Monthly Archives: December 2011

How The Turkeys Got Stuffed

To celebrate the holiday season, Wordability brings you a festive short story:

It was headline news when turkeys voted for Christmas.

Farmer Colin Walters had assumed the ballot papers in the turkey coop were the work of ironic kids. But then he noticed how the turkeys were jostling each other to get as much feed as possible, and when he joked “you really did vote for Christmas”, he was staggered when one replied “it was about time”.

Within days, Barry the Turkey was on television, explaining how turkeys had finally decided to accept the inevitable and acknowledge they were merely Christmas fodder for the masses.

People were not sure what amazed them more – that turkeys were so self-sacrificing, or that Barry could talk. Whichever one it was, this show of intelligence convinced many that these sentient beings could not adorn their Christmas table, and that year, nut roasts ran short on supermarket shelves.

Buoyed by his supporters on radio and the internet, Barry described his love for language and launched his war on cliche. To that end, he unveiled his chocolate teapot, specially tempered to avoid melting. Shortly afterwards, he flew to the Arctic and sold a snow machine to a group of eskimos.

But when he returned and checked out his legions of fans on website forums and phone-in shows, he found they had changed. His murdering of their basic phrases had deprived them of the only way they had of expressing themselves, and suddenly angry invective trailed off into oblivion as the self-styled arbiters of modern-day opinion found they had no resources with which to finish their sentences.

And so Barry became a figure of hate as a popular movement to turn him into twizzlers was formed. His achievements were forgotten and turkeys went back to eating the minimum of what was put in front of them.

Barry locked himself up and threw away the key.

Staines-Upon-Thames I Hardly Knew You

And so it’s true. Staines, that humble town in Surrey, or Middlesex, depending on your point of view, is no more. From now on, it is Staines-upon-Thames.

Why do I care? Here I declare my personal interest. I was brought up in Staines. My father ran a business there for years. My grandfather was the mayor. There is even a road named after my family.

Why does Wordability care? Well, as  argued when Newcastle United announced plans to rename St James’ Park, names matter. They are fundamental words which define the way we see things, and changing long-established ones can cause immense upheaval.

The good people of Staines have decided enough of derision, enough of the Ali G association. They say that Staines is a vibrant town with an enviable riverside location, and by recognising that in the name, it will immeasurably improve the town’s standing and perception.

A commendable argument. But wrong, I think, in a peculiarly 21st century way. If the council had decided this 100 years ago, not many people would have noticed. They could have subtly introduced the name, changed signs, letterheads and so on, and people would have gradually become aware of the change and accepted it

But in the interconnected modern world, where Ali G is infamous and the internet has spread the story far and wide, it has opened the decision up to potential ridicule which can spread across the world. So rather than people merely accepting the decision, it automatically comes coloured with the comments, the links and the opinions of countless people that this is a pointless and slightly laughable exercise.

While there will be official efforts next year to implement the name, everybody will still refer to it as Staines. Who talks about Richmond-upon-Thames or Kingston-upon-Hull? Probably only the councillors who thought this was a good idea in the first place.

And if people ask me where I am from, the answer will still be Staines. Because in reality, that will still be its name.

Why Gloomadon-Poppers will never catch on

You have to admire that Boris Johnson. He seems to be waging a one-man campaign to get a new word to take off. But after six years of trying, I think he should now concede defeat.

The Mayor of London has been at it again, describing people who believe that the city will grind to a halt during next year’s Olympics as Gloomadon-Poppers. His office has even had to explain this term, saying it is defined as people who habitually put out negative news.

The thing is, it isn’t the first time that Mr Johnson has used this term. Way back in 2005, he said that Gordon Brown was a gloomadon-popping old busybody in a piece in The Telegraph. He described Ken Loach as gloomadon-popping in a Telegraph article about the film industry in 2006. In 2008, he wrote about Gordon Brown and the gloomadon-poppers of the BBC.  And in 2009, he penned a slightly weird article about bees and the gloomadon-poppers of the Financial Times.

Yet despite all his efforts, the word will just not catch on. I have managed to find one independent usage of it, in a Daily Mail piece by Harry Phibbs from January 2011. And yet despite this linguistic cold shoulder, he is at it again and what one can only hope is a final, desperate attempt to launch his word.

I think it is obvious why this has not worked as a new word. It makes no sense when you hear it. It has to be explained to you. For a neologism to take off, you have to get it the first time you hear it. And so I am afraid, Mr Johnson, your gloomadon has been well and truly popped.

The Forth Bridge ends a Linguistic Era

While Wordability loves to celebrate the arrival of new words and phrases, it also needs to stop and mark the moment when a phrase ceases to be. Normally it would be hard to pin that down, but we can date one such occasion to December 9, 2011.

That was when the painting of the Forth Road Bridge in Edinburgh came to an end.

And so we can no longer say ‘it’s like painting the Forth Bridge’ to describe something which feels endless and which starts again as soon as it finishes. Instantly, the phrase now means ‘It will take a long time but you’ll get there in the end. Go home, you never have to do this again’. Not really much cop any more, is it.

Twitter quickly jumped into action to suggest alternatives, marking them with the hash tag #islikepaintingtheforthbridge. Politics was the most obvious subject for never-ending tasks, with suggestions such as ‘Finding a banker willing to accept responsibility for their failed gambles’ from Neocon Hitman, or Christine Roberts’ suggestion of ‘Watching David Cameron and William Hague on television’. Dan Frost went pleasingly self-referential with ‘Coming up with metaphors to replace painting the forth bridge’. But my personal favourite was Chewbacca, who went on to Twitter to suggest ‘Shaving a Wookie’. Accurate, but hard to see it catching on really.

So what should we use? It would be dull to choose something prosaic and domestic, such doing the washing or clearing up after children. After all,those are the kind of chores that the Forth Bridge phrase existed to describe. And I think that the political suggestions floating around will not be long-lasting enough to resonate in the English Language.

So what is going to exist for some time, is well known to many people and feels like it starts again as soon as it has finished. The football season? Apple product launches? Watching reality television? All accurate, but none feels solid enough.

I think we may have to wait for a new long-running project to emerge to take over the mantle. Or failing that, we can just sit it out for a few years. The paint on the Forth Bridge is bound to start peeling eventually.

A Word of the Year You Have Never Heard Of

Hot on the heels of the Oxford Dictionary announcement that ‘Squeezed Middle’ was the word of the year, the dictionary.com website has made its own announcement.

The Oxford decision to go with a word that was actually two words caused some controversy.  So the online dictionary’s decision to go with a word that nobody has ever heard of might turn out to be equally perplexing.

Their approach was to choose a word that has existed for some time but has resonance in relation to the events of the last 12 months, rather than a new word or usage from 2011.

So it is back to 1645 for this year’s word of the year – the verb Tergiversate.

It means ‘to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause or subject’, and editors felt that it was associated with rapidly changing times and periods of tumult, thus perfectly encapsulating the ups and downs of this year.

While I understand this approach, to me this doesn’t seem in keeping with the concept of a word of the year. I am much more in favour of a new word from the previous 12 months that captures a mood or a trend, rather than simply finding a word from the past that does that same job. You wouldn’t award an Oscar to a film from the 1930s just because it said something about the state of modern society better than any contemporary movie.

I actually wish the editors had chosen another one of the words under consideration, ‘zugzwang’, a chess term in which a player is limited to moves that either cost pieces or damage their position, just because I like the sound of it. Had they done that, then maybe I would tergiversate my view of their decision.