Tag Archives: english

Felfies – The New Breed on the Farm

The linguistic flexibility of the word Selfie seemingly knows no bounds. Not content with being a word of the year, Selfie is now showing itself as flexible and changeable, with multiple variations being coined to describe the seemingly infinite variations of self-portrait that are now emerging.

The first alternatives focused on different parts of the body being pictured, with Legsie being mooted as one specific example which was taking off. The latest evolution is derived from those taking the pictures themselves, and the one that has attracted significant attention is self-portraits taken by farmers, otherwise known as Felfies.

The home for Felfies is the Farmingselfies website, set up by farmer William Wilson as a way of putting a face to the many farmers whose hard and isolated lives feed so many people round the world. It’s unlikely he envisioned the attention that his move would bring. But social media loves a picture of an animal, and as farmers started to submit their snaps of them together with the other inhabitants of their farms, so the concept and the term Felfie itself began to grow and trend.

From a linguistic point of view, I have to wonder whether the never-ending spread of selfies means an increasing number of variants for the English-language to contend with. If other professions jump on the bandwagon, will they spawn their own versions? Will bakers be taking Belfies and shelf-stackers snapping Shelfies before too long? And pity the poor sailors, who cannot claim Selfies as their own.

Selfie recently topped the Lake Superior State University annual list of banished words. It is fair to see that if these alternative versions continue to emerge, a whole gamut of Selfie progeny could be topping the list in 12 months’ time.

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.

Sexting Given French Twist

It’s been an interesting year for sex in France. Linguistically, at any rate. Earlier this year, the word Galocher for French Kiss finally made it into the Petit Robert dictionary. And now another saucy term has found itself in the headlines.

As part of its efforts to keep the French language pure, English terms are frowned on, and L’Académie Française, France’s official language authority, has now published a list of the French alternatives to Anglicised expressions with are creeping into the language.

The proposed variant to Sexting has garnered most attention, with Textopornographie put forward as the new word in the official government list. I don’t know about you, but I know which one sounds more lurid and has a certain je ne sais pas.

There are some other interesting terms in the list, such as Vidéoagression for Happy Slapping, which again sounds more ominous than its English equivalent, or Surtransposition for Gold Plating.

As English-inspired technology drives word evolution, there will be more of this. Earlier this year Wordability reported on the replacing of Hashtag with Mot-Dièse, and as this latest story shows, this trend will only continue. Or as the French will come to say, That’s Life.

Geeks Inherit The Earth

I’ve always wondered a little why Oxford Dictionaries unveils its word of the year in November, when there is still quite a bit of the year left to run. But now I can see the advantage of going first. You become the word of the year by which all other words of the year are judged, and you also ensure that other esteemed language bodies have to choose something else.

I think that since Selfie was unveiled as the Oxford choice, it has become established in people’s minds as the definitive word of the year, a status of course helped by Barack Obama et al. Nevertheless, further nominations have followed, and the latest two are interesting in different ways.

Collins dictionary has gone with Geek. I think this choice has been made for reasons more to do with the English language itself, rather than as a reflection of what society has been doing for the last 12 months. The main reason behind Geek’s prominence in Collins’ eyes is that its definition has now been radically changed over the last 12 months. No longer a pejorative term which almost demeans those to whom it is applied, it is now defined as “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. The addition of further terms such as Geekery and Geekdom simply sealed the deal.

It’s interesting reasoning but I wonder whether geek really has completely shaken off its past. The people I know in technology still describe themselves geeks in a tongue in cheek, slightly embarrassed way, rather than in a way that seems to wear it like a badge of honour. And in much the same way that Swedish nerds campaigned for a similar redefinition last year, I feel that this kind of alteration loses something of the genuine meaning of the word.

Dictionary.com has taken an alternative approach, going for a word that is neither new nor altered during the year, but has instead summed up the overriding themes 0f 2013. That choice is Privacy, and in an interesting analysis it cites Edward Snowden and Google among others that have contributed to privacy’s prevalence over the year.

If you are going down this route for your selections, then I think this one fits the bill pretty well as it certainly focuses on issues that have been strongly in people’s minds during 2013. I think it is certainly a more suitable choice than Merriam-Webster’s recent selection of Science.

So we now have Selfie, Bitcoin, Science, Geek and Privacy all rejoicing as words of the year. And Phubbing of course. I still prefer that above all others.

The Perils of Wild Toileting

The most picturesque toilet I have ever visited was in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.

I appreciate that’s quite a random sentence with which to start a post on a language blog, but this morning I found myself musing on that hilltop location, where the greenery spread out for miles and the fluttering breeze made it the most tranquil place imaginable to spend a Ngultrum.

What brought this back to mind? Well it was  a news story centring on a dispute over the most remote public toilet in the UK mainland, and the rival claims of two Scottish conveniences to be the remotest loo in the UK. A slow news day, perhaps.

So why is there a Wordability interest? Very simply, the article discussed the whole concept of ‘wild toileting’, a phrase I was not previously familiar with and one which a search of the internet suggests is not in wide circulation, with only a smattering of mentions in a handful of places to represent its digital footprint.

With no official definitions to hand, it seems to have been used to mean ‘the practice of relieving yourself in wild locations and to the detriment of the surroundings’.

It’s a very entertaining term, and I guess there isn’t really a current alternative in English for this particular scenario, but it does seem a little superfluous. Most of us would still just talk about going to the loo, or whatever the vernacular is in our dialect of English, even though it’s a wild loo and isn’t made of porcelain. I’m not sure this is a term that is here to stay.

Mind you, I think it would be quite nice if wild toileting could come to mean something else, perhaps carrying out your business while screaming or shouting or thrashing about with an electric guitar. Alternatively, it could mean taking a scattergun approach to where your doings actually end up landing.

Or it could just be what you end up suffering when you’ve been been caught in a shitstorm.

Bitcoins Prove Their Worth

The words of the year choices keep on coming, and Australian lexicographers have fixed on a suitable candidate to take their accolade.

Bitcoin is undoubtedly a word which has found its place in the lexicon this year, despite having been created five years ago. This digital currency has seen its usage in both financial and linguistic senses explode this year, and so the Australian National Dictionary Centre has named it as its word of the year.

It’s undoubtedly a good choice. It is a word which has been significant in public consciousness this year in a way that it wasn’t previously, while measurable usage itself has shot up 1,000%, according to the Australian experts.

Bitcoin is probably not quite as popular as Selfie, which simply confirmed its Oxford Dictionaries choice this week by becoming the centre of Barack Obama’s world. I suspect Australian experts couldn’t choose Selfie as well once Oxford had given it the nod, though it included it in its shortlist for the year, along with Twerk, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), Captain’s Pick and Microparty.

Sadly Phubbing did not make the shortlist, a shame considering it is a word of Australian origin. But when you consider that words like Bitcoin and Selfie are now being heralded as the words of the year, it means we may look back on 2013 as a year when we were self- and money-obsessed, which is not necessarily the most flattering reflection of ourselves.

The Scientific Approach

There are many ways to choose a word of the year. Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary in the United States, opts for a scientific approach. It sees which word word has increased its look-ups in its online dictionary the most over the year, and simply gives it to that one. Ironically, this approach has yielded the word it deserves this year. The scientific methodology means that its word of the year is Science.

Its true that science has been in the news more this year than many others, with fresh space exploration on Mars, spectacular meteors and comets and the search for the Higgs Boson particle all issues which entertained the public and the media during 2013. “It is a word that is connected to broad cultural dichotomies: observation and intuition, evidence and tradition,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.

For me, the problem with taking this approach to choosing a word of the year is that it ignores the gut instinct part, the human analysis that says while a word may be getting people’s attention more than it has in recent years, that doesn’t make it the word that sums up the year. Look-ups of science rose 176% this year to win it the prize. If the word Mugwump had been looked up 50 times last year and 200 times this year, it would have had a greater increase but would certainly not have been a suitable candidate for this accolade.

Writers around the world have had fun comparing the choice of Science with the Oxford Dictionary choice of Selfie, But Selfie says something about 2013 in a way that I don’t think Science really does. We will look back on this year as one where science came more the forefront of people’s minds than previously, but it wasn’t the subject that defined the year. All of which means that you need more than a scientific approach when it comes to deciding on the word of the year.

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.