Nominations for words of the year are not just a sign that Christmas is around the corner – it reminds me that my stated aim to write regular Wordability columns has foundered once again. Clearly Laziness around my blog output should be my personal word of the year for 2019.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise – despite the current UK fixation on Brexit and the ongoing election campaign, many are arguing that this focus on domestic issues is distracting from the climate, which should be viewed as the single most important issue facing anybody at the moment. Collins and Oxford have tapped into the way that public events around the climate have really burrowed into public consciousness this year, and have come up with two sides of the same story as a way of summing up the year.
The reason that I was surprised though was that it has often felt like the dictionary makers are consciously vying with each other to choose different words, and that Oxford Dictionaries’ choices have sometimes seemed quite left-field. I’ve speculated in the past that they have suffered from being second off the blocks every year with making their decision. I was particularly struck by this in 2016, when Collins Dictionaries chose Brexit, which seemed to be the only word that anybody was using for those 12 months, and Oxford Dictionaries went with post-truth, which while apposite didn’t seem to me to quite hit the mark.
So this year I think that both dictionary makers have made decisions which are easy to agree with. And it has reminded me that while laziness around climate change is the thing which we all need to avoid in order to protect our planet, I will also be doing my level best to beat my blogging laziness and try to write more about the endless changes in the English language.
Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.
It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.
So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.
And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.
Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.
Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.
Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.
What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.
Sometimes a great new word needs some nurturing before it can truly take off. I wonder if that will be case with a striking new word which hit the news this week.
The term ‘Mentrification’ was coined on Tumblr by a user called @obstinatecondolement. It basically describes the process whereby the achievement of women in creating or developing something popular is overwritten by men taking all the glory, such as women being at the forefront of software development in an industry where men now take all the credit.
The word gained quick prominence due to an excellent piece in the Guardian celebrating its arrival, saying it had gone viral on Tumblr and as an example of when “a single word arrives to describe something widely perceived and innately known yet not already explained”.
And yet, when I went onto social media and the wider web for verification that this word was truly taking off, I found virtually nothing. Not a trending hashtag, not a term that seems to be showing any great sense of usage, no other articles commenting or dicussing what appears to be a striking new neologism. All that is out there is a few people retweeting the original Guardian piece and praising it, without the sense that the word has yet taken on a life of its own.
Should we be surprised by this? Actually not at all. The contention of the piece is that Mentrification is “shorthand for a process that isn’t as much about men versus women as it is about a traditional culture that is still – still – gendered masculine, and whose behavioural default is to masculinise anything that challenges it.”
I looked up statistics for gender usage of Twitter. According to Statista, two thirds of Twitter users are male. So in a male-dominated environment, where men traditionally ride roughshod over the interests of women, is it any wonder that a word which points this out is struggling to garner attention? Is this not just another example of dominant interests closing ranks to ensure that the alternative viewpoint is not heard?
So Mentrification might currently be struggling to find its audience. But it fits the brief as a strong-sounding word which fulfils a semantic need. It just requires more people with big followings to start using on a regular basis. And then maybe there will be a small move back towards redressing the historical balance.
When I was writing last week’s Wordability column, I found myself pondering the new meaning for the world Snowflake, that is, a person who is over-emotional or easily offended, someone who can brook no argument with opposing points of view.
So I’m quite pleased I waited a week, because this week Merriam-Webster announced a raft of new words and revised definitions in their dictionary, and Snowflake’s new identify was celebrated.
It’s interesting though that in the revised definition, the focus remains on the sensitivity side, rather than the inability to deal with an opposing argument. I have seen the word Snowflake used with increasing ferocity in online debates about Brexit, political correctness, the environment, and other divisive issues of the day. It has certainly become the standard term to throw at anybody who seems to have a more liberal view of the world, and is used to suggest that those who think that way are somehow lacking, lesser people. To be honest, I have become increasingly annoyed about it. And if you want to call me a snowflake for saying that, well so be it.
Of course, the irony of the timing of this dictionary update should not be lost on anyone. Snowflake’s update comes on the same weekend that Winter is finally coming on televisions across the globe, with the titanic Game of Thrones battle between the living and dead about to be screened.
Whoever prevails in that battle, wouldn’t it be good if the snowflakes could prevail in the online battles of the day, and the thought out and nuanced positions which they often represent can successfully withstand the name calling and heat which often comes from the other wide. Then we could perhaps confirm that Winter is Coming in the most positive sense.
It’s not uncommon for advertising companies to coin new words in an effort to get their new product to take off, and many words and phrases from the world of advertising have done exactly what they say on the tin and entered common usage.
Whether the Axe male grooming range achieves this feat remains to be seen however, though you can’t criticise them for their efforts at least. Agency 72andsunny has created the word ‘Bathsculinity’, meaning to be confident in yourself inside and outside the bathroom, and is hoping that its series of adverts, starring actor and comedian Lil’ Rel Howery, will promote what it means to have bathroom self-confidence and will grow the Axe brand and cement the word in popular usage.
Adam Koppel, creative director at 72andSunny Amsterdam, said: “The purpose of the ‘bathsculinity’ campaign is to start a new conversation around masculinity in the 21st century about what it really means to be a man.” From a personal perspective, I find the word quite clumsy and not easy to say, which is always an indicator to me that something will struggle to catch on, while it is also not fulfilling a genuine semantic need. I don’t hold out enormous hope for Bathsculinity’s prospects.
Of course, if your thing is pouring concrete in the bath, then there is a word for you. We have become accustomed of late to fatbergs, enormous solid lumps being found in water systems which need to be destroyed. But this week, I read about a ‘concreteberg’ for the first time, as I suspect most people did, as Thames Water struggled to deal with a 100-metre, 105-ton lump of concrete in a Victoria sewer in central London. It is unclear exactly how it formed, though people pouring concrete down drains and sewers is a likely contributor. What is much clearer is that it will take around two months and lots of money to remove it.
While London is blocked under the surface, it has also suffered delays and hold-ups at ground level as well, as Extinction Rebellion has protested over the impact of climate change, bringing the name of this group into public consciousness. Separately, an interesting Swedish word is gaining traction on social media as a way of highlighting activities which have an impact on climate change. Flygskam, meaning flight shame, is increasingly appearing on postings as a hashtag to highlight the shame people are beginning to feel about the number of flights they take and the impact this is having on the environment.
As activists continue to insist that only fundamental changes to our lifestyles will arrest the climate damage now happening, it will be interesting to see whether Flygskam makes the leap across languages to become a de facto global term which people use when they are, or aren’t, flying.
And finally, an interesting tale from Australia, where Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has suggested that the term disabled is insulting and should be dropped from society as it demeans disabled people, suggesting instead that they should be referred to as ‘access inclusion seekers’.
I am lucky enough not to be disabled, but can judge this fairly easily on the reaction of disabled people, which has been an almost universal dismissal of the idea and a suggestion that the new term is at best unnecessary but is actually patronising and insulting to boot. Clearly another new word which isn’t needed.
We all know that we live in extraordinary, tumultuous, unprecedented times. What many of us don’t feel at the moment is that we live in times of peace and harmony. And the words which have dominated the recent news agenda reflect that sentiment.
Except in Japan, where the dawn of a new imperial era in May has been greeted with its new official name, Reiwa. Japanese officials have translated Reiwa as ‘Beautiful Harmony’. However, even that has created disharmony and discord with certain people, with social media concerns being raised that the term actually refers to command and control, as that is one possible meaning of the ‘Rei’ part of the term. In our current, febrile society, even giving something a name of positivity will generate controversy and a backlash.
In the UK and US of course, the political maelstroms surging around us are nothing if not acrimonious. As the tortured Brexit process lurches into yet another new phase, the word ‘Flextension’ has started to be used in earnest in the last couple of weeks. ‘Flextension’ is basically a flexible extension, and is being proposed by EU Council President Donald Tusk as a way of the UK having its cake and eating it. Here you go, have an extension until next year, but don’t use all of it if you don’t need it.
Wouldn’t flextensions be wonderful things if they became a permanent feature of our lives. We kind of want something finished by next Tuesday, but frankly, if it takes another three months, don’t worry! Homework due in tomorrow. Flextension please! Of all the ludicrous words Brexit has given us, here is one we could apply brilliantly to everyday life, a new word to justify permanent laziness.
What it certainly isn’t is a word of peace and harmony. Nobody can even seem to agree on what flexibility a flextension should offer, which seems to negate the point of it in the first place. We may soon have to start talking about flexible flextensions. It’s like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors.
On the other side of the Atlantic, discord from beyond the grave. Former first lady Barbara Bush has been quoted as having written in her diary in 1990 “Trump now means Greed, selfishness and ugly.” A sentiment from some time ago but one which backed up other concerns she had over him, as revealed in a newly published biography. At least the President responded with concern and sensitivity, being quoted as saying: “I have heard that she was nasty to me, but she should be. Look what I did to her sons.” Good to see mature and reasoned debate in these peaceful times.
Outside politics, a number of other language issues point to issues of disharmony. For example, British paralympian Dame Sarah Storey believes that such is the animosity towards cyclists, a new word should be coined for people who ride to work on a bike, to differentiate them from racing cyclists, for example.
Pointing out that Dutch has words for just such a distinction, she was quoted as saying: “We need to realise that a cyclist isn’t just a Lycra-clad yob, as per the stereotype, and that cyclists are just people on bikes moving around on a mode of transport.”
The need to protect cyclists is fair enough – a recent Australian survey came up with the bewildering result that more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not fully human. But I don’t think that giving cyclists a different name is going to address this legitimate concern. I think it will just lead to people thinking that this newly-named group remain sub-human for some reason, and attitudes will remain unchanged. Education and road awareness is what is needed, not another word in our cycling vocabulary.
There are of course times when a new word can help with driving issues. Texting and driving is a growing concern, and people don’t listen properly to rules and regulations not to do it. The American Automobile Association is launching a new campaign to encourage people to stop becoming distracted by texting while driving, calling the habit ‘Intexicated’. It’s quite a neat new word and it will be interesting to see if it has a life beyond an individual awareness campaign.
One other area where there always appears to be disharmony is veganism. I have written recently about the supposed misappropriation of the word cheese to vegan products. Well now the debate over other words being used for plant-based produce is back again, with the EU unveiling new proposals that would stop words such as burger and sausage being used for non-meat produce. Instead these items might be renamed discs or tubes to describe their shape. I maintain that this kind of linguistic prejudice against non-animal derived produce is as nonsensical now as it was when the cheese debate was raging a few weeks ago. Language changes, our understanding of these words changes, and a veggie sausage is a veggie sausage. Nobody is going to buy it expecting pork. But nonetheless, these debates will continue and will face further European legislation later this year.
Of course, depending on the outcome of the Flextension, the UK may not have to deal with this linguistic debate going forward. But whether it does or not, the country will not have a few months of beautiful harmony ahead of it. Maybe that planned UK trade deal with Japan cannot come quickly enough.
When I studied linguistics, I was very taken by the concept of a Speech Act. This is the idea that by saying something in a certain context, it becomes more than just an utterance and instead actually causes something to change. A person could say “”I do” as many times as they want, but if they say it in front of a designated celebrant, while holding a ring and staring lovingly into the eyes of another human being, the phrase takes on the force of performing an action.
I have been pondering this concept during the last few weeks of Brexit madness in relation to the concept of a vote, or what makes a vote an actual vote. Clearly, me putting a cross on a random piece of paper is simply me doing a doodle. Me putting a cross on an official piece of paper and putting it into the designated box is me expressing my opinion, having it recorded and contributing to an overall result. To Vote means to perform a specifically prescribed action at the anointed time in the appointed place.
It seems to me that over the last few weeks, we have lost our sense of what the word vote actually means. It should always be enough to say that when there is a vote on something, it is clear and straightforward, and once the result comes in, then that is the end of the matter. But such is the controversy that swirls around the big dilemmas currently facing us, that it has become necessary to characterise voting in specific ways, as if by elevating it from just voting itself, it will somehow have more import.
I am not the first person to point out that any vote in the UK Parliament should be meaningful (unless it is one of the now much talked about “indicative” votes, of course). After all, what is the point of MPs spending their time voting for something if there isn’t a reason for it? And yet, the phrase ‘Meaningful Vote’ has crept into into our discourse to characterise the definitive judgement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Remember, she never wanted such a vote to begin with, and was only bounced into holding a vote at all by a ruling from the Supreme Court. And the phrase meaningful vote passed from being what seemed a vague term to describe the final vote to the title of the vote itself, with its sequels of Meaningful Vote 2 or MV3 sounding like a bad film franchise rather than the political horror movie they actually are.
But now that it has become a title, rather than the description of an activity, it has lost the essence of voting and become instead the backdrop to arguments and in-fighting. If another Meaningful Vote is to be held, it is no longer really about settling the Brexit debate and more about working out what it means for Theresa May or the future of the Government. People will not necessarily vote for the motion but for how their vote will be interpreted. Meaningful, but not in the way originally intended.
Meanwhile, the proponents of a second referendum have very cleverly hijacked the word Vote for their own ends with the term People’s Vote, trying to characterise another referendum as something different to what it actually is. Every national election held in the UK is a people’s vote, so the actual term a People’s Vote is tautological. But by defining it in these terms, it is an attempt to make it sound bigger and more inclusive than it actually is. Ardent Brexiteers say it is simply a chance to have another go, being promoted by people who didn’t like the result the first time round, a betrayal of democracy. Whether it is or not is not a matter for Wordability. But it does come across as a manipulative use of the English language to make something sound distinct from what is actually being proposed.
There are many countries in the world where democracy is a sham and the word vote has no actual meaning, even if people are invited to cast an opinion every so often. Many who voted leave in the 2016 Referendum already feel this way and feel that their vote is at risk of being rendered meaningless by the voting that has happened subsequent to this.
It is a huge concern that in the home of the ‘mother of parliaments’, the meaning of the word vote seems to be under such pressure.