet it is something over which we had no control. It was a decision taken about us by others, possibly before we had even been born, and people may form immediate opinions about us from our name before they have even met us. Don’t believe me? If I told you Tarquin and Persephone were coming round for dinner, you would prepare something different to what you would cook if I said that Wayne and Sharon were popping over.

Of course people do shorten their names, adopt nicknames, use middle names, add variety to the names they were given to help define their personality. But it is much harder to adapt when somebody makes an active change to their name and expects you to get used to it. I knew someone who used different names for different periods of their life, so depending on who you you spoke to about them, they used totally different names to discuss them. Other friends have decided to stop abbreviating their names, but I find it impossible to adjust. Andy, that’s you!

And this is equally true of celebrities. Former footballer Andy Cole suddenly announced he wanted to be known as Andrew Cole. Every time commentators mentioned him, I assumed they were referring to someone I had never heard of. Prince became a squiggle, and all people could do was call him the artist formerly known as Prince. Choosing an emblem has its problems, and had Prince really wanted to make a change, he should have chosen another name. Derek, perhaps.

Which brings us back to Newcastle. The reason that the change to the Sports Direct Arena is so hard for fans to take is that it is like having to use a new word, it is like being told that there has been a fundamental change in the English language, and from now on you have to refer to bread as bacon and to bacon as toast. It is impossible to do. That name is locked in your head as the right word to use for that stadium, and you can’t unlearn a word in your native tongue and replace it with something else.

It’s fine with new stadia. They are brand new concepts, if you like, so they need a new word to describe them. The fact that many of them are sponsored is irrelevant, and if they then go on to change their name again, so what, you hardly had time to get used to it in the first place. Leicester now play at the King Power Stadium. Before that, it was the Walker’s Stadium. Only fan power stopped it being called The Walker’s Bowl before that. Fans know something about what stadia should be called. Newcastle be warned.

A portrait in words heralds latest dictionary

The arrival of the new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary is no ordinary dictionary launch – it really is a new edition for the interconnected age.

But before we get to that, let’s deal with Wordability’s bread and butter. While there are 10,000 new words in this latest edition, and some great ones at that, the list tells us less about very recent language trends than the new UK volumes that Wordability recently discussed. This is because those books were annual updates. The American tome is a brand new edition which has been 11 years in the making.

Instead, what many of the new additions demonstrate is the English language’s endless creativity when it comes to the formation of new words. And this, of course, is what Wordability loves. Flexitarian, a vegetarian who occasionally lapses and eats meat or fish, is a wonderful example of English being a flexilanguage (note to American Heritage Editors – you might want to consider flexilanguage in your next edition, as in ‘English is a great flexilanguage which exhibits superb wordability’. At this rate, I could have my own dictionary.)

I am also fond of backronym, which is the formation of an acronym from a previously existing word. For example, wiki is a collaborative website, but it is also now an acronym, or more properly backronym, standing for ‘what I know is’. While I remember, I should mention I look forward to lots of snow (something new on Wordability) in the next few months.

The dictionary also has a spectacular array of scientific words, such as Spaghettification, the extreme stretching of an object by tidal forces and therefore nothing to do with the effect that pasta restaurants are having on the high street. Most magnificently of all comes uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, A surgical procedure for treating severe obstructive sleep apnea, a word that probably takes as long to say as the surgery does to perform.

But what is most interesting about this release is the marketing plan behind it. There is a large print edition, of course, but buying this now gives users access to a website and an app, so that they can look up words on the moves. The publishers still expect to sell a lot of hard copies, but they also recognise that nowadays, people simply look words up on whatever electronic device comes to hand.

Hugh Westbrook, Wordability, in Words

Most entertaining of all is the You are Your Words website, launched to coincide with the new edition. This fun site allows you to put in a photo of yourself, together with some words which you feel sum you up (and put on the spot to come up with at least 400 characters is harder than it might appear). The site then gives you a picture of yourself drawn in words. You can even play around with the colours. This is how your Wordability author looks in blue.

We are asked to describe ourselves all the time in all sorts of settings – meeting people at parties, getting to know new colleagues, submitting CVs. We always think of these things as words on a page, not images. While the Your are Your Words image is a bit of fun, it might stop to make us think about the image of us people form when we start to speak.