Category Archives: General

General observations on the English Language

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.

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.