Monthly Archives: July 2013

Gay Marriage Already Recognised

The Oxford English Dictionary is thinking about extending its definition of marriage to include Gay Marriage. At least, that is what you would believe if you were to read the coverage this story has received in the last week.

Except it’s not really true. Because the OED has already done it.

The story that prompted the flurry of reaction appeared in the Gay Stay News, quoting an OED spokeswoman as saying: “We continually monitor the words in our dictionaries, paying particular to those words whose usage is shifting, so yes, this will happen with marriage.”

But what appeared to be a significant language story was nothing of the sort, despite the number of sources which then picked it up and used it to further whichever side of the argument they subscribe to. Because when Wordability contacted the OED, I got the following statement:

“Many of our dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as oxforddictionaries.com, already include references to same sex-marriage as part of their definitions. Dictionaries reflect changes in the use of language, rather than changes in law, and we are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make. The English language is always developing and, along with many other words, we will continue to monitor the way in which ‘marriage’ is used.”

Here is a link to the definition, which includes the meaning “(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex”. Now that seems pretty cut and dried to me. What is weird is that this definition is included in the Gay Star Times story, but never let that get in the way of a good headline. The story dismisses it by saying that campaigners object to this definition, calling it discriminatory, beause if it is law in any country it should be on the same ‘ranking’ as a heterosexual union.

I am happy to admit there may be minutiae of this debate that I don’t understand, but it seems to be that this is a pretty good position for campaigners. The most highly regarded dictionary in the world already has the definition included, and also acknowledges that it is a changing situation. But what it doesn’t do is in any way suggest that an alternative word is needed, as many daft people have continued to argue and Wordability has continually battled against.

It would seem only a matter of time before the OED definition evolves again, and with the gay marriage meaning already encapsulated, it appears that the correct linguistic conclusion will be reached for this particular story.

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The Future of The

Here’s something I didn’t think I would be writing about on Wordability. The lifeblood of this blog is new words in the English language. Who knew that a proposal would come along for a new letter.

The source is unlikely – Australian restaurateur Paul Mathis. And in his sights is the word ‘The’.

Mr Mathis believes that in this day and age of Twitter and other short form messages, which has led to the shortening of a number of words, the word ‘the’ is so common that it should be replaced a new symbol, which he has designed as “Ћ”.

So determined is he to see this symbol adopted as a new way of typing ‘the’ that he has developed a smartphone keyboard app for it, though with Apple so far unwilling to embrace it, it may prove hard for the idea to get off the ground.

He said: “The Benedictine monks developed the modern version of the ampersand in the Middle Ages, when they were hand-copying religious texts. I’m not putting myself in the same league, but who knows – maybe in 500 years’ time people will be amazed that there was a time when we didn’t use ‘Ћ’.”

I think Mr Mathis is right – ‘the’ will not be replaced any time soon with its own letter. But the ampersand point is well made, and as text speak becomes more prevalent, and shortened forms of words more common, who knows whether we will see an evolution of the alphabet itself and the arrival of new symbols for the most common words in the language.

Don’t rule out the possibility that this is the very beginning of what might prove to be a fundamental change in the English language.

London’s New Way To Fly

Ambitious plans have been unveiled for tackling some of London’s most congested roads. But while I applaud the ambition, I am less sure about the new word which these proposals may unleash on an unsuspecting world.

A major part of the plan would see the six-lane flyover at Brent Cross covered over with a new pedestrianised area, with the road disappearing under the ground instead. Then new proposed highway has been dubbed a ‘Flyunder’.

I have often said on the cyber pages of Wordability that new words emerge when there is a linguistic gap which needs filling. But there are already some quite serviceable words to cover such a road. How about underpass. Or tunnel.

Flyunder may tick the box of making the proposal sound sexier and more 21st century, but it is what it is – a great big road under the ground. And we all know that underground, you can’t fly. Sadly, if it had been announced that there were plans to build a Burrowunder, it just wouldn’t have had the same ring.

A Shitstorm in Germany

Good to see that an English word has gone down a storm in Germany. A shitstorm, in fact.

Fresh from celebrating its success as Anglicism of the Year in 2012, shitstorm has now achieved official recognition by being included in Duden, Germany’s foremost dictionary.

The word really came to prominence during the Eurozone crisis, and was picked up by Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, its Germanic usage differs from its original English sense of total chaos to mean a storm of protest, primarily on the internet.

While it is obviously good to see English invading German, it is a shame that the Germans didn’t coin their own new word for this, perhaps one of their famous compound nouns? After all, the language is still on the lookout for a successor to Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungs-aufgabenuebertragungsgesetz, the longest word in the language which famously bit the dust a few weeks ago.

Maybe we should push for Germany to vote for flockynockynihilipilification as its next English word of the year.

The Truth About Husbands And Wives

As moves to legalise gay marriage rumble on, so the effect on the English Language continues to be a live issue. I have argued in the past that attempts to introduce a brand new word to describe such unions are misguided.

The latest developments in the UK had some of the right wing press in a foment of rage. Men can be wives and women can be husbands, they raged, as the minutiae of Government legislation began to be picked apart.

The issue comes in the fine print of new official guidance for MPs and clarifies what words will mean as the bill is debated in parliament. In some contexts, husband and wife will be allowed to be used interchangeably for those who are part of same-sex couples, so indeed men will be wives and women will be husbands. The vocabulary of “cloud cuckoo land”, the critics lambast.

It’s easy to see why this makes a good headline, and why on the surface, this might be a story to get exercised about. After all, redefining basic words like husband and wife is surely wrong. But behind every good headline there is of course the truth.

And the truth is that this is simply about the past, about how to understand the way that old legislation has been written. Where the words husband and wife have been used, in this context, it can refer to either partner in a same sex-marriage.

The guidance cites early health and safety legislation from 1963 which includes a range of exemptions for family businesses where the terms husbands and wives will mean people of either gender. It says: “This means that ‘husband’ here will include a man or a woman in a same sex marriage, as well as a man married to a woman.”

Is this language being redefined? No, it is instead a pragmatic approach to avoid rewriting reams and reams of old legislation, a sensible acknowledgement that for this old legalese, a wider interpretation is needed.

It is not a suggestion that future legislation will use husband and wife in anything other than a gender-specific way. In future, a man married to either a woman or a man will be a husband, and a wife married to someone of either sex will be referred to as a wife. No confusion there.

A spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage said: “We always knew the Government would tie itself in knots trying to redefine marriage, and this shows what a ridiculous mess they’ve created.”

No, this shows how critics will jump on anything to try and get a cheap headline.