Category Archives: General

General observations on the English Language

What’s been Fappening

It’s hardly surprising that the recent scandal over the hacking of embarrassing photos of celebrities has garnered so much attention. Pictures of stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, wearing only what nature endowed them with, have gone viral across the globe, as have the investigations and accusations over how this could have happened.

One sideline to all of this from the Wordability perspective is that it has added a little nugget to the English language. I will freely admit to never having heard the term Fap before, but fortunately the Urban Dictionary is on hand to tell me that it is a slang term for masturbation.

Fap has ended up being used to to help create the term to describe this whole affair . The Fappening, a blend of Fap and Happening, has been coined as the catch-all title for this story, and it is now being used across the internet, in headlines and stories, as the key term by which to refer to the scandal. It has stuck because it makes it feel like a carefully stage-managed event, which of course it was. However, I’m sure it is a word that those directly affected by events will not take kindly to, which is perfectly understandable, potentially adding further distress to how they must feel about what has happened.

Fappening is not a word destined for dictionaries or longevity, but will certainly be used when we are summing up 2014 and looking back on the events which shaped the year.

And I am extremely grateful that linguistically, it didn’t follow usual protocol applied to scandals. Fapgate would have sounded so wrong.

Geocache Now On Board

I must confess to being disappointed by the newest word in the Scrabble firmament. A few weeks ago, Scrabble’s makers Hasbro announced that a public vote would decide on a new word to go into the Scrabble dictionary, and there was naturally a great deal of hype around what that word might be.

In the end Geocache proved to be the winner of the public vote. Like me, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth it means. so to put you out of your misery, it is a verb meaning “to seek items by means of a GPS device as part of a game”.

The victory seems to have been more about corralling the vote than about finding a word that is suitable for the Scrabble board. Evidently the Geocaching community (I didn’t even know that existed!) managed to rally support via Twitter, and when there is a word which has a community behind it, well there can only be one result.

But I am more disappointed by the fact that the word is fairly inappropriate for Scrabble itself. Slate magazine describes it as useless in an excellent dissection of the story, and I find that I completely concur with that analysis. Eight letter words, especially those with two ‘C’s, are very hard to play. It is hard to imagine that the word will make many, if any, appearances. And for diehard players, it would have been much more satisfying if the runner-up, Zen, had proved triumphant. A new short word featuring a ‘Z’ would undoubtedly have benefited players across the globe.

But even if the eventual outcome was a little bit hijacked, the story itself proved that not only is Scrabble still a wildly popular game, but the public at large remains fascinated by language and the new words which continue to be formed.

Because Language Changes

Even though it is now 2014, the final embers of 2013 are still upon us. Primary among this is the decision of the American Dialect Society to name Because as its word of the year.

Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said that a change in its grammatical usage in informal online settings was behind the victory. He said: “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’”

That’s why I think this is such a fascinating victory. Much of the language change which is ascribed to new forms of digital communication revolves around neologisms, new words being coined and taking off quickly, abbreviations exploding as words in their own right. But the idea that online messaging can actually change the grammatical properties of a previously existing word is a fascinating one, and that such a well entrenched word as Because can gain a whole new lease of life because of a switch in usage really emphasises that the English language is in a state of flux and that its evolution is gathering pace.

I was also interested to see Slash taking second place. Used as a coordinating conjunction to mean “and/or” (e.g., “come and visit slash stay”), it is an example almost of a new type of word or grammatical formulation. I read a fascinating piece last year by Professor Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan about how slash is evolving as a new kind of conjunction, exactly the usage in fact which the American Dialect Society has cited.

So while Wordability‘s focus will remain on new words as they evolve, this blog itself may find itself evolving to look at new parts of speech and how the fundamental rules of English may now be starting to change because of the influence of digital communication. One of the questions for 2014 may well be whether we are at the start of what will prove to be a fundamental change to the language we grew up with.

It is a fascinating time to be looking at the English language.

Polar Vortex Blasts In

There are few upsides to terrible weather, so one must draw whatever comfort one can when either extremely cold, wet or more likely both blow in. So at least my Wordability hat can keep me metaphorically warm by adding new words to my stock of knowledge.

As is so often the case, a term thrusts itself into public consciousness because of a bout of extreme weather, and although not actually new, it is unknown enough to be treated as a new word, given inverted commas in headlines and so on, and will go on to be considered one of the key new terms of the year, even though it is old and is only enjoying its time in the linguistic sun because the phenomenon it describes is doing everything it can to blot the sun out of people’s lives.

Polar Vortex is the term which is currently enjoying this level of notoriety. The term, which means a cyclone emanating from the Arctic region, is everywhere right now because of the extreme cold which is engulfing the United States, causing massive problems and outbreaks of bizarre stunts to show just how quickly things can freeze. It will only last a few days, but it will be long enough to leave a lasting impression, reignite the debate over global warming and leave us all wondering whether it will be a term we see again any time soon. It is the Derecho of 2014.

Polar Vortexes were central to the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Their fictional appearance did not propel them into common language in the way that their actual appearance has. Let’s hope that some of the other apocalyptic events depicted in fiction don’t force their way into our minds by occurring in reality.

Was 2013 A Year of Failure?

Amid all of the words of the year discussions, I have never felt that 2013 comes out as a particularly negative year. All right, as the nominations have shown, our interests may have been self-centred, focusing on Selfie or Privacy, or financial, as Bitcoin has proved, but none suggested that the year has been one of doom and gloom, as maybe some other recent years have been.

So as 2013 comes to an end, it is apposite to look at the Global Language Monitor’s list of words of the year, compiled as it is from mass analysis of actual usage across the globe. This surely is the most comprehensive survey of what words have truly been used by people over the last 12 months, and should therefore give us real insight into what our preoccupations have been.

It is therefore sobering to see that top of the list is 404, the computer glitch code which tells us when a page isn’t working, followed by Fail, which has developed all manner of usage patterns in the last few years. When you combine this list with the top phrase list, where Toxic Politics and Federal Shutdown reign, and it feels more and more that this was not a year we will look back on with much fondness.

It is also interesting to note that in usage terms, none of the words nominated by others as the word of the year actually features. The only one which has been mentioned by commentators is Twerking, and that comes out at number 13. In fact, Merriam-Webster may have been onto something after all with Science, with celestial related words and phrases appearing in the lists and Drones, Nano-and The Cloud all in the top twenty.

So was 2013 a year of failure? A difficult year? Yes. A fully negative experience? No. Maybe the answer lies back in those other Word of the Year choices. In a year where Selfie and Bitcoins have been key terms, where obsession with Twerking and other trivialities has been overly consuming, has the year actually pointed to a failure in society, where interest in the self has come at the expense of caring for others? If that is the lesson of Selfie’s triumph, then a year of 404s and Fails tells us perhaps all we need to know about what this means about society.

But onwards. As the Wordability year draws to a close, the words that have been covered on this blog have been as diverse as ever, covering all aspects and interests of society, and there is no reason to believe that 2014 will be any different. And as you wait to see what words will dominate next year, you can still look back over 2013 with Phubbing All Over The World, which remains available to purchase.

Wishing everybody a happy and 404-free remainder of 2013.

Phubbing All Over The World

Choosing a word of the year for 2013 has been tough. When August started, there was absolutely nothing obvious. But that situation was just about to change.

When it comes to making the decision, words which are heavily searched for will always feature highly in my thinking, because that demonstrates an interest and usage by people in the English-speaking word.

But for me, a word of the year also has to say something about the year, be a commentary on the way society has been over the last 12 months. Last year I chose a range of words, with Eastwooding, Mother Flame and Ineptocracy providing a commentary on politics, the Olympics and the modern flowering of new terms.

I’m not sure that when historians look back on 2013, there will be an easy way to encapsulate it. Austerity and political strife have continued, but much the same as before. The major scandals, well they were really carried over from last year. Big sporting events, not really. I think Oxford Dictionaries had a similar issue when they chose their word of the year. Selfie was a good choice, because as well as its increasing usage in 2013, it also suggests a fracturing of society, that actually the thing that binds people together this year and describes the year is an obsession with self, and making sure everybody then knows about me, me, me. Social media binds us together, but is perhaps making us more isolated and individualistic.

And that is also behind my choice of Word of the Year. Phubbing first came to my attention in August. Reported as the brainchild of an Australian student, Phubbing suddenly started appearing everywhere. The word, a blend of Phone and Snubbing, describes the act of engaging with your mobile device rather than the person you are standing next to, real, physical social interaction replaced by virtual interaction with someone or something that isn’t really there. It struck me at the time as a brilliant word, fulfilling a semantic need and speaking accurately of a truly modern mode of behaviour. It summed up much of what defines 2013.

The truth behind the creation of Phubbing simply sealed the deal for me. It turned out that this was not a student initiative, it was actually a carefully crafted guerrilla marketing by a Melbourne agency, designed to sell dictionaries. They even released a video showing how a group of language experts had come together in 2012 to create the word and then try and seed it online to get it to take off. For me, this tale confirms everything I have always said about how the nature of language evolution has changed. Forget the fact it was created and consciously marketed – if the word hadn’t been any good and hadn’t been necessary, it couldn’t have taken off. But the way that it did, the fact that it is consistently searched for and read about on Wordability, the way it has just slipped into normal vocabulary, especially in my household, simply affirms that it is the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Phubbing also provides the backdrop to this year’s book of words. Following the publication of Eastwooding With the Mother Flame last year, I am delighted to announce the arrival of Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013, which is available now as both an e-book and a paperback from Amazon.

Run Away From the King of Gore

I always enjoy a good dinosaur discovery story, because a new dinosaur inevitably means a new word.

The latest finding in the world of paleontology is an ancient ancestor to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Lythronax argestes was found in Utah. It is estimated that it lived 80m years ago, was eight metres long, weighed two and a half tonnes and ate copious quantities of meat with its vast array of teeth.

While the word Lythronax automatically goes into the lexicon as a new type of dinosaur, I expect the translation of the Latin will catch on in popular consciousness. After all, referring to a dinosaur as The King of Gore is far better for headline writers, children and makers of films about recreating dinosaurs from strands of DNA.