Category Archives: Wordability In Brief

Short entries on new words and usages which Wordability has spotted and
enjoyed

Shirtfronting Front and Centre

I have spent many happy months in Australia. My wife is Australian. I got married there. So it’s always good to see a good old Aussie term taking centre stage in the English language.

Australian rules football has always been a game of joyous thuggery, where men in tight shorts run incomprehensibly round a large field and knock each other over in the name of sport. And it has spawned the term to shirtfront, meaning to aggressively knock someone to the ground, usually by ramming them hard in the chest with your arm. Other definitions are available, but the end result is broadly the same. Opponent, in pain, lying on the ground.

But now the definition of shirtfront has widened after Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott threatened to shirtfront Rusisian President Vladimir Putin at an upcoming diplomatic event. Mr Abbott was rekindling a wider usage that had flourished briefly in the 1980s, but his quote led the Macquarie Dictionary, the authority on Australian English, to update its definition.

From January, the online edition will include definition “to confront (someone) aggressively with a complaint or grievance”. Dictionary editor Susan Butler said his statement had made dictionary editors realise “there was this older usage around, and we had not covered it, so now we’re catching up.”

This isn’t the first time that Toby Abbott has been at the centre of a change in the Macquarie Dictionary. Back in 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused him of being a misogynist, a controversy which saw the word’s definition expanded to include prejudice against women, as well as downright hatred.

If Mr Abbott felt at all aggrieved by that decision be is probably feeling more buoyant about his latest contribution to his language’s heritage. I doubt he will feel the need to shirtfront a lexicographer any time soon.

A Load of Old W***?

There’s always a good language story to be had from Sweden. Keen to stress increasing sexual liberation across the country, a campaign has been launched to find a new word for something which currently doesn’t have its own term. The search is on for a word for female masturbation.

The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education launched a national search for a new word, and more than 1,000 suggestions poured in from the public. The list has now been narrowed down to 34 and next June the panel will decide whether ‘pulla’, ‘selfa’ or something else will emerge victorious.

Kristina Ljungros of the association said: “The absence of one commonly used word for female masturbation suggests that we still don’t have gender equality here in Sweden. Hopefully this is another step towards that.”

By this argument, the same could be said of England. An identical exercise could easily be carried out for this language, as it seems to be equally lacking linguistically in this respect.  A recent Huffington Post piece helpfully suggested flicking the bean, or air out of the orchid, which I think just confiirms that English is as backwards as Swedish when it comes to this linguistic oversight.

So can you see a campaign being launched in the UK to come up with a suitable term? No, me neither. I guess, like so many other aspects of our modern lives, well have to wait for the Swedes to lead the way. Let’s just hope they don’t let IKEA have the final say-so. Billy Bookcase anyone?

Selfies Evolve Into Usies

Selfies have become inescapable over the last few months, and with their ubiquity has come variations concerning among others farmers and bottoms.

Now, the recent trend for selfies involving groups of people has spawned its own word. Usies (pronounced uss-ees) has been coined for the images which have been becoming increasingly prevalent since the famous Ellen DeGeneres shot of Hollywood royalty at the Oscars earlier this year.

Ellen DeGeners' famous Oscar photo

Ellen DeGeneres’ famous Oscar photo

The word was first used last year but is only now coming into consciousness and wasn’t really known when the Oscars took place. However the growing number of shared selfies now means that the need for the word is greater, hence its eventual emergence into more regular usage.

“Usies are a growing trend that I think have far more social value than selfies,” said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

I actually think Professor Strahilevitz has a point. When I was writing about selfie being named word of the year last year, I was slightly despondent as I felt it described a slightly fractured and narcisstic society, obsessed with self at the cost of community.

While self-promotion is still at the heart of the usie, it is more about the people you are pictured with, the group rather than the individual. Is society moving towards greater unity and community again, rather than an obsession with self? The emergence of a new word is clearly flimsy evidence on which to base such an assertion, but if society does feel more cohesive and joined up in a couple of years’ time, it might be interesting to look back and see whether this linguistic trend really did mark a turning point.

Not the Oxt Big Thing

I read an article recently which suggested a campaign had been started to try and get a new word into the dictionary. So far, so Wordability. But when you realise that campaign started five years ago, then you begin to realise that the its chances of success are pretty remote.

Ivan Cash and Jeremy Knight felt there was an issue with the phrase next weekend. Does it mean the weekend coming up or the one afterwards? How do we cope with this ambiguity without convoluted phrases such as ‘not this weekend but the weekend after’.

To avoid confusion, and to lessen our wasted words, they came up with the word Oxt, defined as above, produced a website and even created this helpful illustration:

Oxt weekend plannerWhile I applaud some of the sentiments on the website, especially the sense of English as a changing entity where new words can take root and flourish, there are a couple of fundamental flaws with Oxt.

The first – well it’s a pretty terrible word. For me, it has absolutely no bearing on what it is meant to mean. In terms of deriving it from other related words, I don’t think it succeeds.

Secondly, it is quite unnecessary. I have managed for years with this weekend and next weekend and frankly, very little need to explain the difference between the two. And if there has been a difference, then explaining it is no big deal. But this can be proved with the definition the creators have come up with. If Oxt weekend is defined as ‘not this weekend but the weekend after’, then that definition only works if ‘this weekend’ is completely understood and unambiguous. And if ‘this weekend’ is unambiguous, then so is ‘next weekend’. So Oxt is unnecessary.

So if this word is five years old, why am I writing about it now. Well Vox picked it up online a couple of weeks ago and wrote about it, and that spawned some follow-ups, with the Guardian undoubtedly the most prominent.

Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether people are writing about it this week, next week or even oxt week. Oxt is not here to stay.

A Word With Weird Al Jankovic

I feel a bit said that Weird Al Jankovic is probably not a fan of Wordability. The noted creator of parody songs has just released his new album, Mandatory Fun, which contains the song Word Crimes, a musical diatribe against the breaking of the rules of grammer and what is generally regarded as correct English.

I am in two minds about this song. On the one hand, I am a stickler for correct English, and have been noted for my pedantry over correct English over the years, especially when working in professional media organisations with my sub editing hat on. So I agree with the song’s sentiments when it comes to the written language in formal and published contexts.

On the other hand, Wordability‘s brief has always been to applaud the new words which come into English and make a difference, while to also acknowledge that as a living, breathing entity, English is changing, and the rules which people have worshipped for many years may ultimately be ripped up by the language’s users. Changes which are increasingly prevalent in spoken and digital language will almost inevitably be accepted into the grammatical and lexical rules of the future. Weird Al’s support for apostrophes and the alleged misuse of literally suggest he would have have disagreed with my postings on the subject.

But a small part of me wonders whether Weird Al really is as prescriptive as his song makes out. Word Crimes is a pastiche of Blurred Lines, the 2013 hit by Robin Thicke described by some as the most controversial song of the decade. The song describes apparent ambiguity in the way that men read women’s signals, but the lyrics have been interpreted by many as date rape, while the accompanying video has been accused of sexism, and the song has been banned in many places.

If Weird Al had truly wanted to stand up for grammar’s rules, might he have picked a less ambiguous and controversial song to use as the backbone for his apparent tirade? Or does his choice of song suggest that while he wants to get his grammar beefs off his chest, an element of him is trying to suggest that the situation is not as straightforward as might first appear?

I may be completely wrong. All of the commentary on this song suggests that it is a straightforward diatribe against bad English, and celebrity support from luminaries such as Kelsey Grammer, whose Twitter feed is dedicated to grammatical issues, would suggest I have a minority interpretation.

But we are dealing with a performer whose stock in trade is pastiche, and who has chosen a vehicle for his diatribe whose own meaning has been debated to death over the last 12 months. Perhaps Weird Al is not quite as obsessed about his rules of grammar as appears to be the case.

Internet Has Fun at Brazil’s Expense

While Brazilians have been licking their wounds at their extraordinary thrashing at the hands of Germany in the World Cup, the internet has been awash with jokes at the unfortunate hosts’ expense.

There are a number of aspects of language change and communication that are demonstrated by the memes which have spread across the globe in the 24 hours since the match. The first is that the word meme is now firmly established as the term to describe creations of any sort, picture, video, joke, which are spread quickly around the world via social media and other technological means. I think this is a word that is still not properly understood by most people, but its jump from being a word for those in the know to the wider mainstream will have been helped by the enormous coverage the Brazilian memes have enjoyed since the final whistle.

Related to this is the idea that the nature of language itself is being changed by memes such as this. People want to say something about the game, they want to be part of the discussion and join in the fun. Now, rather than having to use words to formulate an idea, they create a picture or video as a way of making their point and then distribute it to spread that joke wider. And then others, who also want to join the conversation and say something about what has happened, simply pick their favourite meme and send it to their friends, in effect making a comment themselves. The tone of what they want to say is encapsulated by the meme they choose to share. So people are talking to each other by sharing jokes, rather than by using words. It is a key part of linguistic evolution and actually demonstrates a lingua franca that exists outside any spoken language which is currently active.

Finally new words will emerge as a result of this game, and the first is Mineirazo, named after the Estadio Mineirao where the game was played. This follows the word Maracanazo, coined after Brazil lost to Uruguay in the World Cup in 1950 in the Maracano Stadium. The new result is already being referred to in the media as the Mineirazo, and so this word will remain as the linguistic touchstone against which all future Brazilian performances, and possibly disasters, will be measured.

A New World For Columbus

We all know that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Actually, we know he discovered it on behalf of the western world, because the country was already inhabited when he arrived.

This nuance over the meaning of ‘discovered’ has seen a new word created in the last few days. A sketch on the College Humor website pokes fun at the idea of white people stumbling across things known to others for many years and then claiming ownership and therefore discovery of them. In honour of the fabled Christopher, this practice is known as ‘Columbusing’.

Columnists have already had lots of fun with this idea, with Miley Cyrus and Twerking featuring prominently in the commentaries of many as she is associated in the minds of lots of people as having discovered twerking, when it had in fact been around for some time.

I think it’s an interesting word as it is a really neat way of encapsulating a quite complex concept, which has both political and social overtones. Whether it has any life beyond this week’s flurry of media activity remains to be seen, but I can see it hanging around as a satirical term online, even if it never makes it into mainstream conversations and dictionaries.

Interestingly, a similar meaning of Columbusing appears to have been submitted to the Urban Dictionary over a year ago. So have the writers at College Humor Columbused Columbusing?