Literature has been a common source of new words for a very long time. But I doubt whether the replacement of one word created by an author with a new word from the same author has ever created the uproar we have seen this week. But then again, JK Rowling is no ordinary author.
The story is simple. Rowling coined the term Muggle in the Harry Potter series to mean a non-magical person. But in information which has come out this week about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, next year’s film from Rowling’s wizarding imagination, that word has been changed. The film is set in America, a number of years before the birth of young Potter, and it has been revealed that the Americans don’t call their non-magical counterparts Muggles. No, they call them ‘No-Maj’, meaning they have no magic.
Cue the Twitter outpouring, cue the lamentations of Potter fans united in grief at what they see as the demise of one of their favourite words.
It’s nonsense of course. What might have been more surprising was if American wizards and witches had used the word Muggle. Do people not understand language variation across countries? Is it not entirely likely that a slang term, which is after all what Muggle really is, would be different in America from Britain. Star Eddy Redmayne has now done interviews explaining this and also saying that the term Muggle has not been replaced, as some have erroneously claimed. It is simply that a different word is used by people in a different country, no replacement involved. And when you say it with an American accent, you can fully understand why No-Maj sounds right in a way that the more British Muggle would not.
But the episode is interesting for a couple of linguistic reasons, aside from the social observation that yet again the internet is full of people focusing their energy and anxiety on the most trivial of things. What it does show is how beloved the language of JK Rowling is and how masterful she was with the words she coined and chose for her wizarding world. It would be an exaggeration to say that if she had come up with an inferior word for Muggle then her books would not have succeeded. But it does demonstrate that her consistent choice of the right word, finding ones which have really stuck with the public, gives us insight into why her books have succeeded.
The other thing to mention is that much of the reporting of this story has stressed that Muggle has even been recognised by Oxford Dictionaries. That’s lovely, and I must admit I was surprised by the idea that a reputable dictionary was including a definition for people who aren’t magical. But of course, it doesn’t. Muggle has taken on a new meaning for someone who is ‘not conversant with a particular activity or skill’. I can’t off the top of my head think of another example of a word from literature which has then gained a new meaning in the real world and been given dictionary recognition as a result of that.
So the supposed Muggle controversy isn’t really a controversy at all, and in fact demonstrates Rowling’s acute understanding of the English language. And maybe that is the greatest magic of all.
Back in January, I wrote a blog suggesting that the word of the year might already have been coined. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I noted how #jesuischarlie had emerged not only as hashtag of solidarity with the French satirical magazine itself but also as a statement for freedom of speech itself. I further speculated that #jesuis may have established itself as a Twitter prefix that would establish itself as a statement of belonging.
The appalling decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to publish two cartoons mocking the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose image propelled the migrant crisis across Europe into the consciousness of everybody, has changed all of that.
I won’t describe the cartoons or reproduce them. They have had quite enough oxygen already. Instead let’s focus on the immediate change this has made on social media. Apart from a small number of supporters, #jesuischarlie as a hashtag and a word is now discredited. People are using it on postings as a way of distancing themselves from the mood a few months ago, using the term now becomes a way of emphasising what it stood for and what has therefore been abused.
Instead, #jenesuispascharlie is being used to condemn Charlie Hebdo. Rather than being a term which could take on generic significance, this is simply an attack on the organisation, anger directed at them for wasting the stock of goodwill they had been given, anger even for polluting the term itself.
Calls for freedom of speech will go on, of course they will, and other causes will be found and become the new focus of social media and comment. New terms will come forward to be the one of choice to express adherence to the philosophy. But #jesuischarlie will not be that term, #jesuis will not become a new prefix. That moment has gone.
We may still end up saying that #jesuischarlie is the word of the year. But the narrative we will now tell will be of how a word flourished and died within a year, rather than that of a word which become important and then continued to resonate for many years to come.
This week, I have been mostly looking at pictures of women in bathing costumes. For work purposes, you understand.
The reason? The latest fashion trend to sweep social media. It’s the thighbrow.
So what is a thighbrow, I hear you ask, if you can actually bear to. Well, it is the crease which naturally forms in a person’s skin when their hip meets the top of their thigh. Women in swimsuits show them off very well, and they are so named because the shape looks a little like an eyebrow, only it is at the top of your thigh. Social media is now awash with pictures of celebrities showing off their thighbrows for all to admire.
I can understand why the word has gatherered a bit of momentum. It’s fun, it sounds vaguely clever and moreover it gives people an excuse to post even more pictures of themselves, if they actually needed it. But will it last? Please no. And if so, will it spawn a never-ending trend of other body creases getting their own name as well, will we be subjected to the elbrow or the armpitbrow in years to come.
Hopefully it won’t be long before the thighbrow is given the boot.
The votes are in and the decision has been made – Sweden has a new word for female masturbation.
Last year, Swedish Association for Sexuality Education announced it was holding a poll to find a new word for the act as an important step in establishing equality for the sexes. Now, from more than 1,200 suggestions, the winner has emerged as Klittra, a combination of Clitoris and Glitter.
The reaction to this new word has been general approval, and this has certainly not just been restricted to sexually satisfied Swedes. Commentators across the world have praised the word for many things, such as its construction or the generally positive nature of the campaign as a whole.
The word is not yet in the Swedish dictionary – that will take a little more time. But that will surely only be a matter of time, as it seems almost certain the term will catch on in Sweden and will thereby cement its place in the language.
But what about further afield? The reaction to the story in the English-speaking world suggests that there isn’t currently a suitable term for female masturbation in English, and the concept and etymology of the Swedish term make it a perfect candidate to fill a void that is just as pressing in English as it is in Swedish.
So don’t be surprised to see Klittra make the move across languages in the next few years and establish itself as the world’s universal term for what is, after all, a universal act.
Whatever you may feel about the economic ramifications of Greece’s ongoing financial hardships, you have to acknowledge the contribution they have made to the English language.
First we had Grexit, the prospect of Greece leaving the euro, which spawned many sub-genres of alternative exit word. And now, with economic paralysis because Greece has still not left the eurozone but still might, there is a state of limbo. A Greek limbo. Or Grimbo, if you will.
Citigroup, the economics experts who gave us Grexit back in 2012, are responsible for the latest word. In a statement, they explained the economic backdrop and concluded that “Grexit in the next few months is not inconceivable, and it is certainly more likely if we consider Grimbo durations of a year or more.” No gobbledygook there then.
Sadly this will not be the end of the Greek neologisms. Economists at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch have responded with Grexhaustion, the definition of which frankly escapes me at the moment but is unlikely to be ‘being fed up with the coining of new words to describe the Greek economic crisis’.
But the one thing that is certain as this situation rolls on is that for as long as people are reporting it, then they will be vying with each other to coin the next Greek-inspired word to describe the crisis. The ultimate game of Grone-upmanship, perhaps.
Posted in Wordability In Brief
Tagged citibank, definition, english, euro, eurozone_crisis, greece, grexhaustion, Grexit, grimbo, language, new_words, real_word
It’s interesting how old words sometimes become new words, especially when it’s a row about dinner which creates the transformation. But so it is for ‘fracas’, which has rapidly become one of the most overused words in the UK in the last week following TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s unseemly spat with a producer over an allegedly missing steak.
Amid the outbreak of analysis and comment about Clarkson’s future job prospects with the BBC, there has been one almost consistent theme, namely that the word ‘fracas’ is being used in inverted commas almost universally when appearing in headlines.
I think there are two reasons for this. The journalistic and legal explanation is that this was the word used when the altercation first came to light, so it is not only a direct quotation from the original sources but also offers no judgment on the outcome of any hearing, it is the neutral word that describes rather than finds fault.
But I think there is a little more to it than that. New words often appear in inverted commas when they take their first tentative steps into the English language, especially if they find themselves swiftly elevated to headline status. I think that fracas appearing in this way confirms that for many people, it is a very unfamiliar or new word to many, and should be treated as such. Some of the coverage given to the word itself supports this.
So what of the future. Will fracas return to its normal humble routine once the whole Clarkson thing dies down? I’m not sure that it will. I suspect that fracas will now gain a new lease of life and will start to be used in myriad other contexts when there is talk of any sort of an angry coming together. It will always reference back to the Clarkson affair and mean things are seen within that prism, but expect to see fracas being used with greater alacrity in the weeks and months to come as the new word for this kind of incident.
And so Leonard Nimoy passed away a few days ago, and the world was awash with tributes to a fine actor who had left an indelible memory across the globe as Spock of Star Trek fame.
Roll on a few days, and Nimoy is still in the news, only this time because his image has been appearing across banknotes in Canada. Encouraged by the Canadian Design Resource, citizens have been ‘Spocking’ their banknotes. This involves drawing the legendary sci-fi character’s pointy ears and haircut onto Wilfrid Laurier, who appears on the country’s five dollar bill. The practice has continued despite the country’s central bank asking for it to cease.
While I can understand how the physical similarity between the 19th century prime minister and the Vulcan genius has spawned such a development, I am less unsure as to why Canada should be should be a hotbed of Trekkie tribute, as I can see no connection between the actor or the show that should make it so. Perhaps a fan can enlighten me.
But it is nice to see Star Trek making another indelible mark on language. From boldly splitting an infinitive to creating an entire language that has its own institute, Spocking is a new word which will find a small niche in our vocabulary this year and will be fondly remembered in years to come. In other words, it will live short but prosper.