JK Rowling may have achieved many things during her illustrious career, but trying to add a new term to common English usage is probably not one of them.
It’s certainly true that she coined many terms as part of the Harry Potter universe, and in one way she has created neologisms which have stuck. But words such as Quidditch, Muggles and Mudblood, which are now familiar to many and whose meanings are widely understood, are still Harry Potter words, and have not crossed over into everyday usage and other contexts.
All of which explains why her linguistic addition to the debate about Scottish independence this week received such a muted and almost hostile response. Rowling donated £1m to the No campaign, and in a lengthy defence of her position, especially criticisms of her connection to Scotland, she wrote: “When people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.”
There was inevitable debate about the meaning of the term Death Eaterish, while with my Wordability hat on, I start to wonder whether it is something which could make the leap to the dictionary. But I think the fact that there were articles about what Death Eaterish actually means confirms that it is not a term which has any chance of being taken on more widely. For what it’s worth, Death Eaters rail against those who are not of pure blood, so you can see why Rowling used it when she was defending her right to a view on Scotland. She was not born there but lives there now. But Death Eaters cast a pall of despair wherever they go, while they are led by the most evil person in the Wizarding kingdom, so it does seem a little harsh to describe those who disagree with her in the same way.
Certain names from literature, such as Svengali, Don Juan and Utopia, have entered the language as regular terms. Death Eaterish, with its slightly esoteric meaning, and its ‘-ish’ formation, which makes it a little flimsy and wishy-washy in any case, does not seem to be one of those terms likely to have an equally successful linguistic future.
New word production seems a bit thin on the ground so far this year. We’re nearly a third of the way through 2014, and I find that the annals of Wordability seem to have less to report on than normal.
But one area that is as fertile as ever is Twitter, and in particular reminders that it has spawned an entirely new type of word.
I refer of course to the hashtag, which is both a word and yet not a word. Originally an easy way to search for content, the hashtag has evolved into something which in time might come to be recognised as a new part of speech altogether. By taking a short sentence and sticking it together with no spaces, a new term is formed as a way of summing up the sentiment expressed in the tweet which precedes it. The hashtag becomes a commentary, or maybe a contextual aside to give more depth to what has been said. In a medium where 140 characters are king and each character has to count, these hashtags have come to be a way to express far more than the tweet allowance normally permits.
I found myself thinking about this following this week’s incident involving Barcelona footballer Dani Alves and a racist taunt from the crowd. His brilliant riposte at having a banana thrown at him was to pick up the offending fruit and take a bite, before continuing with the game.
Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez
But what was more magnificent still was the social media reaction. Many notable footballers took to Twitter to post photographs of themselves eating bananas, and the banana habit swiftly became a viral phenomenon. But rather than new term such as Tebowing coming to the fore, at least not so far, the tweets all came with a hashtag of solidarity, namely #weareallmonkeys.
So what does the use of this hashtag tell us about language? Well firstly, it’s a bit like a badge, you in effect wear it on your tweet to show that you support the cause. Secondly, it’s a great example of words run together to create a meaning above and beyond that which is expressed in the original sentence which spawned it. If you had to define this example, you’d end up with something which nods to support for Alves’ action, is a general support for anti-racism work and also articulates the point that humans are all derived from the same source and that those who fail to understand this really should learn to. Not bad for four words strung together.
But finally we need to consider its status as a new word. It’s clearly not a word that will have a long life and end up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But in the language of Twitter, it is a new word, and it is used to mean all of the the things I have suggested whenever anybody appends it to their tweet. In this context, it has all the attributes of being a new word, though not in the conventional sense.
It is clear that as technology changes the way we communicate so the words that we use will change to keep pace. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the structure and formation of language itself is going to start to change, with new rules, new formations, and as hashtags suggest to us, new parts of speech. Or as they say on Twitter, #theenglishlanguageisalwayschanging.
Anybody who knows me will appreciate that fashion is not something which I really spend any time thinking about. I want to look smart and like the clothes I wear, but I just choose stuff that I like and don’t worry about whether it is trendy or not.
Well now there is a new fashion trend in town, and a new word which is emerging as one of the strongest neologisms of 2014. Normcore was identified in February as a fashion trend where wearing similar clothes to other people is actually cool, and dressing in things which are comfortable and show you belong in society is acceptable and even something to be welcomed.
If I understand this correctly therefore, it seems to mean that is now trendy to wear normal clothes and stuff that you like, to dress like others in fact. I question my understanding of it, only because I have started reading articles by fashion writers on the subject and find that they make my head hurt within a few paragraphs. Even the habit of simply wearing normal clothes has now become the subject of torrents of analysis. Getting dressed in the morning has now become psychologically complicated.
Finally, fashion has caught up with what everybody else is doing. The question is, how long will it be cool to no longer be cool and when will it stop being cool to not be cool any longer? And no, I didn’t understand that either. That’s fashion for you.
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.
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.