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.
I vowed to myself that I would never again write about a Selfie derivative. And yet…
So another craze is now exploding across the Internet. Brelfies, breastfeeding selfies, are the latest phenonemon, as breastfeeding mothers post photographs of themselves feeding their tiny offspring.
I am not going to get into a debate about the pros and cons of the images themselves – others are probably far better placed. Instead, I want to draw attention to it in the annals of Wordability as one of the many Selfie crazes which seems to have gained some traction, and probably more than some of the other ones I have covered such as Felfies, Usies and Belfies.
But there is more than just recognising its existence. What is interesting is the way that Selfie is evolving as a word. The ‘elfie’ suffix can take almost anything at the beginning to denote a particular type of photo, but it has already undergone a semantic evolution. Selfies are very specifically photos that people take of themselves. Brelfies on the other hand are not taken by their subject, they are photographs of individuals but are taken by other people.
So the idea of a photographic portrait is being overtaken by the Selfie, whose linguistic derivatives are rapidly growing to encapsulate all kinds of photos of individuals. I wonder if it is possible that individual images of people will all come to be referred to in Selfie terms in the future, and the portrait photo will become a thing of the past. I wouldn’t rule it out.
There’s nothing like coining a new word to get your story into print. Many are the press releases I see where a neologistic angle has been taken as a way of grabbing headlines. Few are the ones that get any traction.
So well done to estate agency Savills, which managed to get quite widespread coverage for its findings about the increasing numbers of people who are living in houses worth a million pounds or more, but who don’t necessarily think of themselves as millionaires. According to Savills, they are ‘Homillionaires’.
I think a round of headlines is as far as this new word will travel. It’s a pretty ugly creation, and doesn’t really work at all in spoken format, which is a clear negative when it comes to widespread adoption. And while there is certainly a semantic gap for the term to squeeze into, property millionaires as a term probably covers it adequately enough.
That’s not to say that the word will completely disappear. I can see newspapers referencing it in other pieces about property prices this year, but always with inverted commas around it to confirm that it hasn’t really established itself. It’s a term whose future is probably purely for journalists and sub-editors.
There is a growing tradition for charities to invent new words as titles to bring attention to themselves. Movember, Stoptober and Dryathlon are three recent examples. I can understand why they do it, because if the new word sticks in people’s minds then the charity can prove to be a big hit. Movember in particular has been a hugely successful campaign, and its name has become embedded in the language as a result.
The latest effort is the brainchild of actor Stephen Amell. The star of Arrow has charity credentials, having taken on cancer with the apposite F*** Cancer campaign last year.
His new campaign, helping out both an anti-bullying group and military veterans, is named after a new word he coined last year. Sinceriously has been defined by the star as ‘the ability to speak freely, openly and honestly about anything’, with a secondary meaning of ‘to initiate any action while spreading as much good karma as possible’. A T-shirt showcasing the definition and supporting the charity has gone on sale
Mr Amell said “It’s a campaign to get people talking. And what better way to get people talking than by creating a new word.” Well yes, of course I agree. New words do get people talking. But the problem with a manufactured word such as this one is that even if it does get people talking, the subject matter may be that the word is not a very good one. Clearly derived from sincerely, I’m not sure that it really develops that word in any meaningful way, and I can’t see people using it. Frankly, it just sounds like you’ve got the actual word wrong.
All of which is a shame. Mr Amell clearly does fine work for charity and his efforts are only to be applauded. He also understands that getting the right new word for a charity can propel it to stratospheric levels. It’s just that this isn’t a great word. Nevertheless, I hope that despite this, he achieves huge success with his efforts.
Amid the hullabaloo over whether David Cameron will be prepared to debate against his political rivals this year in the run-up to the UK’s General Election, one thing that has not gained much attention yet is the possibility that a new term will enter the political language.
Mr Cameron has said that the debates cannot go ahead without the Green Party, and suggestions have been made that if it is decided to hold them without the Prime Minister, an empty podium will be provided should he change his mind. And so the practice of providing such an unattended lectern has been tentatively named ‘empty podiuming’.
This is of course a ghastly and unwieldy term which is highly unlikely to catch on, simply because it is too ugly to be taken seriously. However, Empty Podium itself sounds like a term which could metamorphose from being simply a description of what might be provided to a term which becomes inescapable as the campaign fires up.
Will it ever be more than a reference point for this election, or could it become a tactic of the future, that anybody who refuses to take part in something will be threatened with an Empty Podium. It is too early to say, of course, but this could be the genesis of a new term in the political vernacular.
Je Suis Charlie
Even though 2015 has only just started, I think that we might already have the word of the year. Following the horrifying events in Paris, the hashtag #jesuischarlie has taken off globally. And I am left wondering if there will be a more powerful new term coined during the remainder of 2015.
Use of #jesuischarlie is fascinating in a number of ways. Initially it showed solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who were gunned down on January 7.
But for me it has now become so much more. To put #jesuischarlie in a Twitter post or other article, to put it on a T-shirt or just into your normal conversation, is to associate yourself with a global statement about freedom of speech, is to say that people will not be silenced just because somebody thought it reasonable to take a gun to those who would disagree with them. It is now a badge of belonging, of showing that we will all fight back against terror and not be afraid to say what we think. And its meaning will now stick as the marker of any statement of freedom of speech.
From a linguistic point of view, it demonstrates how language evolution is changing across all cultures. The fact that jesuischarlie is French is irrelevant, it is already an internationally understood term, good in any language. It is already capable of evolution, with #jesuisahmed appearing quickly on Twitter in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who also died in the attack. And it is not fanciful to imagine #jesuis emerging as a permanent prefix, capable of taking countless other endings to make anti-terror statements.
This also shows how hashtags are becoming words in their own right. To emphasise the point, the American Dialect Society this week chose #blacklivesmatter as the word of 2014, referencing emotive protests across North America. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”
We can only hope that events in Paris will not be the precursor to a year of atrocities and that freedom of speech will not be threatened again in this way. But it is moving to see the way that millions have stood up to have their voices heard, and have found a new word to rally behind.