The Cost of Changing Your Name

It has been the best month I can ever remember for stories about names. Wordability has written in the past about how changing the name of something changes how we see it. What has been interesting this month is to see how many times names have been changed because of the demands of sponsors, and what impact this has had.

First there is the positive, and Farnborough Town’s deal with bookmaker Paddy Power. To get the money, all of Farnborough’s players had to change their names by deed poll. So instead of  Reece Jones, Stephen Laidler and Scott Donnelly read George Best, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham, while Pele and Lionel Messi are all, genuinely, in the line-up. Manager Jose Mourinho just adds to the comedy. The result of all this is an entertaining story and something genuinely amusing.

Compare this to the reaction to Merthyr Tydfil, who signed a sponsorship deal with an electronic cigarette firm and renamed their ground the Cigg-E Stadium as a result. No laughs this time, instead controversy about the promotion of something which has unknown ramifications on health.

And then there was the name change story which never was. Tennis star Maria Sharapova was supposedly going to change her name by deed poll to Sugarpova for the duration of the US Open in order to promote her Sugarpova line of sweets. Of course this was never going to happen, and simply provided superb publicity for the product, but the idea of the umpires announcing ‘Advantage Miss Sugarpova’ was absurd enough to be ridiculed globally.

So what does all this go to show? That as naming rights become an increasingly important part of sponsorship deals, the name that you choose is absolutely vital. I have said before that we become used to names and our sense of what a person or place is like is governed by what their name is, so to change that is to change our very perception of that entity. In all these cases, perceptions have been changed by the name changes – Farnborough’s players are imbued with ability that they probably don’t have, but may even play better because of their new monikers; Merthyr’s directors find their ground may be perceived as an unhealthy place to go; and Maria Sharapova would have been, well, just silly really.

It was also the month that the latest lists of the most popular names in Britain were unveiled, with Harry and Amelia’s continued lead slightly masking the changes happening underneath. It is not so much that newer names are coming into vogue, it is more that names like John and Rebecca have dipped out of the top 100, which shows how naming fashions are changing at the moment.

But perhaps the most intriguing story came from Tennessee, where a judge, who was not even supposed to be ruling on the subject of a child’s first name, nevertheless ordered that he could no longer be called Messiah, and had to be known as Martin instead. He felt that it would be unfair on the child to grow up with this name in a predominantly Christian locale, adding that Messiah is a title, not a name.

This story above all others shows that what somebody or something is called directly impacts on how we see them. Quotes from the child’s mother suggest she simply saw him as her son with a name she liked the sound of. The growth of Messiah as a first name in the States confirms many agree with her. And yet the perception of that child was different in the judge’s eyes and he saw a different future for that person as a result.

Having named my own child in the last few months, I know just how onerous a responsibility naming can be. And this month’s rash of stories proves the ramifications of getting it wrong.


Selfies Come of Age

I have been pondering the word Selfie recently. Though not coined this year, it seems to have really emerged into public awareness in the last few months, with a number of mainstream publications focusing on the growth of them or the problems associated with their increasing prevalence. I have been weighing up writing about it for the last few weeks.

A Selfie, in case you don’t know, is a photograph that you take of yourself, normally with your phone, and then share with nearest and dearest via social media. A trend for some time, 2013 is the year when it has become cemented in the English language.

Oxford Dictionaries agrees. In the latest quarterly update to Oxford Dictionaries Online, Selfie has proudly taken its place as a new word. It’s one of a number of words that have taken a refreshingly short time to reach Oxford’s online annals, with Phablet, Space Tourism and Street Food others which seem to have been recognised relatively quickly.

There are also a couple of Wordability favourites making their debuts. Bitcoin was recognised earlier this year as an important word in the ongoing financial saga around the world, while last year’s triumphant Omnishambles has now sealed its emergence with its own entry.

Overall, it is an entertaining update. The challenge now is to write a coherent sentence feature Babymoon, Vom, Twerk, Flatform and Digital Detox. After all of that, I’ll need a glass of Pear Cider.

Will the Olinguito Ride the Hyperloop?

Two new words for brand new concepts have appeared on the scene this week, but that is the only thing that links them. What is interesting about them is how they are at almost opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the objects for which they have been coined.

First out of the blocks was the Hyperloop, the name of a putative high-speed link of the future between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Proposed by entrepreneur Elon Musk, the Hyperloop would place passengers in a vehicle which is propelled along a tube at enormous speeds, covering the distance between the two cities in half an hour.

Will this ever happen? At this stage, who can say, meaning that Hyperloop may be a word of much discussion in 2013, but could have absolutely no linguistic future because the thing which it describes may never exist. Of course if it does, Londoners undertaking tube travel may become very jealous of the version of tube travelling happening 8,000 miles away.

The nature of this word is diametrically opposed to Olinguito, which has also been unveiled this week. The Olinguito is a newly identified carnivore living in cloud forests in South America, the first newly named carnivore in 35 years.

So we have something that doesn’t exist with a name, and something which has always existed but has never had a name up to now. Both are great new words of this year. Something man-made versus something natural.

I suspect that the one which has had to wait much longer for recognition will be the one that makes it through to full lexical recognition,

Not the End of the World. Literally

There has literally never been a reaction like it. The last bastion of linguistic pedantry knocked over. Reams of invective across the media. And why? Because the Oxford English Dictionary has done its job.

Alleged misuse of the word ‘Literally’ is one of the favourite bugbears of those who delight in nothing more than correcting other people’s grammar and bemoaning the apparent desecration of our beautiful language. Literally means ‘in a literal manner, exactly’, rather than its increasingly common usage as a word of emphasis and exaggeration, they say.

Except that the OED disagrees, and has in fact disagreed since 2011. It’s just that nobody noticed until this week that the definition had been extended to include the sense of emphasis, reflecting the way the word is actually used by speakers today.

Of course I wholly endorse the extended definition. As I have said literally thousands of times, language changes and those who document this need to recognise that evolution and record it, which is what has happened here.

What is funny about this story is that it seems to be the straw which has literally broken the camel’s back. There has been a wonderful outpouring of emotion on the subject. The alleged misuse of literally is the linguistic touch paper which stokes up all pedants, so this is the story which has enraged them more than any other.

But of course it is not the death of English as we know it, as some have suggested. It is just an acknowledgement that the English language is always changing, as the strap line of an excellent blog on new words points out.

Those who are upset by this change should literally get over it.

Phubbing Becomes A Phenomenon

Lets be honest. We’ve all done it. I’m not proud of it but I’ve definitely done it. And I’ve had it done to me as well. What am I talking about? Phubbing.

Phubbing, an amalgam of phone and snubbing, is defined as ‘The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention’. The word is the brainchild of Melbournian Alex Haigh, who has set up the hilarious Stop Phubbing website as a way of drawing attention to the practice and allowing people to fight back and stop it. So successful has this been that the term is now going viral.

Stop Phubbing
Anti-Phubbing poster

It’s a brilliant word, undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Why, I hear you ask? Well firstly, it passes the test of being a semantic gap needing filling. This is a modern phenomenon, it is an emerging aspect of modern life, and when you talk to people about it, they all agree they’re aware of it. Well they would agree if they weren’t so busy sending Tweets.

Secondly, it’s a great neologism in its own right and blends the right two words to get the new one. Phubbing retains enough of the sense of its ancestry to aid understanding and stand alone, and also sounds just judgmental enough to make its point. It is also infinitely better than other options. I don’t think phignoring or phold-shouldering would really have cut it.

And its usage is already taking off and moving away from the original source. The day after reporting the advent of the word, The Independent used it in perfect context in a story about how crossing the road is dangerous when you are glued to your phone.

So phubbing as both a concept and a word is here to stay. I think we can all agree that it’s rude and people shouldn’t do it. Unless they’re reading Wordability of course, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Zero-Hours Contracts On The Rise

I’m not sure exactly how long zero-hours contracts have been around, but their sudden ascent to the front pages suggest this is a phrase that has found its place in history in 2013.

The contracts, which basically offer no guarantee of hours or pay to those employed on them, have been getting wider coverage over the last few months.

However, a new report that suggests that one million people are employed on such contracts has elevated the word to the top of public consciousness, suggesting it may prove to be a political hot potato for all parties over the next few months. It is certainly a term that we are not going to be able to avoid for the forseeable future and is a linguistically neat way of describing a very particular set of circumstances. Or is it too neat, and kind of spirits away the difficulties faced by people on these contracts in a simple phrase. The term potentially masks the reality of the issues.

Either way, expect to see it jostling near the top of words of the year lists at the end of 2013.

Meat By Another Name

The unveiling of the world’s first stem-cell burger has divided opinion between those who think it is the answer to the world’s food problems and those who believe it is the start of a slippery slope to culinary catastrophe. But there is one thing I think we can all agree on – what on earth should we call it?

The creation, cooking and eating of the burger, which cost more than £200,000, has been reported under various names. Let’s be honest though, the official terms such as ‘in-vitro meat’, ‘cultured meat’, they don’t really trip off the tongue. Equally, I’m sure the scientists behind this venture don’t want it entering the vernacular as a Frankenburger, a Test Tube Burger or a Stem Cell Burger, all pejorative terms of varying degrees.

The myriad of epithets is fascinating. Here is a brand new concept, and something which could quite easily become a staple part of our diet and lives in years to come. So what we end up calling it will be quite important.

I suspect that if this does actually take off, a brand new word which we haven’t yet thought of  will emerge. There are all sorts of good reasons why something which references meat may not the word that is ultimately used. It will need to be a word that shows that this is something else, derived from meat but in many ways different. Quorn has succeeded well with this, establishing itself as a food group in its own right away from its fungal ancestry.

Equally, any word suggesting it is some kind of alternative meat is bound to divide opinion, as however it is slated could be grist to one side or another. And ‘meat substitute’ as a name just won’t wash, and will simply bring Basil Fawlty’s infamous veal substitute to mind.

So I think this is a story to watch with interest, because if this is a concept that is truly something for the future, then the linguistic ramifications will be enormous.