Monthly Archives: October 2013

English Influence Boosting Dutch

The latest update of the Dutch Van Dale dictionary demonstrates just how strong the influence of English has become across the Netherlands.

Last year, Wordability reported on how the popular messaging app WhatsApp had been recognised in the dictionary by getting its own verb. Twelve months on, the new list is redolent with words of an English bent.

So step forward 3D-Printer and Gamechangers, Factchecken and Pinpointen. I also like the word GeluksMachine, meaning Happiness Machine and coined by the country’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Clearly you wouldn’t be a geluksmachine if you were involved in Sukkelsex, defined as sex which is not focused on delivering top performance. I’m not sure I can think of an English equivalent of that. Maybe it is not something that is a problem over here.

It’s actually interesting to note just how many English-inspired words are getting into an increasingly wide variety of international dictionaries. Reports suggest that the Royal Spanish Academy will be adding Goglear, Tuitear and Guasapear, translated as Google, Tweet and WhatsApp, to the Spanish dictionary.

It has to be hoped that languages will continue to maintain their own identities as the world gets more global and technology terms in particular become more widespread and international. While it is far too soon to worry about the future of distinct languages, I wonder if we are witnessing the beginning of a very slow homogenisation.

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The Rise of the Mega-Fire

The bushfires raging in Australia have ravaged large parts of New South Wales. They also serve to highlight that sometimes a theoretical new word can become real in devastating ways.

The term Mega-Fire appears to have been coined two years ago, and though some fires began to be described in this way immediately, it was more of a theory than anything else. A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization used the term, and said that the definition is more to do with the impact on people and the environment than their specific size.

But in many ways, it was just a theory then. Robert Keane, a research ecologist at the US Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory, said: “Mega-fire is more of a concept than a construct. What I interpret it to mean is not only is it large, but it affects a lot of people.”

Now of course it is anything but theoretical, as fire continues to take hold in Australia and the term Mega-Fire is all over the headlines.

What I think is particularly interesting is that this is really a technical term and will continue to be used to describe a particular scale and type of fire. At first, it was easy to assume it was a shorthand coined by journalists to boost headlines. But it isn’t, and is something that has a specific meaning for those whose job it is to fight and contain such disasters.

If our climate is changing and fires are going to get worse, this year will not be the only time that mega-fires dominate the news.

Will De-Americanization Lead To Chinafication?

If history teaches us anything, it is that the world order changes over time, and yesterday’s superpower is today’s underling. And as we get deeper into the 21st century, so the growing influence of China reminds us that the world in 100 years’ time may have a very different structure of influence to that which exists at present.

So it is interesting to see a linguistic nod in that direction emerging from Chinese sources. The Xinhua news agency published an opinion piece on the US Government shutdown, and posed the question of whether it was time to prepare for a “De-Americanized” world.

It’s not for Wordability to analyse the political and economic arguments surrounding this article, nor to comment on the myriad responses that the piece has garnered. Instead, I simply comment on the amount of attention this has drawn, the number of times the word de-Americanized, or de-Americanization, has now been used in response, and congratulate the Chinese author on coining a simple but effective term to really kick-start the debate and encapsulate the essence of the issue.

This demonstrates once again that in the field of political altercation, the side that comes out on top is sometimes the one that find the right term and defines the debate by controlling the language of the headlines. As the years move on, we may see de-Americanization becoming increasingly used as a term, and it may become the standard word for describing how power is shifting halfway round the world.

Americanization features in all major online dictionaries to mean making something American in character . Its newly-formed antonym will have to wait its turn to take its place. But as it gains acceptance, I wonder if a Chinese equivalent of Americanization will start to be used. Chinafication anybody?

Don’t Give Thanks for Thanksgivukkah

By a quirk of the calendar, Thanksgiving this year falls this on the first night of the Jewish festival of Chanukah.

Both are movable feasts in terms of their specific English date. Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.  Chanukah is on a fixed date in the Jewish calendar, but that calender itself is a complex lunar and solar amalgam, where the lunar months are regularly supplemented by an extra month in order to keep festivals in line with their place in the solar cycle.

This complex arrangement means that Hebrew and English dates coincide once every 19 years, though even these are not exact as there can still be slight adjustments either way of a day or two.

But what it really means is that Chanukah is really only early enough once every 19 years to land square on with Thanksgiving, and even then, it would have to be a Thursday. So how rare is this? Well, so rare that it hasn’t happened in over 100 years, and even though it is slated to happen again in 2070 and 2165, it will then be many millennia before the joint celebration falls again. And I dare say that society may not be celebrating Thanksgiving and Chanukah in 70,000 years’ time, though that’s a musing for a different blog altogether.

I digress. The reason this has piqued Wordability’s interest is that the confluence has created something which is being regarded almost as a new festival, one where the traditions and food of both will be combined in one glorious night. And every new festival deserves a new word. So step forward Thanksgivukkah.

Frankly, the best thing about this is that this occurrence is so rare, so this pretty ugly portmanteau will soon retreat into the realms of linguistic obscurity and history where it so richly deserves to dwell. The problem with it is that it just sounds ugly and doesn’t trip off the tongue. And is it really necessary? No, I don’t think so. Chanukah and Christmas meet often enough, nobody who marks both feels a need for a new word. Same with Passover and Easter. Frankly I am glad that most festivals stay in broadly fixed slots throughout the year to avoid more of these linguistic aberrations.

So happy Thanksgivukkah to all who are celebrating – but please, just ditch the name.

The Phubbing Truth

It’s clearly not enough for phubbing to have emerged as the best new word of the year. It’s now got the best story as well.

Phubbing – phone snubbing – exploded internationally a couple of months ago. Publications across the globe, Wordability included, reported on how a Melbourne student had spotted the growing trend for people to pay more attention to their phones than other people in social settings and had set up a campaign and the Stop Phubbing website in response. The response to the story was so big that the word quickly became entrenched, and is now even on Oxford Dictionaries radar, as revealed exclusively to Wordability.

It now turns out that the story behind phubbing is a little different. It was in fact the brainchild of an advertising agency, designed to raise excitement about words and ultimately sell print copies of the new Macquarie dictionary.

The McCann agency actually created the word Phubbing during a brainstorming session in May 2012 – a video showing the process has now been released, and the efforts involved perhaps go some way towards demonstrating why the word is so damn good. A lot of brains gathered together to come up with it.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

Once the word was established, the website and social media tools swiftly followed. But it wasn’t until Australia’s Herald Sun ran a piece on phone etiquette that the word really took off. Alex Haigh, the alleged student behind the phenomenon but actually an account executive with McCann, contacted the paper to push the Stop Phubbing campaign, and the rest is viral history.

So now that the truth is out there, do I feel slightly hoodwinked? Well a little bit, yes. The romance of the original story has been lost, innocent student conquers the world with his great new word, washed away by advertising agency plans careful viral marketing campaign and worms its way into our consciousness.

But that analysis isn’t really fair. Regardless of its genesis, the rise of phubbing has still demonstrated all that is good about modern word formation. It filled a semantic gap, it’s a great word in its own right and its establishment confirms that the way that words evolve and become established is now utterly different to how it was even a few years ago.

And those behind it agree. The official video, ‘A Word is Born’, is a wonderful watch. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself, it is embedded at the bottom of this article.

Susan Butler, publisher and editor of Macquarie Dictionary, said: “The rise of phubbing as an original coinage has been a wonderful illustration of the process by which my word becomes your word becomes our word until finally it is a word which belongs to us all.” McCann executive director John Mascell added: “A Word is Born is a love story about words, and how incredible they are.”

And ultimately, that’s the great thing about this. Yes it comes from marketing, yes it might sell some dictionaries, but the phubbing story tells us so much more than that. It reminds us that language is always changing in new and wonderful ways.