Monthly Archives: October 2012

Frankenstorm May Be Monster Mistake

Sometimes people can just get a new word wrong. It must have seemed such a good linguistic idea  when Hurricane Sandy started its progression northwards up the eastern United States and prepared to amalgamate with other systems, so creating a super storm. What a great joke to dub it Frankenstorm, a monster storm for the Halloween season.

The problem is of course that it sounds funny, it automatically raises a smile as a word. But given the devastation that Frankenstorm is now predicted to wreak, it is a hollow and wholly inappropriate joke, where the name selected completely undermines the seriousness of what is expected to happen.

At the time of writing this, I don’t know whether the dire predictions for New York came true. It may be that it turned out to be a Frankenstorm in a teacup, and the name will have gone back to being a bogeyman-type appendage that gets wheeled out in the future as a way of scaring people when the wind begins to howl.

But if havoc ensued, then Frankenstorm will forever be remembered in a ghoulish way and any humour associated with the initial coining will have vanished.

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Romnesia: The Key Word of 2012 Campaign?

Regular readers of Wordability will know just how much I love Mitt Romney. And no, that is not a political statement at all, merely an acknowledgement of how many times linguistic issues seem to have followed him around during this lengthy election campaign.

But does the campaign finally have the new word that will prove decisive? I wrote at the start of the year about how individual words have the power to win elections, with Change helping to lead Barack Obama to glory four years ago.

So far in 2012, no word has quite emerged as decisive. Mr Romney has tried, but Obamaloney was poor. Instead, he has constantly found himself at the mercy of linguistic disasters not of his own making, while phrases like 47% and Binders Full of Women have dogged him.

And now, it looks like the President has cracked it. In a speech in Virginia, Mr Obama characterised his opponent’s ability to change his mind and position on key issues as ‘Romnesia’.

And it worked. The crowd loved it. More importantly, the Twitter crowd loved it. It trended madly on the network immediately, and has quickly established itself as a hashtag to be appended to anything even vaguely anti-Republican.

It’s a great neologism. It makes you think of Romney. It makes you think of forgetting. And it encapsulates the character flaw that Mr Obama wants to draw attention to. It could do for this election what flip-flop did for George Bush against John Kerry by becoming the word which crystallises the campaign and leads to eventual victory.

Have I overstated this? It’s hard to say. In the minds of the undecided voters, one new word can stick. And finding that key new word which is never forgotten could ultimately make the difference.

Misogyny Fuels Australian Debate

It’s rare when the redefining of a word in a dictionary finds itself at the centre of a political storm. But so it is in a spectacular row in Australia.

First, the background. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard swept across YouTube recently following her extraordinary attack on opposition leader Tony Abbott in parliament. The attack followed the resignation of speaker Peter Slipper, who had been accused of sexual harassment. Opposition moves to unseat him saw Ms Gillard launch an attack on Mr Abbott’s own values.

Her tirade included the particularly memorable “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.”

There was a lot of aftermath. One strand was about semantics. Ms Gillard had used misogyny, which means a hatred of women, to mean prejudice against women. Had it been a lack of understanding of the correct meaning? Or had it been a deliberate conflation of the two senses in order to score a political point?

And then the Macquarie ditionary came along. Australia’s foremost authority on language decided to extend its definition of misogyny to a synonym for sexism, an ‘entrenched prejudice against women’, to reflect the fact that the usage of the word has changed.

Outcry? You bet. While linguists might have applauded the dictionary editors for being responsive to language change and acting accordingly, they would also have said it was a bit late, with the Oxford English Dictionary pointing out it had added the new sense 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Ms Gillard’s opponents cried foul and anger over the fact that dictionaries should not be making political points by redefining words and it was not up to the Prime Minister to misuse a word and then expect lexicographers to back her up. The Macquarie editor was forced to issue a follow-up statement further defending the decision.

There has been much debate worldwide about the word misogyny, the word sexism, their worldwide usage, whether they are the same or different, whether dictionaries should make changes in this way, and so on.

I suspect that the outcome to all of this is that even if the word misogyny had only previously meant hatred of women in people’s minds, it will now be entrenched for all with the sense of sexism as well, and that this incident has simply confirmed an evolution in meaning that has been taking place over the last 20 or 30 years. And of course, that is what language does. It is just a little uncommon for that gradual shift to become the subject of such frenzied international debate. But I think it is fair to say that misogyny is now a word with a definitive new meaning.

Kozmania – A New Type of Linsanity

You know the story by now. Unheralded American sportsman is given his chance in the big time. He dominates every game he plays, becoming a national icon. His deeds spawn a new word in newpaper headlines. The word mushrooms, with official linguistic recognition not far behind. And then, the ultimate accoloade. He appears in Wordability.

OK, that’s not exactly how the story pans out. But it does seem to be a bit of a trend. Following Jeremy Lin’s basketball success earlier this year, and the associated mushrooming of Linsanity across the globe, comes another unlikely sporting and language star – Pete Kozma.

After six years on the fringes of the big time, Kozma was finally called into the St Louis Cardinals team at the end of August. Almost predictably, he has turned out to be sensational, taking a leading role in the National League series against the Washington Nationals, leading his team to victory and spawning the word Kozmania.

Will Kozmania be another Linsanity? Probably not. Jeremy Lin’s story was as much about him being the first American player of Taiwanese descent to make it in the big time as it was about an unlikely player dominating a sporting arena. And there’s something about the word – Kozmania sounds like something which grabs you for a short time and then you get over it, while Linsanity is more of a state of mind and likely to last longer.

But I could be wrong, and if I am, then who knows how many times that American sporting dream from my opening paragraph will be played out in the years to come. Especially the bit where they end up on Wordability.

Mission Imborisable? Nothing’s Impossible

There is no ignoring Boris Johnson. The Mayor of London, feted by many as a future Prime Minister, has stolen the headlines with a pair of appearances at the Tory party conference in Birmingham.

At the start of his first appearance on Monday night, he was prefaced by a video celebrating his re-election as London head honcho earlier this year. The video was preface by the caption ‘Mission Imborisable’.

A headline writer’s dream? Absolutely. An attempt to get a new word into the dictionary? Absolutely not. And yet…

As Boris coverage increases, and if stories about him and Downing Street continue to be written, the temptation to carry on using Imborisable in connection with any tale of Johnson-esque derring-do may prove irresistible to sub-editors up and down the land.

So while I do not see a future in which the OED features a word loosely defined as ‘an unlikely achievement by Boris Johnson’, I do think this is a word that will be around as a piece of political shorthand for the foreseeable future. And that is already an Imborisable achievement.

Pretirement – A New Phase of Life

With lifespans getting longer and the structure of our lives in constant evolution, it is no surprise that changing circumstances are demanding new words.

Tweenagers is a wholly successful and well established example of this, a 21st century word to describe that awkward period between 10 and 14 when children are becoming more sophisticated but are not fully-fledged, hormonally-challenged actual teenagers.

And so at the other end of the scale comes Pretirement, a word which is slowly beginning to appear around the internet. Meanings are still being formed, but it seems to be shaking down into something which describes a new phase, namely the last period of someone’s working life in their early to mid-sixties, as they start to also focus on the things they want to do when they are fully retired.

That would be a good final meaning for pretirement, though there are currently conflicting definitions. For example, Shannon Ward and Diana Stirling believe it is a work-life balance choice that people can make much earlier in life, and have a flourishing website to prove it. Meanwhile, the Urban Dictionary reckons it is the period between higher education and work, the last chance you will have to relax for years. Interestingly, this is the meaning that has been submitted to the Collins new word suggestion project, though comments alongside the entry suggest it has been around in some form since 2005.

Nonetheless, it is clear that pretirement is a word that has not been given any kind of official recognition yet. It is being used to describe a variety of different phases, all of which are becoming a key part of modern life. I suspect it will finally become locked down as the final pre-retirement period, and it will be no surprise if it becomes as much a part of the English language as Tweenager in the next few years.

Will Vatileaks Start A New Precedent?

I do hope that current events in the Vatican are not a sign of linguistic developments to come. I mean, Wikileaks was one thing – it took the idea of a Wiki, and the idea of Leaks, stuck them together, and came up with a title and a concept which, basically, worked.

But that doesn’t mean that -Leaks has now become an acceptable suffix which can be ramrodded onto any story about the unauthorised release of sensitive information. And yet, Vatileaks is now all over the news.

Is this the start of a new Leak inspired linguistic habit, a way of encapsulating a particular kind of scandal with a new language shorthand. I do hope not. As I wrote earlier this year, my loathing of the -Gate suffix was not helped by the Horsegate fiasco, and recent events in Downing Street, involving the Chief Whip and his bicycle, saw the arrival of Gategate, surely the nadir for -Gate and the point when, one hopes, it will finally die its natural death.

If we are ever to be freed from Gate, please do not let Leaks come into its place. We don’t want a language scandal called Leaksgate, now do we?