Monthly Archives: June 2014

A New World For Columbus

We all know that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Actually, we know he discovered it on behalf of the western world, because the country was already inhabited when he arrived.

This nuance over the meaning of ‘discovered’ has seen a new word created in the last few days. A sketch on the College Humor website pokes fun at the idea of white people stumbling across things known to others for many years and then claiming ownership and therefore discovery of them. In honour of the fabled Christopher, this practice is known as ‘Columbusing’.

Columnists have already had lots of fun with this idea, with Miley Cyrus and Twerking featuring prominently in the commentaries of many as she is associated in the minds of lots of people as having discovered twerking, when it had in fact been around for some time.

I think it’s an interesting word as it is a really neat way of encapsulating a quite complex concept, which has both political and social overtones. Whether it has any life beyond this week’s flurry of media activity remains to be seen, but I can see it hanging around as a satirical term online, even if it never makes it into mainstream conversations and dictionaries.

Interestingly, a similar meaning of Columbusing appears to have been submitted to the Urban Dictionary over a year ago. So have the writers at College Humor Columbused Columbusing?

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Countdown to a New Era

Let’s get one thing straight immediately. I am a huge fan of Countdown. I have been watching it on and off since its debut on Channel 4 in 1982, and though I seldom catch it now, I still like to test myself when I get the chance.

I appeared on the show in 1986, and still have regrets all these years later. A combination of an excellent opponent and the arrogance of my over-confident youth conspired to send me spinning to defeat in a contest I led twice. I still get shivers when I hear the word Spearhead, the conundrum which finally ended my challenge. I know I let myself down at the end. Rather than sitting there smiling warmly, happy just to have taken part, my expression was a bewildering mixture of sulking and fury over the fact that I had actually lost. Not exactly what the tea-time audience expects and something which in hindsight I should have handled somewhat better.

But no matter. The reason for this diversion into my personal Countdown hell is because Dictionary Corner has moved with the times, and from now on, the validity of words will no longer be checked using a printed volume. Instead, Susie Dent and her assorted helpers will use Oxford Dictionaries Online to see whether the words put forward by contestants should be allowed to stand.

I warmly welcome this move. It means that rather than relying on a book, which by the nature of language is out of date while it is still on the printing press, contestants will now be able to offer words which are current and used and accepted by Oxford’s lexicographical powers. So expect to see Selfie put forward on the show pretty soon.

While there will doubtless be complaints, and the linguistic luddites among us will decry this as further evidence of the death of the English language, we should ignore their complaints. As I have said many times, language is a living, breathing entity, owned by its users, and if its users have deemed that a word is now part of the language, well how can Countdown beg to differ.

This move might actually help to sell that message. The growth and evolution of the dictionary is not necessarily something that a lot of people think about. By making the changing nature of language central to a popular programme like Countdown, it will increase awareness of how language develops and evolves and how vital it is that those changes are tracked and recorded. If this move helps to reinforce that message, then Countdown will have done a great deal more than just offer an entertaining diversion of an afternoon.

Spornosexual the New Metrosexual

We all know about the phrase that difficult second album. However, we don’t tend to hear about that difficult second neologism. The appearance of a sequel to a highly successful neologism this week has certainly made me think about the concept.

Back in 1994, journalist  Mark Simpson coined the term Metrosexual, There is no doubting its success as a new word. Metrosexual has certainly established itself as a word to describe a particular type of man with a meticulous approach to his own appearance, and it even carried off the American Dialect Society Word of the Year accolade in 2003.

So 20 years on, Mr Simpson has returned with an attempt to update his term and give us a new word for a new type of man. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he gives us Spornosexual.

A spornosexual is a step on from a metrosexual. A fan of sport and pornography, he is a body and selfie-obsessed individual, and rather than just using clothes as a way of defining himself, he uses his body itself, by either tattooing it or honing it to perfection in the gym. And if that is not enough, he will even photoshop his own selfies to get that body image just so.

Given Mr Simpon’s history, and taking on board the veracity of his observations, it is not a suprise that the media have taken to his theory and his new word extremely quickly, with an outpouring of articles and analysis of this new trend he identifies.

But has he coined a second word which will have the same success as the first? I think probably not. Because I don’t think it is as neat a nelogism as his first effort. Spornosexual is actually a combination of three previous words, sports, porn and metrosexual. It’s a little like he has created the neologism sporn and then tacked it onto another word to get yet another word. This multiple method for creating the word makes it difficult to understand immediately, you really need someone to explain it to you to make sense of it, and that is where I think it falls down.

Metrosexual was so successful not only because it defined a clear new trend but the word itself was easy to understand and clearly represented its meaning. To be successful, a new word has to fill a semantic gap and be easy to understand and use. I think Spornosexual fails the latter of these criteria. It is a hard term to understand when you first hear it, and it is not at all obvious what it means. So for this reason, while Mr Simpson may have been spot on with his observations, his new word seems to prove the old adage that a sequel is never as good as the original.

A Phrase That’s Just Too Death Eaterish

JK Rowling may have achieved many things during her illustrious career, but trying to add a new term to common English usage is probably not one of them.

It’s certainly true that she coined many terms as part of the Harry Potter universe, and in one way she has created neologisms which have stuck. But words such as Quidditch, Muggles and Mudblood, which are now familiar to many and whose meanings are widely understood, are still Harry Potter words, and have not crossed over into everyday usage and other contexts.

All of which explains why her linguistic addition to the debate about Scottish independence this week received such a muted and almost hostile response. Rowling donated £1m to the No campaign, and in a lengthy defence of her position, especially criticisms of her connection to Scotland, she wrote: “When people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.”

There was inevitable debate about the meaning of the term Death Eaterish,  while with my Wordability hat on, I start to wonder whether it is something which could make the leap to the dictionary. But I think the fact that there were articles about what Death Eaterish actually means confirms that it is not a term which has any chance of being taken on more widely. For what it’s worth, Death Eaters rail against those who are not of pure blood, so you can see why Rowling used it when she was defending her right to a view on Scotland. She was not born there but lives there now. But Death Eaters cast a pall of despair wherever they go, while they are led by the most evil person in the Wizarding kingdom, so it does seem a little harsh to describe those who disagree with her in the same way.

Certain names from literature, such as Svengali, Don Juan and Utopia, have entered the language as regular terms. Death Eaterish, with its slightly esoteric meaning, and its ‘-ish’ formation, which makes it a little flimsy and wishy-washy in any case, does not seem to be one of those terms likely to have an equally successful linguistic future.