As US election year dawns, so the role of language in the campaign will come to the fore once more. During the 2012 election campaign, I wrote about how the finding of the right word could potentially swing the entire poll, while also noting how Mitt Romney’s travails with language could have contributed to his dismal final result.
So it’s disappointing to note that in the 2016 version so far, the times that language has come to the fore have been more the subject of ridicule and controversy than anything else. Last month it was Donald Trump and his use of the term schlonged. This time around, Trump is still at the centre of things, but even more central to events is Sarah Palin.
It is the use of the word ‘Squirmish’ which has caused all the fuss this time. In her much-dissected endorsement of the Republican front-runner, Palin referred to squirmishes happening around the world, meaning a kind of low-level skirmish. Interestingly, after the inevitable initial amusement, criticism and Twitter reaction, there seems to have been an almost grudging respect for the term. Some have said they find it actually quite useful, while dictionary.com used it as a way to discuss the way that words are introduced in election campaigns generally, while also saying Palin was not the first person to use it.
While I doubt that Palin was aware of the 19th century citations to which dictionary.com alludes, and whether it was a deliberate neologism or a cock-up, there is no doubt that squirmishes has emerged as the first word of this year to be associated with the campaign, and it appears to have a certain amount of momentum to keep it in the public domain for at least a few weeks.
I suppose the level of squirmishes between the candidates might dictate how long it stays current for.
The language of political debate has always fascinated me, and the way that the choice of words can influence the direction of a campaign can never be underestimated.
How disappointing then that when the subject of language comes to the fore in the American Presidential campaign, it should be over the nuances of a crude piece of Yiddish. But how much less surprising that Donald Trump should be at the centre of it.
Basically, Trump voiced the opinion that Democrat rival Hillary Clinton had been ‘schlonged’ by Barack Obama in the 2008 election. He claims to have used it as a term for ‘beaten’, claiming it was just a description for her having lost out. But as has been demonstrated widely online in the last few days, ‘schlong’ is Yiddish slang for penis, and the verbal form of that is not exactly common usage in the way that Trump claims. Cue much debate about the grammatical rules behind creating a verb from a noun, analysis of just how little usage schlonged has had over the years and fortunately very little linking to the Urban Dictionary definition of the term.
Questions have also been asked over whether Trump genuinely thought that his use of the term was correct, or whether it was actually a sexist put-down and therefore much more deliberate. I think the jury is out on this point, but regardless of whether it was intended or accidental, the put-down element is unavoidable and has been fundamental to the discussion that this comment has created.
So what does this mean for the future of English – is schlonged going to emerge as a new piece of widely used Yiddish slang, or will it just be something talked about purely in the context of this Trump/Clinton contretemps.
My instinct is the latter. Trump is such an extreme and divisive character, it is hard to imagine a term that he has used taking off widely, as people will not want to be associated with it, especially as it is a long way from being an innocent put-down. I think it is likely to be a term that is remembered, but not one that enters everyday use. It is however a shame that one of the first linguistic stories of the campaign is this one.
And if Trump’s campaign ends with him losing, I wonder how the competition will refer to his defeat?
Literature has been a common source of new words for a very long time. But I doubt whether the replacement of one word created by an author with a new word from the same author has ever created the uproar we have seen this week. But then again, JK Rowling is no ordinary author.
The story is simple. Rowling coined the term Muggle in the Harry Potter series to mean a non-magical person. But in information which has come out this week about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, next year’s film from Rowling’s wizarding imagination, that word has been changed. The film is set in America, a number of years before the birth of young Potter, and it has been revealed that the Americans don’t call their non-magical counterparts Muggles. No, they call them ‘No-Maj’, meaning they have no magic.
Cue the Twitter outpouring, cue the lamentations of Potter fans united in grief at what they see as the demise of one of their favourite words.
It’s nonsense of course. What might have been more surprising was if American wizards and witches had used the word Muggle. Do people not understand language variation across countries? Is it not entirely likely that a slang term, which is after all what Muggle really is, would be different in America from Britain. Star Eddy Redmayne has now done interviews explaining this and also saying that the term Muggle has not been replaced, as some have erroneously claimed. It is simply that a different word is used by people in a different country, no replacement involved. And when you say it with an American accent, you can fully understand why No-Maj sounds right in a way that the more British Muggle would not.
But the episode is interesting for a couple of linguistic reasons, aside from the social observation that yet again the internet is full of people focusing their energy and anxiety on the most trivial of things. What it does show is how beloved the language of JK Rowling is and how masterful she was with the words she coined and chose for her wizarding world. It would be an exaggeration to say that if she had come up with an inferior word for Muggle then her books would not have succeeded. But it does demonstrate that her consistent choice of the right word, finding ones which have really stuck with the public, gives us insight into why her books have succeeded.
The other thing to mention is that much of the reporting of this story has stressed that Muggle has even been recognised by Oxford Dictionaries. That’s lovely, and I must admit I was surprised by the idea that a reputable dictionary was including a definition for people who aren’t magical. But of course, it doesn’t. Muggle has taken on a new meaning for someone who is ‘not conversant with a particular activity or skill’. I can’t off the top of my head think of another example of a word from literature which has then gained a new meaning in the real world and been given dictionary recognition as a result of that.
So the supposed Muggle controversy isn’t really a controversy at all, and in fact demonstrates Rowling’s acute understanding of the English language. And maybe that is the greatest magic of all.
Word of the year season is upon us, and I have been wondering of late what words would end up taking the gongs this year, given the generally disappointing nature of the new words which have emerged during 2015.
So in that respect, the first winner out of the blocks is entirely in keeping with the less than stellar linguistic year we have been through. Collins Dictionaries has chosen ‘Binge-Watch’ as its word of 2015.
Now there is no denying that binge-watching, the viewing of multiple episodes of a television series in a short time span, is on the rise. New viewing habits and on demand video services have changed the nature of the way we watch television, and access to box sets is increasing. My concern is not with the word itself, it is more with the fact that it doesn’t feel to me like this year has been the year when binge-watching has come of age. I think it had already come of age and was already entrenched, and this year has not been significantly different to last year, though Collins do cite a 200% increase in usage. I suspect that growth probably happened the year before as well. I also don’t feel it defines the year, like a good winner should. And it featured in the Oxford Word of the Year shortlist in 2013.
To me, some of the other words on the Collins shortlist are more representative of 2015 than the eventual winner. Corbynomics, the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is included, and Jeremy Corbyn’s influence on the language has already been documented on Wordability this year. Transgender, relating to a person whose gender identity does not fullycorrespond to the sex assigned to them at birth, has been a big discussion point. And Contactless, making payments without signature or PIN, has gone increasingly mainstream this year and would have been a justified winner.
So the benchmark has been set for Word of the Year winners. I hope that subsequent winners will be able to exceed it.
One of the difficult issues facing new mothers is feeding their children overnight. The decision over whether or not to have your baby in bed with you is one often fraught with difficulty, with uncertainty over whether it is safe counterbalanced by the fact that for many tired parents, having your child close by is the only realistic option if you want to breast feed.
A pair of researchers may have now solved the problem by writing a paper analysing the practice and coining a term specifically to remove the stigma surrounding it. James McKenna and Lee Gettler propose the word Breastsleeping.
To make the point, they include the term in the title of their paper, which is called: “There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping.” In the abstract they comment that this new word will help to resolve the debate about bedsharing and help researchers understand in greater detail different ways of breastfeeding children.
There has long been a huge debate over whether sleeping with your baby is safe or not, and the creation of this new word is not going to close the issue down. However, it gives legitimacy to the practice by identifying it and analysing it, and the millions of people who do this with their babies may well feel support and backing for their actions by this, especially if the word starts to catch on. And because breastsleeping is so widespread, I think there is a chance that it will.
This week, I have been mostly looking at pictures of women in bathing costumes. For work purposes, you understand.
The reason? The latest fashion trend to sweep social media. It’s the thighbrow.
So what is a thighbrow, I hear you ask, if you can actually bear to. Well, it is the crease which naturally forms in a person’s skin when their hip meets the top of their thigh. Women in swimsuits show them off very well, and they are so named because the shape looks a little like an eyebrow, only it is at the top of your thigh. Social media is now awash with pictures of celebrities showing off their thighbrows for all to admire.
I can understand why the word has gatherered a bit of momentum. It’s fun, it sounds vaguely clever and moreover it gives people an excuse to post even more pictures of themselves, if they actually needed it. But will it last? Please no. And if so, will it spawn a never-ending trend of other body creases getting their own name as well, will we be subjected to the elbrow or the armpitbrow in years to come.
Hopefully it won’t be long before the thighbrow is given the boot.