When you have an eight-year-old daughter, you find yourself inadvertently introduced to a whole new world of television. Maya has been a fan of a number of Nickelodeon shows of late, including iCarly and Victorious, and has also enjoyed Sam & Cat, the offspring of the two programmes.
So she was very excited when I told her I had a reason to write about Sam & Cat on Wordability. The reason? There is a new episode dedicated to the teens’ efforts to get a new word into the dictionary.
The word itself, Lumpatious, is of course not in any dictionary at the moment. Used as an adjective to criticise someone who is unpleasant and idiotic, the episode revolves around their ultimately successful effort to get the word included into the Oxnard English Dictionary.
I think there are a number of interesting things about this episode. Firstly, it actually has some fun with the dictionary process, and the Oxnard offices portrayed are quite amusing and of course utterly unlike their Oxford equivalents.
Secondly, it might make youngsters think a little bit about the words they use and how they get recognised, so if there is a genuinely educational element around the English langauge at the end of it all, then that is a good thing.
But finally, I think the show could become self-fulfilling. Two years ago, I wrote about the word Swapportunity, a word coined by Yoplait yoghurt, and while it is still not a word that is recognised by any authority, people are still searching for it and coming to my blog to find out more.
By including the word Lumpatious in a show popular with tweens and teens, you can easily imagine a situation where it becomes part of the fans’ vocabulary. And given the way that once these episodes have aired for the first time, their life appears to continue almost indefinitely with endless repeats, that word will simply be reinforced and will start to seep into vocabulary. It is already developing on Twitter. So a word which doesn’t exist and which was coined for a television programme will start to be used in real life because of that TV programme and will ultimately find its way into the dictionary. And so life will imitate art. And it won’t be lumpatious.
I’m a bit of a sucker for competitive cookery programmes. One thing that is always entertaining is the quirks of the contestants and the fripperies they often try to get into their food. In particular, I remember one contestant who was obsessed with trying to get a quenelle into everything.
In that context, quenelle is an egg-shaped mound of food, and is normally an accompaniment to a main course, or perhaps some ice cream, delicately shaped using two spoons before being added to the plate to give it some apparent finesse. So entertaining did we find this as a family, that my eight-year-old daughter starting forming quenelles of cream cheese to put with her crackers. And in gastronomy, quenelle has a bigger relative, a dish of a creamed protein combined with breadcrumbs and egg and served as a more substantial dish.
But quenelles are no longer funny. No, Premier League footballer Nicolas Anelka and his French comedian buddy Dieudonne have seen to that. At the start of 2014, quenelle was only really known to English speakers from the usage described above. But once Anelka had adopted the quenelle pose to celebrate a goal for West Brom against West Ham, its racially charged meaning started to dominate headlines everywhere.
The gesture, created by Dieudonne in 2005, is an inverted Nazi salute with the opposite hand touching the shoulder. It is derived from its edible cousin and harks back to when Dieudonne said he wanted to insert a quenelle up the backside of Zionists. But his subsequent claims that this is an anti-establishment, rather than an anti-semitic, gesture, seem hollow, given the subsequent usage of the action outside synagogues or Holocaust memorials.
The usage of the quenelle has been growing in France, but it still took its adoption by Anelka to propel it to prominence and a place in the English language. And the debate over the true meaning of it seems irrelevant now. Whether or not Anelka’s usage of it was innocent, and whether or not Dieudonne means it to be truly racially offensive or not, it now is. The quenelle gesture is now perceived by people in England as anti-semitic and it will justifiably become something that people should be vilified for using, without allowing them to hide behind an argument about the nuances of its actual intention.
The quenelle has changed its meaning forever with English speakers, and the next time I watch a cookery show, it will be interesting to see if the producers have seen fit to quietly move them off the table.
The linguistic flexibility of the word Selfie seemingly knows no bounds. Not content with being a word of the year, Selfie is now showing itself as flexible and changeable, with multiple variations being coined to describe the seemingly infinite variations of self-portrait that are now emerging.
The first alternatives focused on different parts of the body being pictured, with Legsie being mooted as one specific example which was taking off. The latest evolution is derived from those taking the pictures themselves, and the one that has attracted significant attention is self-portraits taken by farmers, otherwise known as Felfies.
The home for Felfies is the Farmingselfies website, set up by farmer William Wilson as a way of putting a face to the many farmers whose hard and isolated lives feed so many people round the world. It’s unlikely he envisioned the attention that his move would bring. But social media loves a picture of an animal, and as farmers started to submit their snaps of them together with the other inhabitants of their farms, so the concept and the term Felfie itself began to grow and trend.
From a linguistic point of view, I have to wonder whether the never-ending spread of selfies means an increasing number of variants for the English-language to contend with. If other professions jump on the bandwagon, will they spawn their own versions? Will bakers be taking Belfies and shelf-stackers snapping Shelfies before too long? And pity the poor sailors, who cannot claim Selfies as their own.
Selfie recently topped the Lake Superior State University annual list of banished words. It is fair to see that if these alternative versions continue to emerge, a whole gamut of Selfie progeny could be topping the list in 12 months’ time.
Even though it is now 2014, the final embers of 2013 are still upon us. Primary among this is the decision of the American Dialect Society to name Because as its word of the year.
Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said that a change in its grammatical usage in informal online settings was behind the victory. He said: “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’”
That’s why I think this is such a fascinating victory. Much of the language change which is ascribed to new forms of digital communication revolves around neologisms, new words being coined and taking off quickly, abbreviations exploding as words in their own right. But the idea that online messaging can actually change the grammatical properties of a previously existing word is a fascinating one, and that such a well entrenched word as Because can gain a whole new lease of life because of a switch in usage really emphasises that the English language is in a state of flux and that its evolution is gathering pace.
I was also interested to see Slash taking second place. Used as a coordinating conjunction to mean “and/or” (e.g., “come and visit slash stay”), it is an example almost of a new type of word or grammatical formulation. I read a fascinating piece last year by Professor Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan about how slash is evolving as a new kind of conjunction, exactly the usage in fact which the American Dialect Society has cited.
So while Wordability‘s focus will remain on new words as they evolve, this blog itself may find itself evolving to look at new parts of speech and how the fundamental rules of English may now be starting to change because of the influence of digital communication. One of the questions for 2014 may well be whether we are at the start of what will prove to be a fundamental change to the language we grew up with.
It is a fascinating time to be looking at the English language.
There are few upsides to terrible weather, so one must draw whatever comfort one can when either extremely cold, wet or more likely both blow in. So at least my Wordability hat can keep me metaphorically warm by adding new words to my stock of knowledge.
As is so often the case, a term thrusts itself into public consciousness because of a bout of extreme weather, and although not actually new, it is unknown enough to be treated as a new word, given inverted commas in headlines and so on, and will go on to be considered one of the key new terms of the year, even though it is old and is only enjoying its time in the linguistic sun because the phenomenon it describes is doing everything it can to blot the sun out of people’s lives.
Polar Vortex is the term which is currently enjoying this level of notoriety. The term, which means a cyclone emanating from the Arctic region, is everywhere right now because of the extreme cold which is engulfing the United States, causing massive problems and outbreaks of bizarre stunts to show just how quickly things can freeze. It will only last a few days, but it will be long enough to leave a lasting impression, reignite the debate over global warming and leave us all wondering whether it will be a term we see again any time soon. It is the Derecho of 2014.
Polar Vortexes were central to the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. Their fictional appearance did not propel them into common language in the way that their actual appearance has. Let’s hope that some of the other apocalyptic events depicted in fiction don’t force their way into our minds by occurring in reality.