I doubt that Gwyneth Paltrow was thinking much about her contribution to the English language when she announced her split from husband Chris Martin this week.
But by declaring that they were going to ‘consciously uncouple’, a new language phenomenon was born. Reams of copy about what conscious uncoupling truly means, social media hilarity as people put their own spin on the term referring to any kind of disengagement, cynicism over what it will do for book sales for therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas and her programme of the same name.
So will conscious uncoupling become a mainstream and established term for splitting up? No. But it is very likely to have a future as a term which is used ironically in break-up stories for years to come. You can easily imagine it appearing in inverted commas to give context to other stories, as a gauge of how amicable or otherwise a split seems in comparison to the Paltrow-Martin split.
We are not going to be able to consciously uncouple away from it any time soon.
The official Scrabble dictionary has not been updated since 2005. But of course much has changed since then, so with a new update on the way shortly, the process of adding to the official word list has also evolved.
And so Facebook comes in. Scrabble manufacturers Hasbro have launched a competition via the social network for people to nominate their suggested words. These will then be whittled down to a shortlist and from there, one will be chosen to be fast tracked into the dictionary.
In some ways, the coverage has been fairly predictable, with Selfie and Twerking emerging as the most likely words to win the vote, according to the papers at any rate, and they are included in the nearly 3,000 comments currently sitting on the page.
Personally I think that it is important to target words with large scores, preferably those containing the expensive letters. Having gone back through the annals of Wordability to find suitably high-scoring options, I come back with Grexit, while KALQ would also score well. Phubbing has a number of high scoring components, while also giving users a chance to get rid of all of their letters.
But I find myself agreeing with many of the people who have posted on the official page with suggestions. Step forward Bart Simpson, who famously invented the word Kwyjibo and scored over 100 points into the bargain. What a wonderful winner that would be, only slightly undermined by the fact it isn’t actually a real word.
Of course, life will not imitate art in this respect, and Kwyjibo will not be the winner of this contest. But I just hope that it is not something entirely obvious, and we are not treated to another round of Selfie and Twerking headlines before too long.
The way that language changes in the home is not always reflected in the wider picture of the English language. Communication recorded online can be easily analysed and dissected, showing us how English is evolving. But it is much harder to work out how people are talking in domestic situations if that communication is not recorded in any way.
An interesting insight has now emerged with the publication of The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, which contains a large number of words used in the home.
Newspapers have had fun with some of the headline-grabbing words that have emerged, such as the 57 different options for remote control, including blapper, zapper and dawicki, and the various ways of referring to a cup of tea, such as splosh or blish.
I personally prefer some of the really bizarre ones, such as trunklements, which are a grandparent’s personal possessions, grooglums, which are the bits of food left in the sink after you have finished the washing up, or frarping, the sctaching of one’s bottom.
These stories provide an inevitable outpouring of writing about how English is being destroyed, and the words are ridiculous, and people should speak properly, and so on.
However, I don’t think that these words reflect a language that anybody would think is appropriate for formal settings, or reflects that people are not speaking properly. We all speak differently at home and all have ways of talking that are distinct to our own home environment, which are unintelligible to other people. It is fascinating to get an insight into some of the words which are making their mark in a domestic setting, even if they are never going to become wider terms or find a place in the formal language.
I had hoped never to write about selfies again. They already feel so last year, notwithstanding the emergence of their farming offspring felfie. But there is an increasing trend for one more type of selfie, so I felt duty bound to record it in the annals of Wordability.
Basically, celebrities have been taking photos of their bottoms and posting them on social media. Belfies, as they have become known, first appeared at the end of 2013, but are being written about now in increasing numbers, with luminaries such as Ireland Baldwin, Pascal Craymer and Lucy Watson (no, I’ve never heard of any of them either) eager to get in on the act.
The derivation of Belfie is pretty straightforward – Bum and Selfie combined into a hilarious whole. But without wishing to be pedantic (not true), this formation is inaccurate. A Selfie is a photo taken of yourself, by yourself. Having looked at some Belfies, for research purposes only you understand, it seems to be anatomically impossible for most of these bottoms to have been photographed by the people to whom they belong. The only person I can think of with arms long enough to actually take a proper Belfie is Mr Tickle, and given the absence of orange blobs appearing in the Belfie annals, it seems he hasn’t succumbed yet.
So while Belfie might be around for some time to come, spend a moment realising that the word itself should not be defined as a photo taken by yourself of your own bottom. All that you could really photograph with normal arms might be encapsulated with a much more graphic word, which coincidentally ends up being a very useful term for describing people who put these images out on social media.
Words which originate from internet crazes are usually fairly harmless. Tebowing a couple of years ago, when people imitated American Football Star Tim Tebow’s victory pose in random places, was nothing more than harmless fun. Planking, where people lie down in random places, was also fun, but did lead to tragedies when people tried the activity in dangerous places.
But there seems to be nothing harmless about Neknomination, the latest craze sweeping social media and claiming lives in the process. If somebody is neknominated, then they are required to drink a large quantity of alcohol quickly and then post the video online to prove that they have done it. So potent are some of the cocktail combinations that people are drinking, that deaths have occurred as a result, and the word Neknomination is rapidly establishing itself as a key new word of 2014.
There is already a linguistic alternative, with Raknomination being spawned to mean nominating someone to do a random act of kindness, rather than risk their life with a drink. But in many ways, it will be good if this word does not get established, as it would probably imply that neknomination has disappeared from common usage once more.
Many internet crazes suggest that people have too much time on their hands, or feel the need to do stupid things to get a sense of belonging or social connection in their lives. What does it say about our society that people feel the need to swallow dangerous amounts of alcohol just to satisfy a dare?
I have always had a bit of an aversion to the suffix gate to denote a controversy. Two years ago I bemoaned its every-growing influence when the story of David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and a horse hit the headlines and Horsegate was everywhere.
I ducked out altogether a few months later when the controversy over Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell, a gate and the claim he had called a policeman a pleb saw Plebgate enter common language and never go away again. I think the fact that this scandal was also referred to as Gategate just confirmed why I just find this coinage irritating.
But gate shows no sign of going away, and what might once have been a specifically English linguistic formation is now crossing into other languages. Gate as a suffix has been named as Germany’s Anglicism of the Year for 2013.
The panel noted that gate as a suffix has been used in Germany since Watergate in the 1970s, the scandal which gave rise to the whole gate industry, but it is only the last couple of years that it has really become commonplace, with more than a dozen gate scandals in the public eye in 2013. I can only wonder what Eggnog Gate was about.
Other Anglicisms which came into consideration were Fake as a prefix, Whistleblower, the ever-popular Selfie and Hashtag.
While awards like this are a bit of fun, they do point to the ever changing nature not just of English but also of other languages in the way that English is now influencing them. Once again, our increasing globalisation, and in particular the effects of the internet and social media, are confirming that the influences which affect language change are different to those of even five years ago, while change is increasingly a quick affair. Previous winners of this German prize, such as Crowdfunding and Shitstorm, show that as words become new and established in English so the best ones will almost jump across species and establish themselves within another tongue.
This has always happened, but the speed of adoption and the way that an increasing number of terms now seem to be establishing themselves in more than one language at the same time confirms yet again that we are in a fascinating era for language development, and the old rules are now being rewritten. And that’s a really exciting development to watch. Unless there is a gate involved, of course.
When you have an eight-year-old daughter, you find yourself inadvertently introduced to a whole new world of television. Maya has been a fan of a number of Nickelodeon shows of late, including iCarly and Victorious, and has also enjoyed Sam & Cat, the offspring of the two programmes.
So she was very excited when I told her I had a reason to write about Sam & Cat on Wordability. The reason? There is a new episode dedicated to the teens’ efforts to get a new word into the dictionary.
The word itself, Lumpatious, is of course not in any dictionary at the moment. Used as an adjective to criticise someone who is unpleasant and idiotic, the episode revolves around their ultimately successful effort to get the word included into the Oxnard English Dictionary.
I think there are a number of interesting things about this episode. Firstly, it actually has some fun with the dictionary process, and the Oxnard offices portrayed are quite amusing and of course utterly unlike their Oxford equivalents.
Secondly, it might make youngsters think a little bit about the words they use and how they get recognised, so if there is a genuinely educational element around the English langauge at the end of it all, then that is a good thing.
But finally, I think the show could become self-fulfilling. Two years ago, I wrote about the word Swapportunity, a word coined by Yoplait yoghurt, and while it is still not a word that is recognised by any authority, people are still searching for it and coming to my blog to find out more.
By including the word Lumpatious in a show popular with tweens and teens, you can easily imagine a situation where it becomes part of the fans’ vocabulary. And given the way that once these episodes have aired for the first time, their life appears to continue almost indefinitely with endless repeats, that word will simply be reinforced and will start to seep into vocabulary. It is already developing on Twitter. So a word which doesn’t exist and which was coined for a television programme will start to be used in real life because of that TV programme and will ultimately find its way into the dictionary. And so life will imitate art. And it won’t be lumpatious.
I’m a bit of a sucker for competitive cookery programmes. One thing that is always entertaining is the quirks of the contestants and the fripperies they often try to get into their food. In particular, I remember one contestant who was obsessed with trying to get a quenelle into everything.
In that context, quenelle is an egg-shaped mound of food, and is normally an accompaniment to a main course, or perhaps some ice cream, delicately shaped using two spoons before being added to the plate to give it some apparent finesse. So entertaining did we find this as a family, that my eight-year-old daughter starting forming quenelles of cream cheese to put with her crackers. And in gastronomy, quenelle has a bigger relative, a dish of a creamed protein combined with breadcrumbs and egg and served as a more substantial dish.
But quenelles are no longer funny. No, Premier League footballer Nicolas Anelka and his French comedian buddy Dieudonne have seen to that. At the start of 2014, quenelle was only really known to English speakers from the usage described above. But once Anelka had adopted the quenelle pose to celebrate a goal for West Brom against West Ham, its racially charged meaning started to dominate headlines everywhere.
The gesture, created by Dieudonne in 2005, is an inverted Nazi salute with the opposite hand touching the shoulder. It is derived from its edible cousin and harks back to when Dieudonne said he wanted to insert a quenelle up the backside of Zionists. But his subsequent claims that this is an anti-establishment, rather than an anti-semitic, gesture, seem hollow, given the subsequent usage of the action outside synagogues or Holocaust memorials.
The usage of the quenelle has been growing in France, but it still took its adoption by Anelka to propel it to prominence and a place in the English language. And the debate over the true meaning of it seems irrelevant now. Whether or not Anelka’s usage of it was innocent, and whether or not Dieudonne means it to be truly racially offensive or not, it now is. The quenelle gesture is now perceived by people in England as anti-semitic and it will justifiably become something that people should be vilified for using, without allowing them to hide behind an argument about the nuances of its actual intention.
The quenelle has changed its meaning forever with English speakers, and the next time I watch a cookery show, it will be interesting to see if the producers have seen fit to quietly move them off the table.
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.
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.