A Time of Peace and Harmony

We all know that we live in extraordinary, tumultuous, unprecedented times. What many of us don’t feel at the moment is that we live in times of peace and harmony. And the words which have dominated the recent news agenda reflect that sentiment.

Reiwa in characters (Photo: Prime Minister of Japan’s Office)

Except in Japan, where the dawn of a new imperial era in May has been greeted with its new official name, Reiwa. Japanese officials have translated Reiwa as ‘Beautiful Harmony’. However, even that has created disharmony and discord with certain people, with social media concerns being raised that the term actually refers to command and control, as that is one possible meaning of the ‘Rei’ part of the term. In our current, febrile society, even giving something a name of positivity will generate controversy and a backlash.

In the UK and US of course, the political maelstroms surging around us are nothing if not acrimonious. As the tortured Brexit process lurches into yet another new phase, the word ‘Flextension’ has started to be used in earnest in the last couple of weeks. ‘Flextension’ is basically a flexible extension, and is being proposed by EU Council President Donald Tusk as a way of the UK having its cake and eating it. Here you go, have an extension until next year, but don’t use all of it if you don’t need it.

Wouldn’t flextensions be wonderful things if they became a permanent feature of our lives. We kind of want something finished by next Tuesday, but frankly, if it takes another three months, don’t worry! Homework due in tomorrow. Flextension please! Of all the ludicrous words Brexit has given us, here is one we could apply brilliantly to everyday life, a new word to justify permanent laziness.

What it certainly isn’t is a word of peace and harmony. Nobody can even seem to agree on what flexibility a flextension should offer, which seems to negate the point of it in the first place. We may soon have to start talking about flexible flextensions. It’s like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors.

On the other side of the Atlantic, discord from beyond the grave. Former first lady Barbara Bush has been quoted as having written in her diary in 1990 “Trump now means Greed, selfishness and ugly.” A sentiment from some time ago but one which backed up other concerns she had over him, as revealed in a newly published biography. At least the President responded with concern and sensitivity, being quoted as saying: “I have heard that she was nasty to me, but she should be. Look what I did to her sons.” Good to see mature and reasoned debate in these peaceful times.

Outside politics, a number of other language issues point to issues of disharmony. For example, British paralympian Dame Sarah Storey believes that such is the animosity towards cyclists, a new word should be coined for people who ride to work on a bike, to differentiate them from racing cyclists, for example.

Pointing out that Dutch has words for just such a distinction, she was quoted as saying: “We need to realise that a cyclist isn’t just a Lycra-clad yob, as per the stereotype, and that cyclists are just people on bikes moving around on a mode of transport.”

The need to protect cyclists is fair enough – a recent Australian survey came up with the bewildering result that more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not fully human. But I don’t think that giving cyclists a different name is going to address this legitimate concern. I think it will just lead to people thinking that this newly-named group remain sub-human for some reason, and attitudes will remain unchanged. Education and road awareness is what is needed, not another word in our cycling vocabulary.

There are of course times when a new word can help with driving issues. Texting and driving is a growing concern, and people don’t listen properly to rules and regulations not to do it. The American Automobile Association is launching a new campaign to encourage people to stop becoming distracted by texting while driving, calling the habit ‘Intexicated’. It’s quite a neat new word and it will be interesting to see if it has a life beyond an individual awareness campaign.

One other area where there always appears to be disharmony is veganism. I have written recently about the supposed misappropriation of the word cheese to vegan products. Well now the debate over other words being used for plant-based produce is back again, with the EU unveiling new proposals that would stop words such as burger and sausage being used for non-meat produce. Instead these items might be renamed discs or tubes to describe their shape. I maintain that this kind of linguistic prejudice against non-animal derived produce is as nonsensical now as it was when the cheese debate was raging a few weeks ago. Language changes, our understanding of these words changes, and a veggie sausage is a veggie sausage. Nobody is going to buy it expecting pork. But nonetheless, these debates will continue and will face further European legislation later this year.

Of course, depending on the outcome of the Flextension, the UK may not have to deal with this linguistic debate going forward. But whether it does or not, the country will not have a few months of beautiful harmony ahead of it. Maybe that planned UK trade deal with Japan cannot come quickly enough.

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When is a Vote not a Vote?

When I studied linguistics, I was very taken by the concept of a Speech Act. This is the idea that by saying something in a certain context, it becomes more than just an utterance and instead actually causes something to change. A person could say “”I do” as many times as they want, but if they say it in front of a designated celebrant, while holding a ring and staring lovingly into the eyes of another human being, the phrase takes on the force of performing an action.

I have been pondering this concept during the last few weeks of Brexit madness in relation to the concept of a vote, or what makes a vote an actual vote. Clearly, me putting a cross on a random piece of paper is simply me doing a doodle. Me putting a cross on an official piece of paper and putting it into the designated box is me expressing my opinion, having it recorded and contributing to an overall result. To Vote means to perform a specifically prescribed action at the anointed time in the appointed place.

It seems to me that over the last few weeks, we have lost our sense of what the word vote actually means. It should always be enough to say that when there is a vote on something, it is clear and straightforward, and once the result comes in, then that is the end of the matter. But such is the controversy that swirls around the big dilemmas currently facing us, that it has become necessary to characterise voting in specific ways, as if by elevating it from just voting itself, it will somehow have more import.

I am not the first person to point out that any vote in the UK Parliament should be meaningful (unless it is one of the now much talked about “indicative” votes, of course). After all, what is the point of MPs spending their time voting for something if there isn’t a reason for it? And yet, the phrase ‘Meaningful Vote’ has crept into into our discourse to characterise the definitive judgement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Remember, she never wanted such a vote to begin with, and was only bounced into holding a vote at all by a ruling from the Supreme Court. And the phrase meaningful vote passed from being what seemed a vague term to describe the final vote to the title of the vote itself, with its sequels of Meaningful Vote 2 or MV3 sounding like a bad film franchise rather than the political horror movie they actually are.

But now that it has become a title, rather than the description of an activity, it has lost the essence of voting and become instead the backdrop to arguments and in-fighting. If another Meaningful Vote is to be held, it is no longer really about settling the Brexit debate and more about working out what it means for Theresa May or the future of the Government. People will not necessarily vote for the motion but for how their vote will be interpreted. Meaningful, but not in the way originally intended.

Meanwhile, the proponents of a second referendum have very cleverly hijacked the word Vote for their own ends with the term People’s Vote, trying to characterise another referendum as something different to what it actually is. Every national election held in the UK is a people’s vote, so the actual term a People’s Vote is tautological. But by defining it in these terms, it is an attempt to make it sound bigger and more inclusive than it actually is. Ardent Brexiteers say it is simply a chance to have another go, being promoted by people who didn’t like the result the first time round, a betrayal of democracy. Whether it is or not is not a matter for Wordability. But it does come across as a manipulative use of the English language to make something sound distinct from what is actually being proposed.

There are many countries in the world where democracy is a sham and the word vote has no actual meaning, even if people are invited to cast an opinion every so often. Many who voted leave in the 2016 Referendum already feel this way and feel that their vote is at risk of being rendered meaningless by the voting that has happened subsequent to this.

It is a huge concern that in the home of the ‘mother of parliaments’, the meaning of the word vote seems to be under such pressure.

Feeling Cheesed Off

It’s been a big week for cheese.

No, there isn’t some kind of international cheese shortage, and no, we haven’t been attacked by rounds of mutant camembert. Instead, the opening of a humble vegan shop in Brixton in South London has pushed the issue of what we actually mean by the word ‘cheese’ into the mainstream news agenda.

La Fauxmagerie markets itself as a ‘Plant-based cheesemonger’, and quite clearly states that it is selling cheese-like products for the vegan market. Early sales have been excellent, and the prospects for the fledgling business look good.

Except of course the vegan cheesers have found themselves at the centre of a storm, after Dairy UK got in touch to say that they were violating EU law by using the word cheese and they should desist immediately.

Dairy UK was quoted as saying: “It concerns us that consumers are being misled with the use of dairy terms like cheese by the plant-based sector. Only products which are real dairy cheeses can use the term ‘cheese’.”

Vegan cheese
A vegan cheese

By the letter of the law, Dairy UK are right. The EU ruled in 2017 that dairy terms should not be used by the non-dairy sector to describe their products, though it is still down to individual countries to actually apply that law.

But by the law of common sense, this is patent nonsense. Fauxmagerie is very clear about what it is selling – people buying products from there know full well they are not buying actual cheese but rather are getting something akin to cheese which fits in with either their ethical or health requirements. A consumer who buys any food marketed as an alternative product has only themselves to blame if they don’t know what they are getting. Additionally, by using a word such as ‘cheese’, it is describing to the consumer the type of produce they are buying.

The dairy industry would no doubt lobby for a new word to encompass this type of product. But bluntly, they fail to recognise the fact that language changes, and the reason that cheese continues to be used is that, frankly, people understand what it means in the vegan context. As I mentioned back in January, attempts to rename Vegan Cheese as Gary a couple of years ago were always doomed to fail, for a whole host of self-evident reasons.

And if we are going to attack the use of Cheese in the vegan world, then clearly, we need to come up with an entirely new dictionary of terms for all the vegetarian and vegan dishes now flooding our supermarkets. The reason? Well if you look up actual dictionary definitions of words like sausage, milk, butter or even haggis, you will find that those official definitions all reference the meat or milk which are constituent parts of their make-up. So if you take the argument to its logical conclusion, you could never have a vegetarian sausage or toast with peanut butter. And as for a Soy Latte, when the word Latte is itself an Anglicisation of the Italian word Latte, meaning milk, well that clearly should be consigned to history.

The world has moved on and language, as it always does, has moved on as well to encompass the changes in our 21st-century lives. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the terms for food with which we are all familiar, and we should welcome rather then resist their adaptation to the new eating habits which are now becoming more popular.

I don’t think anybody is confused.

Making Up For Lost Time

I ran out of time to write a new Wordability post last week. Basically, I just didn’t organise myself properly. Fortunately, I have had a couple of linguistic pointers recently to help myself prepare a better schedule so that I can continue to publish once a week.

Inspiration comes of course from Donald Trump, amid reports that a large amount of his daily schedule is devoted to something called ‘Executive Time’. Naturally enough his staff has been quick to characterise these great swathes of undocumented hours as opportunities for the President to be busy with all manner of important activities which he doesn’t want officially recorded.

But inevitably, it has become another linguistic stick with which to beat the President, with the phrase becoming rapidly adopted as a way to criticise what he may, or may not be doing, while others are now simply using the phrase Executive Time as their excuse for not having got on with an activity that they were really supposed to have accomplished. Clearly, I am doing the same, and was flat out with Executive Time last week, so couldn’t write Wordability.

The interesting thing is why it seems to be particularly prevalent now. Executive Time as a concept first appeared just over a year ago, but has gained new oxygen recently. Perhaps it’s the President’s possible redefinition of the term ‘National Emergency’ which has focused attention on some of the other phrases which surround him.

I’m not convinced that Executive Time is the best way to get anything done. Perhaps Micro-Scheduling would be the better option. Micro-Scheduling involves planning everything down to the second so that maximum productivity can be achieved. This seems the very antithesis of Executive Time, unless that time is filled with a micro schedule which is not made public. On balance though I doubt that even a meticulously planned week would have allowed me to write a blog. I find that when I have a week which is packed full of scheduled activity, I have enough energy left to crawl onto the nearest couch and eat crisps. In truth, these options seem like opposite ends of the productivity schedule, and neither is really the path to success.

Whichever way we choose to plan our time, young people have certainly been in the news recently trying to make the most of it. We were treated to the UK’s first ‘Student Strike’ this week as thousands of schoolchildren descended on City Centres to protest about Climate Change. Though if you believed Conservative Minister Andrea Leadsom, there is a different way to define the term:

So, good to see our political leaders taking the views of young people seriously.

A Cambridge Professor has also been interested by the activities of the young, and has suggested they might be reacting to something he has termed Nepocide, a portmanteu of Nepotism and Genocide. Professor Tony Booth, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge, defines it as: “the conscious willingness to sacrifice future generations for current convenience.” It seems that young people are fighting back against this and may not be prepared to accept that some of the luxuries we live with today are worth it, if there is too high a price to pay tomorrow. The Student Strike would support this way of thinking, though Andrea Leadsom might disagree.

And to finish, something completely different. The term Bokeh is one that is well known from photography circles, meaning the ability to blur out certain parts of a photo to accentuate others, something which is now possible on smartphones such as the iPhone. Apple has released a new advert where one mother is angry with another for using this effect to make her child blurry in the background. “Why did you bokeh my child?” she asks:

Is To Bokeh set to become a new insult in the world of smartphone photography. Or has this been at the heart of all our issues all along. Perhaps Donald Trump’s full schedule was merely Bokeh’d before we got to see it.

Under The Influence

In our interconnected world, the ability of individuals to influence the thinking of others on a global scale has probably never been greater. Being retweeted by somebody with a huge number of followers can be an enormous boost, while the ability to spread fake news and therefore influence the views of countless others is a power which has never existed before.

Interesting then that this week, I have come across a lot of new or unfamiliar words which focus on people or things which strongly influence us.

The Guardian in particular has been leading the way. In one piece, it described the growing trend for people such as Marie Kondo to go online or on TV to try to make others tidy up their homes. It describes them as Cleanfluencers. The article certainly picks up on a new trend, and at this stage, I am only finding the term online referencing the Guardian piece, but I may be wrong, so if anyone can find an earlier citation, please let me know.

This definitely ticks the box of being a new word arriving to fill a semantic gap. But in my opinion, it’s a terrible word, being neither easy to say nor particularly clear in its meaning when you first see it. I hope it doesn’t catch on, but I fear that now that it is being used, it will clean up.

Those with enormous social media followings are regarded as major influencers. On the flip side, I also read about Nano Influencers, who are people with much smaller social media followings but who nonetheless have the power to influence people’s views on emerging products. The suggestion of how to work with these creative souls is to harness the power of hundreds of Nano Influencers simultaneously and use their output to help to drive your brand. One Marie Kondo = 100 Nano Influencers.

Hardly surprisingly, it turns out The Guardian wrote about Nano Influencers as well last year. Is there an influential trend that The Guardian doesn’t want to influence you to think about?

alcohol-alcoholic-drunk-52507Not content with the influence of people, the Guardian also turned to influence of alcohol and write about Hangxiety, the sense of guilt and stress that often accompanies drinking too much, allied to the hangover which follows. Its lengthy article on the subject looked at the chemical influence which alcohol has on the body and the reasons why the feelings of anxiety can be unavoidable.

The main feeling I had reading this was to be reminded of Hangry, an increasingly popular word which describes the combination of being hungry and angry and the feelings of rage which can sometimes accompany the need to eat. Again, there are documented scientific reasons for this phenomenon.

I’m no scientific researcher, so I cannot comment on the validity of the findings behind these two words. But as a linguist, I am hoping we are not at a trend of combining words beginning with A with words beginning with H to create an increasing range of peculiar portmanteau words. Meet my hairy friend Andrew, or Handrew as he likes to be known. If this carries on, I’m going to get really Haggravated.

One influence we can never escape is the weather. While the cold snap in the UK hasn’t been as harsh as predicted, the same cannot be said for the extraordinarily cold weather in the US, with the term Polar Vortex making one its irregular appearances on the front pages. Much more unusual were the reports of a Sun Dog, which is a rare phenonemon where the sun reflects off ice crystals in the atmosphere and there appear to be bright, sun-like spots flanking the sun as it rises. It’s almost like you get three suns for the price of one.

And while we’re at it with the things influencing our lives, we can never escape Brexit in the UK. My favourite contribution to the debate this week, from a linguistic viewpoint, was the report that a new verb ‘To Brexit’ had been coined in Russian, loosely defined as ‘To say goodbye but not to leave’. The kind of thing you might say if you were drunk and unable to leave the room. A case of being struck down by Hangxiety, perhaps.

The language of love

While the creativity of the English language never ceases to entertain me, one thing it doesn’t tend to do is become full of words which are particularly long.

Thank goodness then for a brief diversion provided by Welsh, where a new word coined this week has certainly set a pleasing bar for longest new word of the year in any language.

To promote the Welsh launch of Lumen, a dating app for the over-50s, the word credwchmewncariadarôlpumdegoherwyddeifodmorllawennawrfelybuerioed has been coined.

Tripping nicely off the tongue, the word was created by writer Sarah Russell from Monmouthshire, and it was constructed to include the words’cariad’ (love), ‘credwch’ (believe) and ‘llawen’ (joyful).

It now rivals famous placename Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and at seven characters longer, may yet achieve greater fame than its predecessor. I just want to see both words together on a billboard.

One thing English speakers the world over love to talk about is the weather, and the extreme weather being experienced in many places is leading to the inevitable conversations about whether we need some new words to discuss particular weather phenomena.

One word which got particular usage in England this week was Thundersnow, which while not new is certainly not common. But despite the dire warnings of snow-filled storms lashing the countryside, the Thundersnow didn’t materialise, meaning the word needs to return to the sidelines.

One person never on the sidelines of course is Donald Trump, and this week, he found a way to temporarily end the shutdown of the US Federal Government. It was suggested that Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi had ‘dog walked’ him into submission, leading to suggestions that Dog Walk is an early contender in the World of the Year stakes. It will be interesting to see if this phrase develops over the year.

So the moral of this week’s words – find love, avoid bad weather, walk your dog.

Trump Gives Us Food For Thought

In a week in which an egg has become the most liked post in the history of Instagram, it seems appropriate that a mistaken Donald Trump Tweet about food should have become one the most parodied of the week.

With the partial government shutdown in the US still ongoing, the President boasted about the fast food feast he served to his visitors from American College Football team the Clemson Tigers. However, the internet went into a predictable frenzy of delight when he described the thousand ‘hamberders’ he had brought in for his guests.

Typical online meltdown ensured, as people scrambled to come up with hilarious definitions of hamberder.

And of course, Mr Trump has form here, as many remembered his Covfefe fiasco and suggested serving a cup of it to go along with his imaginary new food.

Is all of this funny? Yes, I suppose so. Does it get a bit tiresome after a while? Yes, absolutely. A part of me just gets a bit fed up with internet wags jumping on every typo, error or other slight misjudgement to race online and show just how clever they are.

Of course these errors can be used for satirical purpose, and the ingenuity that’s out there is often amusing and pointed. But when there are so many significant issues around the world, does the obsession with eggs and misspelt hamburgers signify that people are now totally disengaged from things which matter? Or are we so bound up with the problems of everyday life that any excuse to escape will be leapt upon? I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon here, but I am just a bit bored of knowing that every time somebody significant makes a slight error, the internet reflex will go into overdrive to take advantage of it as people chase not to be left behind.

Maybe it is an example of Politainment, a word which has been around for some time and means the use of elements of PR or other entertainment norms to make political points. It wasn’t a word I had thought of much but I came across an opinion piece by a Colorado-based lawyer which seemed appropriate, given the narrative of the week.

Away from the internet, one other language story which has engaged people this week has been the release of a dictionary of Yorkshire terms, researched painstakingly by historian Dr George Redmonds, who died last year. His work has been completed and put online, allowing people to look up bizarre and unusual Yorkshire terms from years gone by.

If you’re interested, a Gripe Egg is the term for the egg of a Griffin. So maybe I should create a picture of one of those to see if I can become next week’s Instagram sensation.