Monthly Archives: November 2015

Tears of Joy for Word of the Year

Face with tears of joyThe era of a new language has truly arrived. This year, Oxford Dictionaries has named an emoji as its word of the year.

It’s a bold choice, but a rock-solid one linguistically. No single word has dominated 2015, as Collins’ recent choice of binge-watch for their word the year vividly demonstrates. Instead we are at the dawn of a new way of communicating, and the Oxford choice confirms this.

The trend has been obvious for the last 12 months. The Global Language Monitor started the ball rolling by picking an emoji as its word of 2014. Then earier this year, a linguist described emoji as the fastest evolving language of all time. And so this decision will catapult recognition of that growth into the mainstream.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, said: “You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully. As a result emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders.” Amen to all of that.

For the record, the emoji which accepts the accolade on behalf of all its emoji brethren is 😂 –  ‘Face with tears of joy’.  According to mobile technology company Swiftkey, which partnered with Oxford to help decide on the winner, ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ was the most heavily used emoji globally in 2015. It comprised 20% of all emoji used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of all emoji used in the US.

This announcement will be greeted by criticism from some, derision from others. People will complain that it is not a word, will lament what is happening to our language, will somehow feel that Oxford Dictionaries itself is no longer the great arbiter it once was because it is making this decision. All utter nonsense, of course.

Instead, everyone should recognise that language is changing at a pace never before known, that a new lingua franca is emerging for the global, connected era in which we live, and that if hieroglyphs were good enough for the civilised ancient Egyptians, then using images to communicate with others should still be acceptable today. My linguistic tears of joy for this decision are all real.

Other shortlisted words:

ad blocker, noun:
A piece of software designed to prevent advertisements from appearing on a web page.

Brexit, noun:
A term for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Dark Web, noun:
The part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable

lumbersexual, noun:
a young urban man who cultivates an appearance and style of dress (typified by a beard and checked shirt) suggestive of a rugged outdoor lifestyle

on fleek, adjective (usually in phrase on fleek):
extremely good, attractive, or stylish

refugee, noun:
A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

sharing economy, noun:
An economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

they (singular), pronoun:
Used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

How to Muggle Things Up

Literature has been a common source of new words for a very long time. But I doubt whether the replacement of one word created by an author with a new word from the same author has ever created the uproar we have seen this week. But then again, JK Rowling is no ordinary author.

The story is simple. Rowling coined the term Muggle in the Harry Potter series to mean a non-magical person. But in information which has come out this week about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, next year’s film from Rowling’s wizarding imagination, that word has been changed. The film is set in America, a number of years before the birth of young Potter, and it has been revealed that the Americans don’t call their non-magical counterparts Muggles. No, they call them ‘No-Maj’, meaning they have no magic.

Cue the Twitter outpouring, cue the lamentations of Potter fans united in grief at what they see as the demise of one of their favourite words.

It’s nonsense of course. What might have been more surprising was if American wizards and witches had used the word Muggle. Do people not understand language variation across countries? Is it not entirely likely that a slang term, which is after all what Muggle really is, would be different in America from Britain. Star Eddy Redmayne has now done interviews explaining this and also saying that the term Muggle has not been replaced, as some have erroneously claimed. It is simply that a different word is used by people in a different country, no replacement involved. And when you say it with an American accent, you can fully understand why No-Maj sounds right in a way that the more British Muggle would not.

But the episode is interesting for a couple of linguistic reasons, aside from the social observation that yet again the internet is full of people focusing their energy and anxiety on the most trivial of things. What it does show is how beloved the language of JK Rowling is and how masterful she was with the words she coined and chose for her wizarding world. It would be an exaggeration to say that if she had come up with an inferior word for Muggle then her books would not have succeeded. But it does demonstrate that her consistent choice of the right word, finding ones which have really stuck with the public, gives us insight into why her books have succeeded.

The other thing to mention is that much of the reporting of this story has stressed that Muggle has even been recognised by Oxford Dictionaries. That’s lovely, and I must admit I was surprised by the idea that a reputable dictionary was including a definition for people who aren’t magical. But of course, it doesn’t. Muggle has taken on a new meaning for someone who is ‘not conversant with a particular activity or skill’. I can’t off the top of my head think of another example of a word from literature which has then gained a new meaning in the real world and been given dictionary recognition as a result of that.

So the supposed Muggle controversy isn’t really a controversy at all, and in fact demonstrates Rowling’s acute understanding of the English language. And maybe that is the greatest magic of all.

Binge-Watch the Surprise Choice

Word of the year season is upon us, and I have been wondering of late what words would end up taking the gongs this year, given the generally disappointing nature of the new words which have emerged during 2015.

So in that respect, the first winner out of the blocks is entirely in keeping with the less than stellar linguistic year we have been through. Collins Dictionaries has chosen ‘Binge-Watch’ as its word of 2015.

Now there is no denying that binge-watching, the viewing of multiple episodes of a television series in a short time span, is on the rise. New viewing habits and on demand video services have changed the nature of the way we watch television, and access to box sets is increasing. My concern is not with the word itself, it is more with the fact that it doesn’t feel to me like this year has been the year when binge-watching has come of age. I think it had already come of age and was already entrenched, and this year has not been significantly different to last year, though Collins do cite a 200% increase in usage. I suspect that growth probably happened the year before as well. I also don’t feel it defines the year, like a good winner should. And it featured in the Oxford Word of the Year shortlist in 2013.

To me, some of the other words on the Collins shortlist are more representative of 2015 than the eventual winner. Corbynomics, the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is included, and Jeremy Corbyn’s influence on the language has already been documented on Wordability this year. Transgender, relating to a person whose gender identity does not fullycorrespond to the sex assigned to them at birth, has been a big discussion point. And Contactless, making payments without signature or PIN, has gone increasingly mainstream this year and would have been a justified winner.

So the benchmark has been set for Word of the Year winners. I hope that subsequent winners will be able to exceed it.