Monthly Archives: February 2016

Beware the Smombie Apocalypse

Sometimes a word is so perfect that once somebody mentions it, everbody else has to follow suit. One such example has flooded the press in the UK in the last few days. It is the rise of the Smombie.

Smombie, short for Smartphone Zombie, describes behaviour which we increasingly see the world over, and which we are all almost certainly guilty of. It is the habit of checking your mobile phone while walking along and becoming oblivious to all around you, running the risk of causing yourself, and others, zombie-like danger.

The sudden appearance of the word is not tied into anything particular. Smombie was actually named as the German youth word of 2015, though this itself was not a popular decision as the word seemed more to denigrate smartphone users rather than celebrate them and was noted as not being used particularly prominently among German youth.

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Its sudden UK fame is tied into a Sunday Times feature a few days ago, using the German victory as a springboard to describe the increasing amount of smombie activity around the country. It  illustrated this with quotes from motoring organisations about the dangers this poses which are similar to driving while texting, and even mentioned that there are now ‘Smombie Lanes’ in some cities to allow texters to amble in peace without distracting those seeking a quicker route to their destination.

I think this word is interesting on a number of levels. The first is who uses the word and who it is aimed at. It is quite right that Smombie is pejorative. It accurately describes the way that people walking and using their phones are utterly unaware of everything around them, but it is true that this surely makes it coined by those who look down on such behaviour, not those to whom technology is as innate as breathing, the younger generation. So if it is to gain any currency, it is likely that it will be as a term of criticism.

I also wonder whether Smombie itself is the word that will ultimately catch on. Phubbing, one of my perennial favourites of recent years, is a great amalgam of Phone and Snubbing and does the job beautifully of describing that anti-social act of looking at your phone rather than joining in with the people who you are actually with. But in some ways, it is not immediately apparently what it means, it is only when you say that it is short for phone snubbing that it truly hits its mark.

Great as Smombie sounds, I feel the same way about this word, and that it needs the explanation to give it its context. And that may be the key to its future. Smartphone Zombie is actually perfect, it completely gets its meaning across and you could genuinely see people using it. I think this is a case where the abbreviation could ultimately lose out to the long from.

Smartphone zombies are undoubtedly here to stay. I think the only issue left is how we will continue to refer to them. And making sure we get out of their way, of course.

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Language Flowers in Italy

Daisy Pollen Flower

Daisy Pollen Flower

An attractive story from Italy, not just because it allows me to decorate the pages of Wordability with this delightful picture of a daily pollen flower. An eight-year-old may now see a word which he invented recognised as an official Italian word.

Matteo, a schoolboy in the town of Copparo in central Italy, used the word Petaloso in a school project to describe a flower as ‘full of petals’. His teacher Margherita Aurora was so impressed she contacted the Accademia Crusca, guardians of the language, and received an encouraging reply.

They said that while the word was not yet in sufficient usage to be able to garner official recognition, it was “well formed word, and could be used in Italian. Your word is beautiful and clear.”

Of course it only takes a bit of social media encouragement and publicity for the word to start being used an awful lot, in order to force lexicographic minds, and while the initial flurry will certainly not be sufficient to get it officially recognised as a word, repeated genuine usage might just do the trick.

Do we need a word for ‘full of petals’ in English? Doubtful, and doubtful as well that it wound quite as lyrical as Pelatoso does. And maybe the lilt of Italian is part of its appeal. After all, other words apparently on the radar for official Italian recognition include Photoshappare and Spoilerare, both of which are ugly Italianisations of English words which I suspect the language could well do without.

So good luck to Pelatoso and who knows, maybe it could make the jump to English and make our own language that tiny bit more beautiful.

France Flexes Linguistic Muscles

CircumflexIt is never a surprise when a change in the French language causes outcry and controversy. After all, control of the French tongue is heavily proscribed by the Académie Française, an organisation which has defended the purity of the language for many years, fighting in particular against the inclusion of English words in the vocabulary.

So it is hardly surprising that this week’s news that new spellings have been unveiled for more than 2,000 words, with the removal of a superfluous circumflex in many of them perhaps suggesting the demise of the hat-shaped accent, has understandably caused outcry and linguistic breast-beating on an epic scale.

Of course, the story is not as simple as the headlines would suggest. The Académie’s advice actually dates back to 1990, and it is only the decision of educators to include the new spellings in textbooks which has caused the current furore. #JeSuisCirconflexe the opponents cry,unwittingly undermining their own argument by choosing a linguistic form which didn’t exist two years ago to express their disgust over the fact that language constantly changes.

Rather than pick through the list of changed words in detail, I have pondered more the English reaction to language change, and how the country might feel if an official language arbiter made changes such as this. Of course, we are probably quite lucky that there isn’t a body which regulates the English language in this way. Given the reaction that new words and trends often seem to get, you would imagine that the vitriol that might be directed to such a body operating in the UK would dwarf anything we are seeing in France at the moment.

The Oxford Dictionary is of course regarded as the ultimate watchword on English, but its lexicographers are observers and recorders of the language, and don’t have the responsibility of having to make the final rules. Nevertheless, if something is acknowledged by it as correct, than that confers a degree of authority on the usage. And plenty of people are happy to weigh in and protest whenever new words are added to Oxford Dictionaries online, or variant spellings or meanings are included, so I suspect that Oxford types are quite happy not to have that responsibility.

What the French experience tells us is that people remain passionately connected to their language, and are resentful when the basic parts of it appear to be arbitrarily changed. But of course language does change, and the Académie’s ruling is not an imposition of rules but is instead a reaction to change which was already present, codifying the usage as it has evolved.

So while people howl in protest, as they do in England, they are merely objecting to changes which they are using already. They just don’t like having it pointed out to them.