Category Archives: General

General observations on the English Language

Language’s Greatest Era

As Wordability celebrates its 200th posting, it’s time to pause for a moment and take stock of the state of language today.

When I started the Wordability blog, I knew that the constant stream of new words and phrases which flood into the English language would ensure that there would always be a steady flow of things to write about. Added to that, the reaction that such stories often engender in the media confirmed that there would also be an audience who would find such musings interesting.

But what has become increasingly apparent is that much of that interest stems from people who want to moan and complain about the way that language changes, and protest that terms that become recognised as words simply aren’t words at all and should be sent back to where they came from.

This has been particularly apparent in the last few weeks, when a couple of high-profile organisations announced additions to their corpus. The Scrabble dictionary updated to use many new terms, which allowed headline writers everywhere to condemn this ‘Ridic’ development as ‘Obvs’ not ‘Dench’. Then US dictionary Merriam-Webster revealed its latest additions, with WTF lending itself most obviously to people who wanted to criticise the move. And even the French got in on the act, with their much-proclaimed ban on English words seemingly being relaxed in some volumes and Selfie finding a place in their listings.

So what does all this mean? Well to a blogger like myself, it means I will never be short of anything to write about. For as long as new words keep appearing and people continue to react to them, I will continue to have a blog worth maintaining.

However, it means a great deal more than that. Because I think this is the most exciting era for language development that there has ever been. The digital era in which we now reside has changed everything in ways that we don’t recognise ourselves yet, and will only recognise perhaps when we have a little more hindsight and perspective on the radical times in which we live. It is undeniable that the pace of life has changed and the global nature of our community has changed. And all of this has meant that language evolution has sped up to such a degree that we almost can’t keep track of it.

It’s not just the new words which appear, it is the challenges to the structure of language itself. It is these things which make this the most exciting era of language evolution there has ever been, not only because of the changes but also because of the footprint of change which digital technology provides, meaning we can track and understand those changes better than ever. We have a record of what is going on. As parts of speech change, new parts of speech emerge, and even new languages appear with extraordinary rapidity, this is a period to be heralded as amazingly exciting and not one to be condemned by those who believe that language is set in stone. It isn’t.

So what do I expect to write about in my next 200 postings? Will the English language look the same in 200 postings’ time? Well there will certainly be abundant new words, but many of those will disappear after their brief flowering and never come back again. For every selfie there are 10 Bleisures. People will continue to use -gate as a suffix with stupefying monotony. Hashtags will continue to evolve and become ever more powerful as means of communication. Technology and the internet will remain the greatest drivers of change. English will also continue to invade other languages, as the lingua franca of mass communication continues to define itself.

And throughout it all, vast swathes of people will continue to complain that English is being ruined and violated by the changes that are unavoidable. I look forward to reading the stories, writing about the developments, and ensuring that Wordability keeps abreast of all of the key new terms that our enriching our magnificent language.

Brelfies The Latest Craze

I vowed to myself that I would never again write about a Selfie derivative. And yet…

So another craze is now exploding across the Internet. Brelfies, breastfeeding selfies, are the latest phenonemon, as breastfeeding mothers post photographs of themselves feeding their tiny offspring.

I am not going to get into a debate about the pros and cons of the images themselves – others are probably far better placed. Instead, I want to draw attention to it in the annals of Wordability as one of the many Selfie crazes which seems to have gained some traction, and probably more than some of the other ones I have covered such as Felfies, Usies and Belfies.

But there is more than just recognising its existence. What is interesting is the way that Selfie is evolving as a word. The ‘elfie’ suffix can take almost anything at the beginning to denote a particular type of photo, but it has already undergone a semantic evolution. Selfies are very specifically photos that people take of themselves. Brelfies on the other hand are not taken by their subject, they are photographs of individuals but are taken by other people.

So the idea of a photographic portrait is being overtaken by the Selfie, whose linguistic derivatives are rapidly growing to encapsulate all kinds of photos of individuals. I wonder if it is possible that individual images of people will all come to be referred to in Selfie terms in the future, and the portrait photo will become a thing of the past. I wouldn’t rule it out.

Homillionaires On The Rise

There’s nothing like coining a new word to get your story into print. Many are the press releases I see where a neologistic angle has been taken as a way of grabbing headlines. Few are the ones that get any traction.

So well done to estate agency Savills, which managed to get quite widespread coverage for its findings about the increasing numbers of people who are living in houses worth a million pounds or more, but who don’t necessarily think of themselves as millionaires. According to Savills, they are ‘Homillionaires’.

I think a round of headlines is as far as this new word will travel. It’s a pretty ugly creation, and doesn’t really work at all in spoken format, which is a clear negative when it comes to widespread adoption. And while there is certainly a semantic gap for the term to squeeze into, property millionaires as a term probably covers it adequately enough.

That’s not to say that the word will completely disappear. I can see newspapers referencing it in other pieces about property prices this year, but always with inverted commas around it to confirm that it hasn’t really established itself. It’s a term whose future is probably purely for journalists and sub-editors.

The Word of 2015

Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

Even though 2015 has only just started, I think that we might already have the word of the year. Following the horrifying events in Paris, the hashtag #jesuischarlie has taken off globally. And I am left wondering if there will be a more powerful new term coined during the remainder of 2015.

Use of #jesuischarlie is fascinating in a number of ways. Initially it showed solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who were gunned down on January 7.

But for me it has now become so much more. To put #jesuischarlie in a Twitter post or other article, to put it on a T-shirt or just into your normal conversation, is to associate yourself with a global statement about freedom of speech, is to say that people will not be silenced just because somebody thought it reasonable to take a gun to those who would disagree with them. It is now a badge of belonging, of showing that we will all fight back against terror and not be afraid to say what we think. And its meaning will now stick as the marker of any statement of freedom of speech.

From a linguistic point of view, it demonstrates how language evolution is changing across all cultures. The fact that jesuischarlie is French is irrelevant, it is already an internationally understood term, good in any language. It is already capable of evolution, with #jesuisahmed appearing quickly on Twitter in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who also died in the attack. And it is not fanciful to imagine #jesuis emerging as a permanent prefix, capable of taking countless other endings to make anti-terror statements.

This also shows how hashtags are becoming words in their own right. To emphasise the point, the American Dialect Society this week chose #blacklivesmatter as the word of 2014, referencing emotive protests across North America. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”

We can only hope that events in Paris will not be the precursor to a year of atrocities and that freedom of speech will not be threatened again in this way. But it is moving to see the way that millions have stood up to have their voices heard, and have found a new word to rally behind.

Photobomb Starts Word of the Year Season

So Word of the Year season has started, and Collins dictionary is first off the mark with Photobomb as its choice for 2014. Explaining its choice, it says that photobombing has come of age this year, with the habit of popping up unexpectedly in the back of people’s photos exemplified by Benedict Cumberbatch and The Queen among others this year.

Collins lexicographer Ian Brookes said that the word was an undeniable winner and had been tracked for a couple of years, adding: “Its vastly increased prominence in 2014 shows the power of media and sporting events to publicise a word and bring it into wider use.”

Second place went to Tinder, a dating app, while Bakeoff, as in the hit BBC cooking show, came third.

This depressing list highlights the conclusion I have rapidly been coming to over the last few months. After some excellent years for language fans, I think that 2014 has been sadly lacking in terms of great new words being coined, or even old words getting a new lease of leaf. Part of me can’t help feeling that photobomb has been given this accolade because of Selfie’s success last year. So often has it subsequently been quoted as the word of 2013, getting in early with another popular form of imagery spread by social media could be construed as trying to ride on its coat tails.

The fact that second place goes to an app and third place to a TV show simply reinforces to me that choosing words of the year for 2014 will continue to prove particularly difficult, and that we may not look back on 2014 as a vintage year for new words.

A Shellshock From Bendgate

It’s not been a conspicuously great week for Apple. Problems with its latest operating system have seen customers complaining about their phones not working properly, and the subsequent decision to pull a software update hit the company’s share price.

Then of course there is the internet’s obsession with the physical problems associated with the new iPhone 6, and the claim that some of them are bending out of shape. Linguistically, Bendgate was almost inevitable, and while I have a general dislike of the ubiquity of the -gate suffix, every so often a gate comes along which is entertaining enough to pay attention to. Bendgate is so silly, and so trivial, that it somehow seems to hit the spot.

Away from phones, Apple Macs are also running into problems over a security vulnerability known as Shellshock, which has entered the technical language a few months after its Heartbleed cousin caused its own breed of havoc across the world’s computers.

Apple says that the vast majority of its users will be unaffected by this latest bug. However, a company which has influenced the language so much in the past must have been hoping that its big launch last week would lead to its new features being the words which would be dominating the tech press and making it into general usage now. Instead, the words which have gone into common usage are ones which paint a negative image of the company.

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.