Tag Archives: language

A Word With Weird Al Jankovic

I feel a bit said that Weird Al Jankovic is probably not a fan of Wordability. The noted creator of parody songs has just released his new album, Mandatory Fun, which contains the song Word Crimes, a musical diatribe against the breaking of the rules of grammer and what is generally regarded as correct English.

I am in two minds about this song. On the one hand, I am a stickler for correct English, and have been noted for my pedantry over correct English over the years, especially when working in professional media organisations with my sub editing hat on. So I agree with the song’s sentiments when it comes to the written language in formal and published contexts.

On the other hand, Wordability‘s brief has always been to applaud the new words which come into English and make a difference, while to also acknowledge that as a living, breathing entity, English is changing, and the rules which people have worshipped for many years may ultimately be ripped up by the language’s users. Changes which are increasingly prevalent in spoken and digital language will almost inevitably be accepted into the grammatical and lexical rules of the future. Weird Al’s support for apostrophes and the alleged misuse of literally suggest he would have have disagreed with my postings on the subject.

But a small part of me wonders whether Weird Al really is as prescriptive as his song makes out. Word Crimes is a pastiche of Blurred Lines, the 2013 hit by Robin Thicke described by some as the most controversial song of the decade. The song describes apparent ambiguity in the way that men read women’s signals, but the lyrics have been interpreted by many as date rape, while the accompanying video has been accused of sexism, and the song has been banned in many places.

If Weird Al had truly wanted to stand up for grammar’s rules, might he have picked a less ambiguous and controversial song to use as the backbone for his apparent tirade? Or does his choice of song suggest that while he wants to get his grammar beefs off his chest, an element of him is trying to suggest that the situation is not as straightforward as might first appear?

I may be completely wrong. All of the commentary on this song suggests that it is a straightforward diatribe against bad English, and celebrity support from luminaries such as Kelsey Grammer, whose Twitter feed is dedicated to grammatical issues, would suggest I have a minority interpretation.

But we are dealing with a performer whose stock in trade is pastiche, and who has chosen a vehicle for his diatribe whose own meaning has been debated to death over the last 12 months. Perhaps Weird Al is not quite as obsessed about his rules of grammar as appears to be the case.

A New World For Columbus

We all know that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Actually, we know he discovered it on behalf of the western world, because the country was already inhabited when he arrived.

This nuance over the meaning of ‘discovered’ has seen a new word created in the last few days. A sketch on the College Humor website pokes fun at the idea of white people stumbling across things known to others for many years and then claiming ownership and therefore discovery of them. In honour of the fabled Christopher, this practice is known as ‘Columbusing’.

Columnists have already had lots of fun with this idea, with Miley Cyrus and Twerking featuring prominently in the commentaries of many as she is associated in the minds of lots of people as having discovered twerking, when it had in fact been around for some time.

I think it’s an interesting word as it is a really neat way of encapsulating a quite complex concept, which has both political and social overtones. Whether it has any life beyond this week’s flurry of media activity remains to be seen, but I can see it hanging around as a satirical term online, even if it never makes it into mainstream conversations and dictionaries.

Interestingly, a similar meaning of Columbusing appears to have been submitted to the Urban Dictionary over a year ago. So have the writers at College Humor Columbused Columbusing?

Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

Spornosexual the New Metrosexual

We all know about the phrase that difficult second album. However, we don’t tend to hear about that difficult second neologism. The appearance of a sequel to a highly successful neologism this week has certainly made me think about the concept.

Back in 1994, journalist  Mark Simpson coined the term Metrosexual, There is no doubting its success as a new word. Metrosexual has certainly established itself as a word to describe a particular type of man with a meticulous approach to his own appearance, and it even carried off the American Dialect Society Word of the Year accolade in 2003.

So 20 years on, Mr Simpson has returned with an attempt to update his term and give us a new word for a new type of man. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he gives us Spornosexual.

A spornosexual is a step on from a metrosexual. A fan of sport and pornography, he is a body and selfie-obsessed individual, and rather than just using clothes as a way of defining himself, he uses his body itself, by either tattooing it or honing it to perfection in the gym. And if that is not enough, he will even photoshop his own selfies to get that body image just so.

Given Mr Simpon’s history, and taking on board the veracity of his observations, it is not a suprise that the media have taken to his theory and his new word extremely quickly, with an outpouring of articles and analysis of this new trend he identifies.

But has he coined a second word which will have the same success as the first? I think probably not. Because I don’t think it is as neat a nelogism as his first effort. Spornosexual is actually a combination of three previous words, sports, porn and metrosexual. It’s a little like he has created the neologism sporn and then tacked it onto another word to get yet another word. This multiple method for creating the word makes it difficult to understand immediately, you really need someone to explain it to you to make sense of it, and that is where I think it falls down.

Metrosexual was so successful not only because it defined a clear new trend but the word itself was easy to understand and clearly represented its meaning. To be successful, a new word has to fill a semantic gap and be easy to understand and use. I think Spornosexual fails the latter of these criteria. It is a hard term to understand when you first hear it, and it is not at all obvious what it means. So for this reason, while Mr Simpson may have been spot on with his observations, his new word seems to prove the old adage that a sequel is never as good as the original.

A Phrase That’s Just Too Death Eaterish

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.

#weareallmonkeys #newpartofspeech

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

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.

Has Normcare Made Me Fashionable?

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.

Geocache Now On Board

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.

Consciously Uncoupling The Language

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.

Check Out Your Trunklements

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.