It’s not often that a well-established word gets a whole new burst of semantic life, but the latest changes in Coronavirus guidance in the UK have done that for the humble bubble.
From now, groups in the UK can introduce one other individual into their Social Bubble, according to certain criteria.
There are two things to consider here. The first is the choice of the word ‘bubble’ as a term for a self-contained social entity. This seems to be an extension of the idea of a Bubble as a protected group. Cambridge Dictionaries Online provides a helpful definition which supports this:
Bubble (Protected Life) – A situation in which you only experience things that you expect or find easy to deal with, for example opinions you agree with, or people who are similar to you: The candidate liked to talk to ordinary people to get a fix on what was happening outside his bubble.
It still strikes me that bubble was not the ideal choice of word. To me, something more everyday like group or circle would have been a little more appropriate. Bubble in the sense above carries a slight sense of unwillingness to engage with others, being happy inside your own world view and not that interested in the thoughts of others. In a situation where we are all desperate to get out of our lockdown routine and see more people, using language to subliminally reinforce the sense that we are all stuck in bubbles is a little unhelpful.
More interesting from a linguistic point of view is that the verb form of Bubble has gained a whole new meaning. To Bubble is now being used to mean the act of adding someone to your social group – I am going to bubble with my Mum, or We are bubbling up with Mr Jones.
While we are very familiar with the idea of new words being formed to encapsulate new and previously unseen ideas or activities, seeing an old word learn new tricks is a little bit different. Expect to see the definition of bubble being officially lengthened in the near future.
Or to use the modern parlance, expect Bubble to bubble its definition by one new member.
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.
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.
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.
Coronavirus 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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s not uncommon for advertising companies to coin new words in an effort to get their new product to take off, and many words and phrases from the world of advertising have done exactly what they say on the tin and entered common usage.
Whether the Axe male grooming range achieves this feat remains to be seen however, though you can’t criticise them for their efforts at least. Agency 72andsunny has created the word ‘Bathsculinity’, meaning to be confident in yourself inside and outside the bathroom, and is hoping that its series of adverts, starring actor and comedian Lil’ Rel Howery, will promote what it means to have bathroom self-confidence and will grow the Axe brand and cement the word in popular usage.
Adam Koppel, creative director at 72andSunny Amsterdam, said: “The purpose of the ‘bathsculinity’ campaign is to start a new conversation around masculinity in the 21st century about what it really means to be a man.” From a personal perspective, I find the word quite clumsy and not easy to say, which is always an indicator to me that something will struggle to catch on, while it is also not fulfilling a genuine semantic need. I don’t hold out enormous hope for Bathsculinity’s prospects.
Of course, if your thing is pouring concrete in the bath, then there is a word for you. We have become accustomed of late to fatbergs, enormous solid lumps being found in water systems which need to be destroyed. But this week, I read about a ‘concreteberg’ for the first time, as I suspect most people did, as Thames Water struggled to deal with a 100-metre, 105-ton lump of concrete in a Victoria sewer in central London. It is unclear exactly how it formed, though people pouring concrete down drains and sewers is a likely contributor. What is much clearer is that it will take around two months and lots of money to remove it.
While London is blocked under the surface, it has also suffered delays and hold-ups at ground level as well, as Extinction Rebellion has protested over the impact of climate change, bringing the name of this group into public consciousness. Separately, an interesting Swedish word is gaining traction on social media as a way of highlighting activities which have an impact on climate change. Flygskam, meaning flight shame, is increasingly appearing on postings as a hashtag to highlight the shame people are beginning to feel about the number of flights they take and the impact this is having on the environment.
As activists continue to insist that only fundamental changes to our lifestyles will arrest the climate damage now happening, it will be interesting to see whether Flygskam makes the leap across languages to become a de facto global term which people use when they are, or aren’t, flying.
And finally, an interesting tale from Australia, where Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has suggested that the term disabled is insulting and should be dropped from society as it demeans disabled people, suggesting instead that they should be referred to as ‘access inclusion seekers’.
I am lucky enough not to be disabled, but can judge this fairly easily on the reaction of disabled people, which has been an almost universal dismissal of the idea and a suggestion that the new term is at best unnecessary but is actually patronising and insulting to boot. Clearly another new word which isn’t needed.
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.
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.