Watch Out! There’s a Prrreet About!

If you need a diversion from the current lockdown, then can I recommend a new language website which will appeal to more than just readers of blogs about Words.

This Word Does Not Exist is the brainchild of Thomas Dimson, the former Director of Engineering at Instagram. It is an AI-based site which performs one very simple function – it uses AI and machine learning to offer definitions for words which are not real.

There are two main modes to it – in one, you can just keep clicking and allow the site to suggest random false words to you, with their plausible but still false meanings also offered up. In the more fun mode, you can type in your own made-up words and see what meaning the machine gives them.

I started seriously, with variations on ‘Stay Alert’, as I felt that there had been so much discussion recently in the UK about what this ambiguous piece of Government advice means that I might as well let a machine tell me:

Frankly, as a definition, it doesn’t make much sense, and it seems to confuse its adjectives and its nouns. Just as clear as Government advice then. So Perfect.

I then reminded myself that this is an escape from lockdown, rather than a way of continuing to worry about it. So I moved on to try to think of words which could exist but currently don’t. Pretty sure I will start to use this one in conversation soon:

And then finally, I just put in some random strings to see what the AI suggested:

I feel like I need to draw a picture of a Prrreet, go and hunt for one, check out museums and so on. It already feels like one actually exists.

I don’t think there is any risk with this website. People aren’t going to use it to claim that certain words really mean certain things. The definitions are generated automatically, there is a huge disclaimer on every page and nothing on here will ever appear on any formal dictionary page.

Instead it is a great deal of fun and a further illustration that not only does language constantly evolve, with technology at the centre of that change, but that words which may seem fanciful now could become standard usage in a few years’ time.

Preparing for the New Normal

In my recent blog on the new words to have emerged during the Coronavirus pandemic, I concluded by speculating on what additional words might become everyday utterances by the end of 2020.

One which is increasingly doing the rounds now is the term ‘The New Normal’, the catch-all to describe what we think our lives are going to become once Coronavirus has passed. Or to be more nuanced about it, because Coronavirus is not simply going to be switched off one day in the near future, what shades of new normal we are going to pass through before finally settling on the ultimate new normal which life is going to become.

Of course, at this stage, while nobody can agree on what form the New Normal will take, most people have realised that the future we are moving to will not be the same as the life we have been living the last few years, and the arrival of a New Normal is a raging certainty. Talk about life ‘returning to normal’ carries the unfortunate reality underneath it that we are unlikely to ever truly go back. So we can expect to read an increasing amount of commentary about what form the New Normal will take.

But from a linguistic point of view, the New Normal by its very nature will have a short shelf-life. Once our new ways of living have bedded in, the New Normal simply becomes Normality. And the way we were living at the start of the year is no longer Normality. It then becomes ‘The Old Normal’.

So let’s hope that the new normal can take the best of the old normal, with a bit that we have learned during the lockdown thrown in, and when we look back on the old normal from the new normal in a few years time, we can conclude that we used this era to improve the way we conduct our lives and that the new normal which has emerged is an improvement on the old.

 

Word of the Year a Virtual Certainty

It’s only the beginning of April, so it is a little premature to decide on what will be crowned the word of the year this year. But it is a raging certainty that whatever global dictionary makers decide on, it will have something to do with Coronavirus.

The words which have now become everyday to us fall into two distinct categories – those which previously existed, but we rarely used, and those which are new and have been spawned by the current pandemic.

CoronavirusCoronavirus itself falls into the former category. Coronavirus as a catch-all term for a group of viruses, including the common cold, is technically the correct definition, but the ongoing outbreak has meant that Coronavirus is now being used as the term for this specific illness, and will be for all time. While people are familiar with the new term Covid-19, the official word for the disease caused by this particular coronavirus, we are living through the time of The Coronavirus and nuances of meaning around future coronaviruses are linguistic challenges for another day.

Other two key terms which have gone from nowhere straight into daily usage are Self-isolation, Social Distancing and Lockdown. Any could legitimately emerge at the end of the year as the term which has defined 2020. Allied to that is the word Virtual, which was much more common before this outbreak but is now appearing as a prefix to almost anything you can think of to describe a previous physical activity now being delivered by electronic means. Virtual reality no longer seems so virtual, and a revision of the word virtual at the end of all this to recognise its ubiquity may be upon us.

The key to much of this virtuality has been the technical tools available, and Zoom is a brand that is new to most people. It has currently gone clear of the pack in terms of being the online meeting tool which most people are relying on. However, the rise of Zoom has also spawned one of the best brand new words of recent times, Zoombombing, which is the practice of people hacking into online meetings hosted on Zoom to disrupt them, often with sinister overtones. Zoom have responded by making some urgent changes to their platform, so it will be interesting to see if Zoombombing becomes a historical word almost as quickly as it emerged.

The new word which will doubtless hang around longer is Covidiot, the term coined to describe anyone doing stupid things during the current outbreak, be that stockpiling toilet paper or ignoring official guidance over how to behave to avoid spreading the disease. Urban Dictionary is credited by many as the origin of the word, and it certainly looks like one which will not go away any time soon.

Any one of the words above could emerge as the defining word of the year. But wouldn’t it be great if it was none of them? Wouldn’t it be something if vaccine or cure could suddenly rise up as the key description of this year? Or something about how togetherness and community spirit end up as the enduring spirit of 2020? Optimistic I know in the current climate, but with plenty of people saying that they hope that the world that emerges from the pandemic is better than the one that went into it, then we may find that the most popular words over the next few months reflect a renewed sense of hope.

No Laziness on Climate Change

Nominations for words of the year are not just a sign that Christmas is around the corner – it reminds me that my stated aim to write regular Wordability columns has foundered once again. Clearly Laziness around my blog output should be my personal word of the year for 2019.

But one thing that is interesting about the choices for the UK’s two most prominent nominators is how similar their decisions are. Collins Dictionaries went first, picking Climate Strike as word of the year – Oxford Dictionaries has now followed with Climate Emergency.

Climate protestThis shouldn’t really be a surprise – despite the current UK fixation on Brexit and the ongoing election campaign, many are arguing that this focus on domestic issues  is distracting from the climate, which should be viewed as the single most important issue facing anybody at the moment. Collins and Oxford have tapped into the way that public events around the climate have really burrowed into public consciousness this year, and have come up with two sides of the same story as a way of summing up the year.

The reason that I was surprised though was that it has often felt like the dictionary makers are consciously vying with each other to choose different words, and that Oxford Dictionaries’ choices have sometimes seemed quite left-field. I’ve speculated in the past that they have suffered from being second off the blocks every year with making their decision. I was particularly struck by this in 2016, when Collins Dictionaries chose Brexit, which seemed to be the only word that anybody was using for those 12 months, and Oxford Dictionaries went with post-truth, which while apposite didn’t seem to me to quite hit the mark.

So this year I think that both dictionary makers have made decisions which are easy to agree with. And it has reminded me that while laziness around climate change is the thing which we all need to avoid in order to protect our planet, I will also be doing my level best to beat my blogging laziness and try to write more about the endless changes in the English language.

Why Fake News is Fake

Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.

It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.

So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.

And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.

Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.

Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.

What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.

A world of mentrification

Sometimes a great new word needs some nurturing before it can truly take off. I wonder if that will be case with a striking new word which hit the news this week.

The term ‘Mentrification’ was coined on Tumblr by a user called @obstinatecondolement. It basically describes the process whereby the achievement of women in creating or developing something popular is overwritten by men taking all the glory, such as women being at the forefront of software development in an industry where men now take all the credit.

Men claim to dominate the computer industry

The word gained quick prominence due to an excellent piece in the Guardian celebrating its arrival, saying it had gone viral on Tumblr and as an example of when “a single word arrives to describe something widely perceived and innately known yet not already explained”.

And yet, when I went onto social media and the wider web for verification that this word was truly taking off, I found virtually nothing. Not a trending hashtag, not a term that seems to be showing any great sense of usage, no other articles commenting or dicussing what appears to be a striking new neologism. All that is out there is a few people retweeting the original Guardian piece and praising it, without the sense that the word has yet taken on a life of its own.

Should we be surprised by this? Actually not at all. The contention of the piece is that Mentrification is “shorthand for a process that isn’t as much about men versus women as it is about a traditional culture that is still – still – gendered masculine, and whose behavioural default is to masculinise anything that challenges it.”

I looked up statistics for gender usage of Twitter. According to Statista, two thirds of Twitter users are male. So in a male-dominated environment, where men traditionally ride roughshod over the interests of women, is it any wonder that a word which points this out is struggling to garner attention? Is this not just another example of dominant interests closing ranks to ensure that the alternative viewpoint is not heard?

So Mentrification might currently be struggling to find its audience. But it fits the brief as a strong-sounding word which fulfils a semantic need. It just requires more people with big followings to start using on a regular basis. And then maybe there will be a small move back towards redressing the historical balance.

Winter is Coming for Snowflakes

When I was writing last week’s Wordability column, I found myself pondering the new meaning for the world Snowflake, that is, a person who is over-emotional or easily offended, someone who can brook no argument with opposing points of view.

So I’m quite pleased I waited a week, because this week Merriam-Webster announced a raft of new words and revised definitions in their dictionary, and Snowflake’s new identify was celebrated.

It’s interesting though that in the revised definition, the focus remains on the sensitivity side, rather than the inability to deal with an opposing argument. I have seen the word Snowflake used with increasing ferocity in online debates about Brexit, political correctness, the environment, and other divisive issues of the day. It has certainly become the standard term to throw at anybody who seems to have a more liberal view of the world, and is used to suggest that those who think that way are somehow lacking, lesser people. To be honest, I have become increasingly annoyed about it. And if you want to call me a snowflake for saying that, well so be it.

Of course, the irony of the timing of this dictionary update should not be lost on anyone. Snowflake’s update comes on the same weekend that Winter is finally coming on televisions across the globe, with the titanic Game of Thrones battle between the living and dead about to be screened.

Whoever prevails in that battle, wouldn’t it be good if the snowflakes could prevail in the online battles of the day, and the thought out and nuanced positions which they often represent can successfully withstand the name calling and heat which often comes from the other wide. Then we could perhaps confirm that Winter is Coming in the most positive sense.