Monthly Archives: March 2013

How To Ungoogle The Dictionary

We all know that Google’s influence on our everyday lives is huge, and Wordability has written in the past about how it affects language. But rather than allowing that influence to just exist naturally, the technology giant has now taken action to directly influence a dictionary definition. The result has been that lexicography has shot into public consciousness around the world.

Google’s beef is with the Language Council of Sweden, which included the word “ogooglebar” or “ungoogleable” in its list of top words of 2012. The definition given was ‘something which cannot be found with a search engine’. However, Google objected, saying that the definition should only refer to being unable to find something when using Google, rather than any generic search engine.

Not wishing to be dictated to, or to enter into lengthy legal proceedings, the Language Council removed the word completely, while launching a robust defence of the word and criticising Google for their stance.

Sweden seems to be a hotbed of language innovation, and those who look after the language there need to be applauded for their reaction to this. Of course Google cannot dictate what should or shouldn’t be in a dictionary. Frankly they should be flattered that their company name has entered the hallowed turf trodden by Hoover or Portakabin, trade names which have crossed the divide from a single brand to become the generic term for anything in that genre. When the brand becomes the definitive word, surely it is a sign for those behind the brand that the battle is won.

Anybody using ungoogleable, or indeed Google as a verb, is using it in a generic form. Yes, most of us actually use Google itself when performing a web search, but I doubt we are thinking about that fact if we use the word, we are using it to mean search the internet. I was surprised to see that official definitions of “to Google” mention Google in them, rather than the generic act. Presumably others have been wary of the Google trademark police.

But I think the most telling thing of all is a quote given by Google to the BBC. A spokesman said: “While Google, like many businesses, takes routine steps to protect our trademark, we are pleased that users connect the Google name with great search results.” And maybe that is the point. Maybe the company is actually quite pleased when Google is used to mean generic searching, but steps in when any negative definition comes along. But the incident has not served at all to link the company with great search results in people’s minds. In fact, it simply reinforces the view that Google controls everything we do. And is now seeking to influence the meaning of words. Which, of course, it can’t.

The Girl Who Found a Fossil

We have long been told that dinosaurs were big in stature but small on brain. That being true, it is a fair assumption that their linguistic ability consisted of loud, indiscriminate noises. It also means that the many different species living on Earth did not have contemporary names.

That’s why the discovery of new dinosaurs is always an exciting moment for the English language. A new, albeit very old, breed of dinosaur means a new piece of linguistic dexterity for the Palaeontologists involved. I always enjoy the thought that the name by which we subsequently know these creatures is something that would never have been near the consciousness of the animals themselves during their heyday.

Last year Wordability celebrated the discovery of the Nyasasaurus, and this year, it is actually time to mark a new pterosaur, rather than a dinosaur. The Vectidraco daisymorrisae was a small flying reptile. Its discovery came about when a five-year-old girl found a fossil on a beach on the Isle of Wight in 2009, with scientists now confirming its novelty.

The name Vectidraco means ‘Dragon from the Isle of Wight’, and daisymorrisae pays tribute the finder, Daisy Morris.

So a creature which flew around the earth millions of years ago is named after a land mass which probably didn’t exist then and a person who definitely didn’t. Not something which would ever have occurred to Vectidraco daisymorrisae during its lifetime.

The Apostrophe Apocalypse

A policy decision by Mid Devon District Council could have a long-term impact on the English language. Officials have decided to do away with apostrophes on new street names as a way of “avoiding potential confusion”.

It is not the first time that outrage has been caused by the culling of an apostrophe. Last year, bookseller Waterstones decided it was time to oust the same punctuation mark in its name as it was more practical in the digital age, and they no longer needed to pay homage to founder Tim Waterstone.

Now I know that grammar is not the usual fare of Wordability. But with apostrophes in public consciousness more than they have been since the success of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, I have inevitably found myself thinking about my attitude to this perennially misused bit of punctuation.

And of course, it does tie into Wordability’s meat and drink of new words very neatly. After all, if the death of the apostrophe were to become widespread officially, as of course it already is for many users of English, than that would lead to a raft of new words appearing in the language. Lets, theyre, shes might all be taking their place in the dictionaries that my grandchildren will be accessing in years to come. So I asked myself: Is that such a bad thing?

Of course my immediate answer was yes, absolutely. As a journalist of many years standing, and a famously pedantic sub-editor for large chunks of that, I abhorred a misplaced apostrophe along with the best of them. I could, and often did, rant as well as Steve Jenner of the Plain English Campaign, who reacted to the Mid Devon decision by saying: “Language is an agreed set of rules and if we stop agreeing that’s the case it’s going to cause real problems. It could actually be dangerous. It could cause situations where people are misunderstood.”

He makes a valid argument. But something has changed in me by writing Wordability for the last 18 months. This blog celebrates the way that English changes and evolves, and crucially, reinforces the point that the language does not belong to the grammarians and the lexicographers, there are no arbiters who can ultimately say what is right and what is wrong. The language belongs to the people who speak it.

Now this doesn’t mean that people who speak it can just randomly change anything they feel like. If people suddenly started constructing their sentences backwards, changed the word ‘the’ into ‘aadvark’ or whistled between every syllable, nobody else would understand them. But eventually they might. Eventually, if enough people found that aadvarking with abandon really made them happy, then that change would force its way through to becoming the accepted norm.

And so I suspect it is with apostrophes. They still make things clearer in written language, but they make no difference at all to the spoken word. The context explains away the ‘s’ sound at the end of the word, with no need for some kind of flag to provide clarification.

Compare that to something like the comma, where the pause in the written words have a connection to the way that something would be spoken, the pause aids understanding in both spoken and written form. The punctuation there is a key part of the meaning. In the case of the apostrophe, I think that context might do the job just as well as the annotation.

So, and I can’t believe I am saying this, I can see a future where the apostrophe has ceased to have any meaningful role. And if that happens, then so be it. It will simply mean that language and understanding has moved to a place where it is no longer required, rather than it being a case of poor standards.

One of my university lecturers, when teaching me Old English, used to say ‘man is a lazy animal’ as a way of explaining changes that happened during Anglo-Saxon times. That is still true. So if we were to lose the apostrophe, it would not be as apocalyptic as some people would have us believe.

UPDATE: Since posting this Mid Devon Council has changed its mind. No matter. Someone else will be along soon to attack the apostrophe, and the debate is still very much alive.

Canberra Bashing Comes of Age

I must admit to never having heard the word Canberra Bashing. I am a little ashamed of this, given my Australian wife and reasonable lengths of time spent in the country as a result. But no matter.

Canberra Bashing has been added to the Australian National Dictionary. This publication catalogues words which are quintessentially Australian and say something about the history and culture of the country, and lexicographers feel that Canberra Bashing is a term which fits the bill.

The word has two meanings: one is the act of criticising the Australian federal government and its beaurocracy, giving it a more generic meaning of knocking authority; the other is the more parochial act of criticising the city of Canberra and its inhabitants. I have been to the Australian capital once in my life and, as I recall, l was probably guilty of Canberra bashing on my return, albeit that I didn’t know there was a handy word which to describe it.

This is clearly an Australian word, with local resonance, so it is virtually certain that it will not become a part of vocabulary in the wider English-speaking word. However, it would be nice to think that bashing could start to take on suffix duties in the manner of a -gate or a -leaks. Imagine the bashing fun we could have by appending it to all manner of places and people who provoke our ire. It’s a whole new world of word formation which I am fully in favour of.

I also think that changes in Australian English really encapsulate the straight-talking nature of its people. A word localised to Canberra which has also just achieved official recognition by the Australian National Dictionary is the one used as a term for public servants. They are referred to as Pubes. It’s a great example of an apparently simple term which says so much about what people really think.

When Is a Pope Not a Pope?

It is unlikely that during the tumultuous few day which have just passed in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI thought much about the linguistic ramifications of his decision to stand down. But an act unprecedented in modern times created a linguistic vacuum which had to be filled. And that chasm was the question of what to call a living Pope when he is no longer a Pope.

I don’t think this was really much of a concern when Gregory XII quit in 1415. There wasn’t a hungry news cycle or hordes of social networks crying out for an epithet with which to title the newly unemployed holy man. But in the 21st century, one of the key questions is what new title do you come up with for a role that nobody ever thought would need to be filled. So step forward Pope Emeritus.

It’s a really interesting example of a title that almost creates more problems than it solves. And it is simply the inclusion of the word ‘Pope’ that does it. The situation will surely be difficult enough for the next Pope to have to take over when his predecessor is still alive, and therefore in the eyes of some still in his role. So for him to still be called Pope, as well as the fact that he will be living close by, could simply make things harder.

Of course, the other issue is that the Vatican could be sued, with Oakland Rapper Pope Emeritus threatening action to protect the name he has performed under since 2006. I suspect the ecumenical issues will provide bigger concerns than the legal ones.

But job titles really are very important for how people cope with their roles. Even if the newly-named Pope Emeritus simply slips into the background and there are no problems at all, we can look elsewhere for confirmation. Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez proved it this week with his stupendous rant about everything, in particular his job title. Calling him ‘Interim Manager’ has clearly left him feeling angry and undermined, it has been a simple thing which he feels has profoundly affected his ability to do his job.

Of course drawing a connection between the Pope and a football manager is doing at least one of them a disservice, but to complete the analogy, just think about what might happen at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson finally calls it a day.

When Sir Matt Busby stepped down from the hot seat, his continued presence at the club made things difficult for his successors. When Sir Alex finally goes, his shadow will inevitably hang over the next man in the role. So imagine him sitting in the best seat in the ground while bearing the title ‘Manager Emeritus’. Think how difficult that would be for the new incumbent. Correct, very difficult. And that’s just how it might be for the new Pope.