Monthly Archives: April 2012

He Shoots. He Scores. Goalgasm!

When Fernando Torres rounded Barcelona’s goalkeeper to confirm Chelsea’s place in the Champions League final, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the moment would only remembered for the drama of his goal.

But no. Accompanying the goal came a shriek of delight from Sky co-commentator Gary Neville. It was so high-pitched and excessive it has shot round the internet. It has been dubbed a Goalgasm.

While it is quite clear how this delightful word came to be derived, there is actually no -gasm suffix in English which denotes an outpouring of climactic joy. Orgasm itself is derived from the French orgasme, or modern Latin orgasmus, or Greek orgasmos, from organ ‘swell or be excited’. No Or- with a neatly tucked on -gasm there then.

But this doesn’t matter. The only word which ends -gasm is the aforementioned saucy one, so using it as a suffix automatically confers the correct meaning. I could randomly make up shoegasm, chocloategasm or spoongasm, and you could immediately imagine the kind of reaction somebody would be having to buying a great new pair of shoes, eating superb chocolate, or, er, finding a lovely spoon.

Neville’s reaction is just one of a long line of over-excitable commentaries throughout the ages, while football fans like myself can look back with slight embarrassment to those moments when the emotion of a vital goal made us react in ways we’d rather forget.

So the next time you feel one of those moments coming on, just picture Gary Neville. That should soon calm you down.

Sweden Eliminates Men and Women

There has been a fascinating linguistic development in Sweden, and one that poses a question for a possible future change in English.

Gender politics is a hot topic in the Scandinavian country, and it recently led to the publication of what was described as the country’s first gender neutral children’s book, Kivi och Monsterhund. The gender neutrality came from the use of a new personal pronoun instead of ‘han’ for he or ‘hon’ for she. The word that was used was ‘hen’.

Hen has now taken a step towards official recognition by being included in the country’s National Encyclopedia. So the question for English is: do we need a new word to be created to exist alongside ‘he’ and ‘she’ which allows things to be described without a potential user’s gender?

English already has alternatives. ‘They’ is often used when a person’s sex is unknown. ‘It’ is another possibility, albeit one that seems to depersonalise people. But I think in English, any change would purely be one of practicality, rather than linguistic politics, which seems to be the driving force behind the Swedish decision.

Which is not to say that English does not have inherent sexism built in, it is just that I don’t think this is it. The English language is full of what can be called unequal lexical pairs, where the male and female equivalents of a word carry more differences in meaning than just the gender difference. Think about master and mistress. On the surface, they should be equivalent titles, like Mr and Mrs. But a Master of Arts has expertise in an academic subject; a Mistress of Arts sounds like the kind of person who would charge a premium for personal services. And in that vein, a man who is active between the sheets is a gigolo, praised for his virility. Language unkindly has pejorative words like slut for the female equivalent – language summing up the prevailing sexist attitudes of centuries gone by.

So does language reflect thought or condition it? I think it is the former, though I have long been fascinated by the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak affects how you think, so if certain words are not present, your world view is affected. This is a complex subject, not easily dismissed, but the absence of a word does not stop a person having a thought. Instead, we should see language as a reflection of where it has come from and watch how changes in society then permeate through to everyday speech.

Which brings us back to Sweden, and a pronoun whose creation seems very clearly to represent a mood in the country, as well as being a great catalyst for a conversation about political correctness gone too far. Is this a change that is needed in English? Probably not. Could it be brought in even if it was needed? Definitely not.

There is one context in which it would be useful, however. The Wordability family will expand later this year with a second child. I currently refer to the growing baby as ‘he or she’, as I don’t want to commit myself, and as pointed out above, ‘it’ just seems too clinical and object like.

Maybe I should just adopt ‘hen’ for the foreseeable future.

Mobile Users Having A Smishing Time

You can always tell when a new word hasn’t caught on – two or three years after it is first coined, it still has inverted commas around it when hits the headlines.

So it is with Smishing, the mobile cousin of phishing. It is the practice of sending bogus text messages to people in order to con them and was actually coined in 2006 in a blog on the McAfee website. But six years later, it has still not shed its inverted commas or the sense that people are seeing it for the first time.

Smishing is currently in the news in America because of an outbreak of fake Wal-Mart related text messages. It has led to much coverage of a new type of cyber attack but all the articles confirm that despite its few years of linguistic existence, it is a term that none of us have ever heard of.

Which begs the question of why. Smishing is derived from SMS and Phishing, and simply conflates the two. Phishing is itself a conflation, though not an obvious one. It takes fishing and combines it the ph from phone phreaking, which is the art of cracking the phone network.

Despite its rather convoluted derivation, phishing works as a word. You can immediately understand it as it has the element of fishing for something until you get a catch, in this case a cyber one, and the ‘ph’ spelling makes it seem kind of techy, even if you have no idea why it is actually spelt like that.

But smishing? It doesn’t have the benefit of sounding like another word. It actually sounds pretty daft. And because of its slight ludicrousness, it is hard to imagine it being talked about with the same seriousness as its email ancestor.

So even though there is a growing problem of spam text messages landing on people’s mobiles around the world, I don’t expect to see Smishing finding its way into common vocabulary any time soon.

Culturomics: The Challenge for Wordability

I have been thinking a lot about Culturomics recently. Frankly, it has given me a headache. But it has also reminded me that if Wordability were to be up to date with ever single new word that enters the English Language, I would be glued to my keyboard the whole time and would neither eat nor sleep.

Culturomics has existed as a word and a discipline for two years. It is a very exciting linguistic development, and one that is only possible because of advances in technology. With millions of books now existing in digital format, courtesy of Google, scientists are able to analyse this vast amount of data to derive conclusions about the English language that have never previously been possible.

The first paper, published at the end of 2010 in the journal Science (free log-in needed to view the link), analysed 4% of all published material and used this to give an indication of the number of words in the English language. The estimate came out at more than a million, far more than recorded by dictionaries.

This year, a new paper by Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin and H. Eugene Stanley has given Wordability something to think about. Rejoicing in the catchy title Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death, the paper applies science to the life of words and comes up with rules to explain the birth and death of words and the evolutionary processes that govern their existence.

Leaving aside the many complex equations and use of Greek letters, the writers come to some interesting conclusions. More than 8,000 words entered the English language last year, so you can understand why Wordability will only track those that really start to hit the headlines. It also says that there is a change in the rate at which words are born and die, with more words dying off and fewer words coming in, though it says that those that do arrive have greater staying power because they describe completely new things, such as in the field of technology.

What is particularly interesting is the way that evolutionary theory can be applied to words. As the authors say, “words are competing actors in a system of finite resources”. Factors such as being favoured by modern spell checkers can given a word “reproductive fitness” and allow it to survive against other words of a similar semantic bent.

I have thought about this paper quite a lot, and find myself wondering if it will actually end up marking a point in time and that the evolutionary rules are about to change. Is the technology which allows Culturomics to flourish and these observations to be made now going to be the agent which changes that evolutionary process?

The authors say that it takes around 30-50 years for a word to be fully accepted and to either make it into a dictionary or disappear into linguistic obscurity. I wonder whether this will now change, and a new pattern will start to emerge. I have bemoaned in the past how long it sometimes takes dictionary makers to recognise words which have gained significant currency. In our interconnected world, where ideas and words can fly across the globe and become accepted almost instantly, the evolutionary pattern identified by the authors may start to change. I suspect it may become quicker for words to become accepted, and that the survival characteristics that will govern this will also change. Words that are slightly silly, that have the capacity to be shared on social networks, that describe an action people can participate in, will be the ones that evolve rapidly and see off the other competing words around them.

It is a fascinating concept that words fight the same survival battles as species on earth. In the 21st century, it will be interesting to see what factors allow them to survive.

Why Dinosaurs and Birthdays are Banned

The New York department of education has been receiving a great deal more publicity than it could possibly have imagined following the release of a recent edict.

Officials have banned the use of 50 words from future tests in order to allow “students to complete practice exams without distraction”. And it is the nature and reason surrounding many of those bans that is causing, frankly, bemusement.

So exams will no longer be able to use the word ‘Birthday’ in case any Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate birthdays, are put off their work; ‘Dinosaur’ is out, not a word the creationists will want to see; ‘Pepperoni’, because it’s junk food; ‘Computers in the home’ and ‘homes with swimming pools’, as not every child could afford such luxuries; ‘Celebrities’, frankly, I haven’t seen any attempted explanation for this one. And so it goes on, and the complete list is quite something to behold.

Now I’ll admit, this type of thing is not normal Wordability fare, as it is not celebrating the creation of an entertaining new word. But language change is as much about words going out of fashion as coming into fashion, so I have found myself intrigued by this story.

And, to be honest, a little worried. New York officials have clearly defended themselves and even pointed out that words like ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Wildfire’ are banned in Florida because of local worries there. But banning words, proscibing language that is or is not acceptable, smacks of a dangerous level of control and a worrying sense of governance.

Language change is a natural phenomenon. It cannot be forced. Thankfully, people in the major English-speaking countries of the world do not live under a language policy that attempts to control people by making certain words illegal. We all come to know that some words cause offence and shouldn’t be used, but this kind of thing can be taken too far and can undermine efforts to outlaw words which are genuinely offensive.

The officials may also want to look at the nature of the criticism they have received, and what it says about the way language is actually used. People have been laughing at them. The reaction is one of derision. And that is because the words they are trying to ban are so basic, so fundamental to everyday conversation, that to ban them is almost to render language useless. Added to that the concepts are so normal that they cannot be banned, and it can’t be assumed that their linguistic removal will suddenly mean that children no longer know about them.

Issuing rules about banning words, when the words that are chosen are so grossly inoffensive to begin with, simply invalidates any reasonable message that people are trying to get across and confirms that people know how language changes – gradually, and not by force.

UPDATE: New York’s education officials have now changed their mind and ditched the banned word list following the raft of adverse publicity. I like to think that Wordability played a tiny part.