Monthly Archives: May 2012

Roll Your Eyes at Tardy Swift Boats

Heard of eye rolling, green technology and swift boats? Of course you have. They’ve been around for years. Or maybe not. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I don’t quite get the Oxford English Dictionary’s policy for their quarterly updates.

In their latest announcement, many of the words now added to the online Oxford English Dictionary seem reassuringly familiar, and not typical of new words at all. The definition for Swift Boat even cites its appearance in the 2004 US Election as the time it came into public consciousness.

Now I know that the OED policy states that words have to have been used for a certain length of time and in a sufficient variety of places for inclusion in the dictionary, and as the official arbiter of language, this is clearly the right policy. The OED is the ultimate record of language, and is clearly not going to validate some of the words which appear fleetingly and then disappear again almost without trace.

But I find the examples above bizarre, as they are all words which have been common for some time, and if I said I had been rolling my eyes over the situation, nobody would have struggled to understand me. It just strikes me that when it is being trumpeted that new words have been added to a dictionary, there should be something vaguely novel about them.

In fact, the recent financial buzz phrases, such as Robin Hood Tax and Debt Ceiling, seem to have been accepted at just the right time. It feels like they have been around for just short enough that their welcome to the OED fraternity is perfectly timed. More of the same, please.

My favourite word on the list was one I was unfamiliar with. A minimoon is a short break taken by a married couple, typically as a prelude to a longer holiday. I probably should have known it. It’s been around since the 1970s. So not so new after all.

Mother Flame Powers The Torch Relay

I must admit that I have been sceptical about the level of interest in the Olympic Torch relay, now winding its way across the UK ahead of July’s Games. This cynicism has not been directed at the relay itself, which has always struck me as an excellent prelude to the main event, with understandable local enthusiasm when the torch is finally in your vicinity.

No, I have been convinced that the BBC’s dedicated live coverage page, featuring a permanent stream of people running with the torch, together with text commentary, would struggle to find an audience because of the sheer monotony of the event to all but those in any given area on any given day. But with hundreds of thousands of people seemingly becoming addicted to the coverage, it seems I was wrong. Ah well.

So why Wordability’s interest. Well the Torch Relay has already started to contribute some fresh terms to the English language. The best of them came when the torch went out on Day Three. This was the point at which we found out that the fire being carried as a back-up in case the flame goes out is known as the ‘Mother Flame’.

I love this term, complete with its connotations of space ships and aliens. Actually, the rules governing relighting the flame are interesting, as the original flame from Greece has to be kept burning at all times, with relighting coming straight from this source, the aforementioned Mother. Bear in mind, Mother Flame flew all the way from Greece in a specially chartered plane. One hopes she was treated to first class.

It’s also important to remember that the relay is about the fire, and not the actual torches. Each torch bearer has their own torch, lit by its predecessor in a delicate operation known as a ‘Torch Kiss’. To cover longer distances during its daily journeys, the torch travels in a van and is not visible to the public. This is known as ‘Convoy Mode’. It’s where the BBC’s coverage becomes less interesting and is basically just live footage of a drive down the A30. Of course, the BBC itself is responsible for the term ‘Torchcam’, the camera which broadcasts all the live footage, together with its associated Twitter hashtag #bbctorchcam.

There have already been moments in the coverage where a new word has not yet emerged. Controversy has erupted over the decision by some torch bearers to sell their torches on eBay. What do we call such people – ‘Torch-Bayers’? ‘Flame Throwers’? And there is criticism over the celebrity status of some of the torch bearers and accusations of publicity seeking over some of the choices. I think the idea of asking Didier Drogba to take the torch through Swindon was particularly bizarre. ‘The Rich and Flamous’ perhaps?

As the Torch Relay powers on, it seems that interest in it will only increase, leading up to July and the start of the Olympics. It will be fascinating to see what the Olympics’ linguistic legacy turns out to be.

A Papple A Day

When is an apple not an apple? When it’s a cross between varieties of pear but still looks like an apple and tastes like a pear. And what do you call such a fruit? According to Marks and Spencer, you call it a Papple.

The new fruit, a hybrid grown in New Zealand, is due to go on sale in the UK retailer’s stores in the next few days, and is currently only called a papple as a temporary measure until another name is found, or so it is claimed. I’d be surprised if that ever changes. Its official name is T109, which will of course not be widely used, not least because it sounds like an Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi robot.

The concept of pear crosses having similarities to apples is not a new one. Nashi Pear is perhaps the best known name of the Pyrus pyrofolia species, with Apple Pear being one of the alternative names. A papple is clearly a different fruit, and the use of a name that will stick in people’s minds in the short term is a good way of establishing the brand.

But will it last? Well the appearance of the Papple has allowed people to remind us of the Pineberry, combining the best of the strawberry and the pineapple; the Grapple, which is a grape-like apple; or the Aprium, which combines the apricot with the plum.

What these cross-breed words serve to tell us is that while they sound memorable, they don’t really have any great longevity. We will think about papples and joke about the word for a few weeks, and then they will be likely to fade away, with the word quickly becoming historical and not entering everyday usage. In fact, it will only become current the next time that somebody combines some fruit and puts it in the shops, allowing us once again to trot out all its predecessors. For entertainment’s sake, let’s hope that anything in the future involves a mango.

Grexit – A Eurozone Language Crisis

If things were not bad enough for countries across Europe because of the ongoing economic crisis, they have just got a great deal worse thanks to the spawning of a particularly ugly new word.

Commentators around the globe now have a term to encapsulate the possibility of Greece exiting the Euro – they have called it a Grexit.

Apart from saving headline space for stressed sub-editors, it is hard to see what other function this word serves. It’s not pleasing on the ear, it takes a couple of seconds to work out what it actually means, and it’s frankly unnecessary – Greek Exit is hardly a term that was crying out to be shortened.

It is also not a word that can really be extended – if Spain or Portugal were to consider withdrawal, Spexit or Pexit just don’t cut it. But despite all of this, I expect it to become heavily used, while its prominence in the news cycle makes it likely to feature in many ‘Words of the Year’ lists.

The people I feel really sorry for are online webmail company Grexit, whose operation may now forever be tarnished by association with an economic crisis of which they are not a part. I do hope not. There are many casualties of the economic problems engulfing Europe at the moment. It would be a shame if a piece of linguistic nonsense claimed another.

Laugh Out Loud at David Cameron

It says much about the British public that despite Rebekah Brooks’ hours of evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, one trivial detail is likely to be the major thing her appearance is remembered for.

That triviality is the revelation that Prime Minister David Cameron sent her a number of texts, many of which were finished LOL under the mistaken assumption that it meant Lots of Love.

From a Wordability point of view, it is a fascinating insight into how new words face a rocky road to general usage. LOL, the Laugh Out Loud acronym applied to many online utterances, gained full acceptance in 2011 when it was accepted as a word by the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Cameron error highlights the fact that many people can be aware of a new word and know that uttering it confers some kind of hipness on the user. But their inability to use it properly shows not only that they are not hip, but also emphasises that they are trying and failing in their attempts at coolness.

I personally never use LOL, and am happy to admit that for a long time, I didn’t actually know what the letters stood for. But that was irrelevant, because I knew what it actually meant because I had seen it used in context. Being exposed to its correct usage would make it impossible for anyone to misuse it. The Prime Minister’s mistake suggests he has no friends on Facebook.

Of course, the other thing about the revelation is that you are left wondering just how long Ms Brooks allowed Mr Cameron to act like a linguistic pillock before she finally told him the truth. And given the reaction that the news has got, he may now be searching for some new acronyms with which to finish any future texts to his famous friend.

An Omnishambles at the Heart of Downing Street?

When I heard that the recent run of Coalition policies was being described as an Omnishambles, I thought that a great new political word had been coined. The fact that I was wrong says a great deal about the political animals currently at the top in the UK.

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s use of Ominshambles during Prime Minister’s Questions in April was not a new piece of linguistic dexterity coined just for the occasion. He was actually quoting political comedy The Thick of It, and in particular, its spin meister Malcolm Tucker.

The good news for Mr Miliband is that the word has stuck. The Omnishambles Budget, the Omnishambles of other recent incidents – this word summing up a number of things going wrong simultaneously is now appearing on radio and in print. It shows once again the power that one word can have to encapsulate a mood and dominate a political discusson.

But what does the rush to use Ominshambles tell use about the users? Are they using it because it is perfect and truly sums up the current situation? Or are they dong it simply to be trendy, to show they are in the know about hip political comedies which are clearly very familiar to our political leaders and they want to be part of the club.

If it is the latter, which seems likely, especially as I have heard it being delivered with an almost smug smirk, then I am happy to admit that I am not in the know and don’t have to slavishly jump on a bandwagon to show that I am part of any clique.

Omnishambles has the power to be a very useful piece of shorthand for the Opposition, and if it enters common usage, then this is a linguistic game well played. But if its in-joke nature annoys people and makes them feel cut off from our politicians and the joke they are sharing with each other, then its usage could backfire. In fact, it could reinforce the sense that behind closed doors, the leading politicians are all great mates, performing for the cameras but sharing interests away from them, and that could serve to highlight the distance people are increasingly feeling from the goings-on in Westminster.

Shwopping Presents a New Swapportunity

What is it with the need to create new words out of ‘swap’? Earlier this year, Wordability looked at the non-word Swapportunity, which has managed to gain a degree of currency despite being made up for an American Yoplait commercial.

Now UK retailing icon Marks & Spencer has got in on the act. Its new campaign, encouraging people to bring in an old item of clothing to donate to Oxfam whenever buying something new, has prompted them to try and introduce a new word into everyday English. People are shopping and swapping, so they must be Shwopping.

The plan has, hardly surprisingly, garnered significantly publicity, with ‘shwopping’ featuring prominently in all the coverage.

Can M&S claim to have invented it? The company is certainly proud of the word, and chief executive Marc Bolland was quoted as saying: “Within 24 hours this word of ‘shwopping’ might be added to the British language.”

But I wonder whether he checked with environmental campaigners in New Zealand. After all, in December last year, The Big Shwop took place in Wellington, encouraging people to swap one item for another. So maybe not quite as original as we thought.

Personally, I am not sure about shwopping as a word. It sounds a bit to me like I was planning to swap something, but the six pints of beer I drank made it much harder for me to say it. And that would be the only way I would be likely to shwop until I dropped.