The Truth About The Word of the Year

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man. Earlier this year, I said that Brexit was a shoo-in to be named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. Thankfully my fiver remained in my pocket rather than with my local bookmaker. The lexicographers of Oxford have announced instead that Post-Truth is its international word of 2016.

But I think they’ve got it wrong.

To me, a word of the year has to encapsulate the year just gone and also be a word that is actually being used on a regular basis. In terms of the former criterion, post-truth fits the brief. Given the crazy political climate we have just lived through, where the veracity of what we hear is open to question and elections are won and lost on the basis of at times spurious claims, the notion that we now live in a post-truth world is a very real one. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, it clearly sums up the year we have all lived through.

But while we all recognise this and know it to be true, and while Oxford say that usage has gone up 2,000% in 2016, is it word that anybody ever hears anybody else actually say in daily conversation? Or is it a word of media commentary and online discourse, handy for summing up the zeitgeist and therefore one of the words which helps us to describe the year, but not indisputably the word which defines it.

Despite Donald Trump’s victory, I still maintain that Brexit is the word of 2016, a view which Collins Dictionaries recently endorsed. I think it has international connotations, as it is used as the touchstone by which other elections or movements are now judged. I’ve no idea how much usage has gone up, but I would wager (there I go again) that it is a great deal more than the 2,000% increase recorded by post-truth.

But crucially, it has become a word used by everybody this year and has become fully adopted into the English language better than any other recent word which comes to mind. It went from a slightly odd formation on the sidelines to becoming a fully fledged member of the English language, used and understood by everybody. For goodness sake, we even have a Brexit Minister now, that is how established the word has become. (Hopefully we will never be entering a Government that feels the need to appoint a Post-Truth Minister, but that is a blog for a different site). Its universal acceptance should have sealed the deal.

I do sometimes wonder whether the timing of the word of the year calendar affects Oxford Dictionaries slightly. Collins always goes first, and having bagged the obvious choice, I can only speculate on whether the Oxford powers that be felt that they couldn’t choose the same thing, so had to come up with something related but different. I can’t help feeling that they have plumped for the more academic and erudite choice as a way of marking themselves out, but have simply got it wrong this year.

I probably haven’t enhanced my already minimal chances of being invited to join the committee which decides these things in the future, but no matter. For me, Brexit is and always will be the defining word of 2016. And that is the whole truth.

Will The Whitelash Last?

One of the strangest things about the tumultuous political events of this year is that the reality of what it will all mean is still to come. 2016 is the year of Trump, the year of Brexit. But in some senses, it isn’t at all. The effects of the Trump presidency will not be fully felt until the start of 2017, the ramifications of Brexit will play out over a number of years. This is the year when the world changed – the next few years will tell us how much.

From a linguistic point of view, it is inevitable that new words and phrases will start to come into our language as the new realities take effect. One that has been around since last year is Trumpism, but interestingly it still feels a little like a word in search of a fully defined meaning. What is clear is that in the short-term, it will be used as the catch-all headline term for all policies and agendas set by the future US President, and a clear understanding of the values it represents will only really become apparent over the next few months.

A clearer word emerged in the immediate aftermath of the election. CNN commentator Van Jones felt that the result could partly be explained by a backlash of white people in the States against a black president, while the other issues of racism present in those working definitions of Trumpism also played their part. He termed the reaction a Whitelash, a word that has quickly caught hold and become of the key buzzwords that commentators the world over have used when describing the result.

It is understandable and tempting for people to hang on to words such as this as they seek to make sense of the week we have just witnessed. The reason this one seems to work is that it gets to the heart of one of the key issues of the election and brings to the fore issues of racism which are disturbing to many of us, making those ideas central to the overall result. I suspect that the term whitelash will be around in political comment for some time to come, especially with a round of volatile elections in Europe just around the corner.

On a lighter note, it was almost inevitable that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would try to get in on the act. He has been reusing Gloomadon Poppers with almost monotonous regularity over the last few months, but this week tried for a new entry in the annals of words that nobody will ever use with ‘whinge-o-rama’, saying that the collective whinge-o-rama over the Trump victory had to stop. I wonder if there was a whinge-o-rama in the Johnson household when his bid to become Prime Minister became unstuck? There may well be one when he finds that yet another of his neologisms has disappeared without a trace.

Four years ago, I wrote a number of blog posts about Mitt Romney and his almost insatiable need to mangle the English language at any given opportunity. But this year’s election does not feel like a time to make jokes about the way words are used. I now need to keep track of the words and phrases used by the new administration to see how language is being modfied to exert influence and whether words are being coined or redefined to create danger in both subtle and unsubtle ways. The power of the spoken word and its ability to create great change and danger is now more real than it has been for a long time. The internet allows ideas to spread like wildfire. New words and meanings can take hold almost before we have realised. Rhetoric can have a profound effect that nobody expected. Tracking how these things evolve is now increasingly vital.

Ain’t Nothing But A Hamdog

In a recent game around my dinner table, my wife was challenged to invent a product which would appeal to football fans. Her creation – a Furger – was deemed a great success which we all wanted to try.

The Furger was a football-shaped burger, with layers of different meat from the centre, fanning outwards to the traditional burger layer around the outside. It was a fantasy feast for fast-food junkies.

As we know, truth is normally stranger than fiction. Because while the Furger existed merely in our dreaks, the Hamdog is only too real. The brainchild of Australian Mark Murray, the Hamdog is a combined burger and hot dog, with the burger split to allow the hot dog to run through the middle of it, while it is all encased in a specially shaped bun to hold the meat and traditional salads and sauces.

The Hamdog has been patented, and despite Mr Murray’s lack of success on Shark Tank, the Australian equivalent of Dragons’ Den, he has now started selling them in Australia to both national and international attention.

From a linguistic point of view, it is not a surprise that Hamdog was eventually chosen as the appropriate term – I don’t think that Dogburger would have fared quite so well. And while I am no gastronomy expert and therefore cannot predict whether the Hamdog is short-term sensation or long-term fast-food fixture, it would be great if it heralded a new era of combined foodstuffs with names we can all enjoy. Jerk Tikka Masala, Bangers and Squeak, Lemon Meringue Alaska – the possibilities are endless.

My only hope though would be that people don’t try to combine sweet and savoury. For me, it never works. And I don’t want to imagine how a combination of Toad in the Hole and Spotted Dick might come out.

The dangers of Close Passing

I’m not a cyclist, an irony given that I live in Oxford, but that does mean that I circumnavigate cyclists on a regular basis, and therefore do my level best to leave them in the condition in which I found them.

Until last week, I didn’t know that was a thing. I assumed that giving cyclists some space as you go past them was just normal. But it turns out that I was wrong. Welcome to ‘close passing’.

A safe distance

A safe distance

It’s a term to be welcomed. West Midlands police put the phrase into the news last week by announcing that its force would target drivers who ‘close pass’ cyclists, which means passing less than a metre and half from where they are pedalling. The force’s use of inverted commas around ‘close pass’ suggested that the term was not one in current usage, and a quick scoot around the internet backs that up. This is a behaviour previously without a word to describe it.

But it’s interesting to note some of the other things which emerge online when you search for close passing. Football was always likely, and you can imagine a team renowned for a close passing game using the term in team meetings. Or more worryingly, I found illustrations of asteroids zooming past the Earth. I wonder if some kind of extra-terrestrial police force is up there in the sky now, enforcing a safe ‘close passing’ distance past our planet to protect us from wanton destruction.

I think ‘close passing’ has a good chance of slipping into the driving vernacular, especially in an era which cycling accidents appear to be on the rise. It is a useful term and a more than worthwhile initiative.

Phubbing comes of age

Wordability has now been running for over four years, with more than 200 posts. Inevitably, favourite new words emerge over a period like that. And the word I have enjoyed writing about more than any other is still Phubbing.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

Phubbing – phone snubbing – describes the act of ignoring people you are physically with because you are interacting with your phone instead. When it first emerged in 2013, I found I started using it and celebrated it as a genuinely useful word, one which filled a semantic vacuum and also tripped off the tongue. And I was not the only one. It featured when I spoke exclusively to Oxford Dictionaries about words which were on their radar for dictionary inclusion.

Of course, it then transpired that Phubbing wasn’t actually a word that had come into being naturally. It had actually been coined as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for an Australian dictionary. In many ways, I warmed to it even more as it was now a useful word with a backstory. I even celebrated it by calling my collection of writings about words in 2013 Phubbing All Over the World.

It seemed however that Phubbing the word would die away, though phubbing the action would remain resolutely and increasingly with us. I barely saw it in 2014 and certainly never heard anybody say it. But a resurrection of sorts occurred last year, as a new round of articles started to appear in the media focusing on phubbing, and so usage picked up once more.

And life has now followed marketing art, with Phubbing finally taking its place in the online annals of Oxford Dictionaries, albeit later than I ever anticipated.

All of which goes to prove that the English language remains the most wonderful, organic beast, encompassing change and growth in myriad ways.  It doesn’t matter how that vital new word first emerges. What does matter is that it is needed, it is used, and it makes a contribution to the overall tapestry of the language itself.

So I shall continue to use Phubbing with pride, knowing that it is now well on its way to permanent acceptance in the language. Which is of course a shame in another way. It is a terrible habit.

Guilty of Lateism

I am not a fan of most reality television, and have never watched reality shows from South Africa. However, a word coined in a recent South African show has quickly gone viral, justifiably so.

A recent episode of Our Perfect Wedding featured the build-up to the wedding of Mr and Mrs Madikane, but with time ticking, a guest walked into the room and in hurrying people up, declared that “lateism is never ever in my gender or calendar.”

Lateism became very popular across social media in South Africa, and not just because of the slightly bizarre sentence in which it featured. It actually left me wondering why we don’t already have this word, as many people have a tendency to be late the whole time, and this word seems to sum up that condition perfectly. I have been accused of it, only sometimes fairly, and I can certainly think of others I know well for whom lateism could be said to be a natural state of being.

So while lateism may be end up being a word which has a brief flourish in South Africa and then disappears again, I think it fufils a valuable gap in the vocabulary and we should try to use it where at all possible.

Maybe lateism never become ‘the late lateism’.

Let’s All Do A Leicester

King Power StadiumFootball fans like me, and those less enamoured of the beautiful game, have been captivated by the Leicester City story over the last few months, as a team of outsiders outfoxed everybody to win the Premier League.

They have left in their wake innumerable memories and have seemingly changed the rules over success in football. One thing they have also changed is the English language.

Thankfully, I don’t mean regular use of the phrase ‘Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong’,  the reference by their urbane manager Claudio Ranieri to the imaginary bell he rings in training sessions to get his players’ attention. That phrase has popped up in coverage and is I think adorning flags and clothing, but I don’t think it’s a stayer. Unlike a phrase used by everybody else, especially pundits. After all, they like nothing more than being able to ask: ‘Who will be the next team to do a Leicester?’

So what does ‘to do a Leicester’ actually mean? Does it mean to assemble a group of rejected and also-ran players, forge them together into an unstoppable force and then watch as they conquer all before them? Not really, but it could.

Does it mean resurrecting the career of a manager whose best days were thought behind him, giving him the platform to rebuild his reputation and into the bargain delivering him the big trophy had eluded him his entire career? Again, no.

Does it mean forcing pundits to eat humble pie because of their absolute certainty that this couldn’t be done and they would go on television in their underpants if it did? Sadly not.

Does it mean defying the bookmakers to such an extent  that they will no longer offer such ludicrously long odds on something not impossible taking place? Again no.

Does it mean creating a team spirit so energising and a bond so great, a joy so profound that the whole country is carried along with the journey and is cheering with the diehard supporters when the trophy is finally lifted? Again no. But like all the examples above, it could.

And this goes to show that the Leicester story is unique, and to truly ‘do a Leicester’, all of the above would have to be in place. It is not what anybody means whey they use the phrase. They simply mean which unexpected team can break through the ranks next and win something, which average performer in any sport will suddenly have a breakthrough year and achieve what was previously thought impossible. Whoever now has an unexpected triumph will be said to be ‘doing a Leicester’.

But as the details of this story have shown us, there were so many elements which made up the Leicester fairytale that the only people capable of truly doing a Leicester are, well, Leicester.