Category Archives: General

General observations on the English Language

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.

Selfies Come of Age

I have been pondering the word Selfie recently. Though not coined this year, it seems to have really emerged into public awareness in the last few months, with a number of mainstream publications focusing on the growth of them or the problems associated with their increasing prevalence. I have been weighing up writing about it for the last few weeks.

A Selfie, in case you don’t know, is a photograph that you take of yourself, normally with your phone, and then share with nearest and dearest via social media. A trend for some time, 2013 is the year when it has become cemented in the English language.

Oxford Dictionaries agrees. In the latest quarterly update to Oxford Dictionaries Online, Selfie has proudly taken its place as a new word. It’s one of a number of words that have taken a refreshingly short time to reach Oxford’s online annals, with Phablet, Space Tourism and Street Food others which seem to have been recognised relatively quickly.

There are also a couple of Wordability favourites making their debuts. Bitcoin was recognised earlier this year as an important word in the ongoing financial saga around the world, while last year’s triumphant Omnishambles has now sealed its emergence with its own entry.

Overall, it is an entertaining update. The challenge now is to write a coherent sentence feature Babymoon, Vom, Twerk, Flatform and Digital Detox. After all of that, I’ll need a glass of Pear Cider.

The Future of The

Here’s something I didn’t think I would be writing about on Wordability. The lifeblood of this blog is new words in the English language. Who knew that a proposal would come along for a new letter.

The source is unlikely – Australian restaurateur Paul Mathis. And in his sights is the word ‘The’.

Mr Mathis believes that in this day and age of Twitter and other short form messages, which has led to the shortening of a number of words, the word ‘the’ is so common that it should be replaced a new symbol, which he has designed as “Ћ”.

So determined is he to see this symbol adopted as a new way of typing ‘the’ that he has developed a smartphone keyboard app for it, though with Apple so far unwilling to embrace it, it may prove hard for the idea to get off the ground.

He said: “The Benedictine monks developed the modern version of the ampersand in the Middle Ages, when they were hand-copying religious texts. I’m not putting myself in the same league, but who knows – maybe in 500 years’ time people will be amazed that there was a time when we didn’t use ‘Ћ’.”

I think Mr Mathis is right – ‘the’ will not be replaced any time soon with its own letter. But the ampersand point is well made, and as text speak becomes more prevalent, and shortened forms of words more common, who knows whether we will see an evolution of the alphabet itself and the arrival of new symbols for the most common words in the language.

Don’t rule out the possibility that this is the very beginning of what might prove to be a fundamental change in the English language.

The Truth About Husbands And Wives

As moves to legalise gay marriage rumble on, so the effect on the English Language continues to be a live issue. I have argued in the past that attempts to introduce a brand new word to describe such unions are misguided.

The latest developments in the UK had some of the right wing press in a foment of rage. Men can be wives and women can be husbands, they raged, as the minutiae of Government legislation began to be picked apart.

The issue comes in the fine print of new official guidance for MPs and clarifies what words will mean as the bill is debated in parliament. In some contexts, husband and wife will be allowed to be used interchangeably for those who are part of same-sex couples, so indeed men will be wives and women will be husbands. The vocabulary of “cloud cuckoo land”, the critics lambast.

It’s easy to see why this makes a good headline, and why on the surface, this might be a story to get exercised about. After all, redefining basic words like husband and wife is surely wrong. But behind every good headline there is of course the truth.

And the truth is that this is simply about the past, about how to understand the way that old legislation has been written. Where the words husband and wife have been used, in this context, it can refer to either partner in a same sex-marriage.

The guidance cites early health and safety legislation from 1963 which includes a range of exemptions for family businesses where the terms husbands and wives will mean people of either gender. It says: “This means that ‘husband’ here will include a man or a woman in a same sex marriage, as well as a man married to a woman.”

Is this language being redefined? No, it is instead a pragmatic approach to avoid rewriting reams and reams of old legislation, a sensible acknowledgement that for this old legalese, a wider interpretation is needed.

It is not a suggestion that future legislation will use husband and wife in anything other than a gender-specific way. In future, a man married to either a woman or a man will be a husband, and a wife married to someone of either sex will be referred to as a wife. No confusion there.

A spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage said: “We always knew the Government would tie itself in knots trying to redefine marriage, and this shows what a ridiculous mess they’ve created.”

No, this shows how critics will jump on anything to try and get a cheap headline.

The Apostrophe Apocalypse

A policy decision by Mid Devon District Council could have a long-term impact on the English language. Officials have decided to do away with apostrophes on new street names as a way of “avoiding potential confusion”.

It is not the first time that outrage has been caused by the culling of an apostrophe. Last year, bookseller Waterstones decided it was time to oust the same punctuation mark in its name as it was more practical in the digital age, and they no longer needed to pay homage to founder Tim Waterstone.

Now I know that grammar is not the usual fare of Wordability. But with apostrophes in public consciousness more than they have been since the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, I have inevitably found myself thinking about my attitude to this perennially misused bit of punctuation.

And of course, it does tie into Wordability’s meat and drink of new words very neatly. After all, if the death of the apostrophe were to become widespread officially, as of course it already is for many users of English, than that would lead to a raft of new words appearing in the language. Lets, theyre, shes might all be taking their place in the dictionaries that my grandchildren will be accessing in years to come. So I asked myself: Is that such a bad thing?

Of course my immediate answer was yes, absolutely. As a journalist of many years standing, and a famously pedantic sub-editor for large chunks of that, I abhorred a misplaced apostrophe along with the best of them. I could, and often did, rant as well as Steve Jenner of the Plain English Campaign, who reacted to the Mid Devon decision by saying: “Language is an agreed set of rules and if we stop agreeing that’s the case it’s going to cause real problems. It could actually be dangerous. It could cause situations where people are misunderstood.”

He makes a valid argument. But something has changed in me by writing Wordability for the last 18 months. This blog celebrates the way that English changes and evolves, and crucially, reinforces the point that the language does not belong to the grammarians and the lexicographers, there are no arbiters who can ultimately say what is right and what is wrong. The language belongs to the people who speak it.

Now this doesn’t mean that people who speak it can just randomly change anything they feel like. If people suddenly started constructing their sentences backwards, changed the word ‘the’ into ‘aadvark’ or whistled between every syllable, nobody else would understand them. But eventually they might. Eventually, if enough people found that aadvarking with abandon really made them happy, then that change would force its way through to becoming the accepted norm.

And so I suspect it is with apostrophes. They still make things clearer in written language, but they make no difference at all to the spoken word. The context explains away the ‘s’ sound at the end of the word, with no need for some kind of flag to provide clarification.

Compare that to something like the comma, where the pause in the written words have a connection to the way that something would be spoken, the pause aids understanding in both spoken and written form. The punctuation there is a key part of the meaning. In the case of the apostrophe, I think that context might do the job just as well as the annotation.

So, and I can’t believe I am saying this, I can see a future where the apostrophe has ceased to have any meaningful role. And if that happens, then so be it. It will simply mean that language and understanding has moved to a place where it is no longer required, rather than it being a case of poor standards.

One of my university lecturers, when teaching me Old English, used to say ‘man is a lazy animal’ as a way of explaining changes that happened during Anglo-Saxon times. That is still true. So if we were to lose the apostrophe, it would not be as apocalyptic as some people would have us believe.

UPDATE: Since posting this Mid Devon Council has changed its mind. No matter. Someone else will be along soon to attack the apostrophe, and the debate is still very much alive.