Phubbing All Over The World

Choosing a word of the year for 2013 has been tough. When August started, there was absolutely nothing obvious. But that situation was just about to change.

When it comes to making the decision, words which are heavily searched for will always feature highly in my thinking, because that demonstrates an interest and usage by people in the English-speaking word.

But for me, a word of the year also has to say something about the year, be a commentary on the way society has been over the last 12 months. Last year I chose a range of words, with Eastwooding, Mother Flame and Ineptocracy providing a commentary on politics, the Olympics and the modern flowering of new terms.

I’m not sure that when historians look back on 2013, there will be an easy way to encapsulate it. Austerity and political strife have continued, but much the same as before. The major scandals, well they were really carried over from last year. Big sporting events, not really. I think Oxford Dictionaries had a similar issue when they chose their word of the year. Selfie was a good choice, because as well as its increasing usage in 2013, it also suggests a fracturing of society, that actually the thing that binds people together this year and describes the year is an obsession with self, and making sure everybody then knows about me, me, me. Social media binds us together, but is perhaps making us more isolated and individualistic.

And that is also behind my choice of Word of the Year. Phubbing first came to my attention in August. Reported as the brainchild of an Australian student, Phubbing suddenly started appearing everywhere. The word, a blend of Phone and Snubbing, describes the act of engaging with your mobile device rather than the person you are standing next to, real, physical social interaction replaced by virtual interaction with someone or something that isn’t really there. It struck me at the time as a brilliant word, fulfilling a semantic need and speaking accurately of a truly modern mode of behaviour. It summed up much of what defines 2013.

The truth behind the creation of Phubbing simply sealed the deal for me. It turned out that this was not a student initiative, it was actually a carefully crafted guerrilla marketing by a Melbourne agency, designed to sell dictionaries. They even released a video showing how a group of language experts had come together in 2012 to create the word and then try and seed it online to get it to take off. For me, this tale confirms everything I have always said about how the nature of language evolution has changed. Forget the fact it was created and consciously marketed – if the word hadn’t been any good and hadn’t been necessary, it couldn’t have taken off. But the way that it did, the fact that it is consistently searched for and read about on Wordability, the way it has just slipped into normal vocabulary, especially in my household, simply affirms that it is the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Phubbing also provides the backdrop to this year’s book of words. Following the publication of Eastwooding With the Mother Flame last year, I am delighted to announce the arrival of Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013, which is available now as both an e-book and a paperback from Amazon.


Selfie Wins Oxford Vote

When Selfie was included in Oxford Dictionaries Online earlier this year, I commented that I had been looking for a good reason to write about a word that was clearly gaining in usage and was pleased to have an excuse.

Well its status has now been cemented after Oxford Dictionaries announced it as its word of the year for 2013. Although coined in 2002, with the first usage cited in Australia, it is only in the last 12 months that selfies have really made it into the mainstream, with people’s phone-taken self-portraits really forcing their way into public consciousness and national newspapers. Oxford noted that usage of selfie has risen 17,000% over the last 12 months.

Other words on the shortlist included some others featured on Wordability during 2013, including virtual currency Bitcoin; Showrooming, the practice of looking at goods in a store before buying them online; Olinguito, a newly discovered mammal; and Twerk, the dance craze beloved of all tabloids and a word that I am delighted was not chosen for this linguistic accolade. The other shortlisted words were Schmeat, for synthetic meat; Binge-watching, the habit of watching multiple episodes of a single TV show in one sitting; and the always controversial Bedroom Tax.

I think it has been a hard year for choosing a word of the year. Oxford’s choice of Omnishambles last year and Squeezed Middle the year before really summed up society as a whole at that time and gave a keen insight into the state of the nation. This year it has proved harder to find a word that really encapsulates the country’s mood. Perhaps the choice of Selfie suggests that society itself is not as coherent as it was 12 months ago and we are more fractured and individualistic, obsessed with ourselves at the expense of others. In that sense, Selfie perhaps sums up some of the isolation of modern life. Or it may just be a British thing. Dutch experts have chosen Participatiesamenleving – participation society, a society where people take control of their own lives, as the Dutch word of the year.

I have been pondering the word of the year myself and will reveal Wordability‘s choice next week. At this stage, I am happy to reveal it is not Selfie. I will also be revealing details of a brand new book of the year to follow last year’s Eastwooding with the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012, which remains available on Amazon.

Run Away From the King of Gore

I always enjoy a good dinosaur discovery story, because a new dinosaur inevitably means a new word.

The latest finding in the world of paleontology is an ancient ancestor to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Lythronax argestes was found in Utah. It is estimated that it lived 80m years ago, was eight metres long, weighed two and a half tonnes and ate copious quantities of meat with its vast array of teeth.

While the word Lythronax automatically goes into the lexicon as a new type of dinosaur, I expect the translation of the Latin will catch on in popular consciousness. After all, referring to a dinosaur as The King of Gore is far better for headline writers, children and makers of films about recreating dinosaurs from strands of DNA.

The Rise of the Tuhao

It’s a fair bet that most readers of Wordability will not spend much time thinking about new words in Chinese. But when that word starts to become a social media phenomenon, it’s time to take notice of it and wonder whether it will cross over into the lingua Franca of the Internet as a whole.

Tuhao has appeared millions of times across Chinese social media. The word is actually more than 1,500 years old and means rich landowner. However it is now used to refer to the newly wealthy, the nouveau riche, to bring in yet another language. It has been commandeered in a derogatory way for these people, who flaunt their freshly acquired fortunes with displays of conspicuous consumption, gaudy jewellery, and the latest gadgets, especially the gold iPhone. The words Bling and Tuhao never seem to be far away from one another.

The word, comprised of ‘tu’ meaning dirt and ‘hao’ meaning splendour, got its social media kick from a joke which went viral. A young man asks a Zen master, “I’m wealthy but unhappy. What should I do?” The Zen master responds, “Define ‘wealthy.’ ” The young man answers, “I have millions in the bank and three apartments in central Beijing. Is that wealthy?” The Zen master silently holds out a hand, inspiring the young man to a realisation: “Master, are you telling me that I should be thankful and give back?” The Zen master says, “No … Tuhao, can I become your friend?”

As Buddhist jokes go, I prefer the one about the pizza. But leaving that aside the term has now become a Chinese Internet staple as a way of referring to this particular social trend.

It is very much part of a development in Chinese culture and would not necessarily apply everywhere, but its a neat and effective piece of linguistic shorthand that is perfect for modern methods of communication.

As Chinese presence increases globally, it will be interesting to watch whether linguistic developments such as this cross over into wider usage. Will a domain which has hitherto been dominated by English neologisms starts to become yet another area where Chinese influence starts to dominate?

Is Cultuphobia A New Concern?

An interesting new word has been coined in America to describe a social phenomen which seems to be the antithesis of globalisation and our increasing merging of cultures. Cultuphobia is defined as ‘the fear that another person’s culture is taking over your own’.

It’s a clever coining by writer Ruben Navarrette, who was inspired to come up with the term after a televisual experiment. To mark the launch of English-language, Latino-targeted television network Fusion, the hosts of Spanish-language breakfast show Despierta America appeared on Good Morning America, with talent from that programme going in the opposite direction.

What appeared to be an entertaining cross-cultural experience, enjoyed by all who took part, turned instead into an outpouring of online anger, with many fans of Good Morning America furious at what had happened to their favourite show and demanding that it shouldn’t happen again.

Navarrette used this as a way of introducing Cultuphobia as a term, saying that it demonstrated the fear that people have of a new culture coming in and changing the established order of things.

I think it is an interesting attempt to introduce a new word, but is it really necessary? There are lots of other terms that cover issues of people disliking and fearing other cultures. History has also shown us many occasions when the fear of another culture’s influence has seen the dominant culture abuse and ultimately drive out that smaller culture, so it is not a new concept.

I think cultuphobia covers an interesting nuance of meaning, but I am not sure it is distinctive enough to really establish itself as a word that defines something appreciably different. Nevertheless, it does remind us that even though the world is changing, and cultures are influencing each other an increasing amount, there will always be people for whom this is not a positive development.