Category Archives: Dictionaries

News and views on what is happening in the world of dictionaries

Quidditch flies into new era

It’s not really a surprise that the inclusion of quidditch in the latest Oxford Dictionaries online update has garnered so much publicity. After all, Harry Potter is an international phenomenon, quidditch is now known the world over, as a word it is very well established.

US Quidditch

US Quidditch

Of course, it is not JK Rowling’s mythical game which has been recognised by the Oxford experts. Instead, it is the real-world equivalent, played by people who mount broomsticks and run around a field, throwing balls through hoops in a grounded version of the game popularised in the skies of Hogwarts. Such is the popularity of real-life Quidditch that there are two competing authorities in the United States responsible for tournaments, rules and so on, while the rapid worldwide growth of the game since it was first played in 2005 attests to not only the enduring popularity of Potter but also to the fact that it is evidently enjoyed by those who take part.

The reasoning for its inclusion is therefore completely sound – a new sport, now established, with a name that needs to be recorded. I guess the irony for a lot of people is that they are not actually aware of this version, and will have assumed that it was the fictional equivalent which had received lexicographical recognition. Which of course would not have happened.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether there is a certain uniqueness to the word quidditch. Words from fiction are a well known source of neologisms – the latest Oxford update includes cromulent, coined on The Simpsons, and embiggen, popularised on the same programme. But they are words which are used with the meaning which they have carried over from their TV appearances.

It is not just that the quidditch immortalised in the dictionary is different to the original fictional version. It is that something in fiction has inspired the creation of a real-world equivalent, and it is the real-world equivalent which is now recognised. I am trying to think of another example of something created in fiction which has subsequently been made real and then gone on to become established in the language in its new incarnation.

I am not coming up with anything else, but I am happy to be corrected. If anybody can think of other examples, please leave them in the comments below.

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The Truth About The Word of the Year

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man. Earlier this year, I said that Brexit was a shoo-in to be named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. Thankfully my fiver remained in my pocket rather than with my local bookmaker. The lexicographers of Oxford have announced instead that Post-Truth is its international word of 2016.

But I think they’ve got it wrong.

To me, a word of the year has to encapsulate the year just gone and also be a word that is actually being used on a regular basis. In terms of the former criterion, post-truth fits the brief. Given the crazy political climate we have just lived through, where the veracity of what we hear is open to question and elections are won and lost on the basis of at times spurious claims, the notion that we now live in a post-truth world is a very real one. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, it clearly sums up the year we have all lived through.

But while we all recognise this and know it to be true, and while Oxford say that usage has gone up 2,000% in 2016, is it word that anybody ever hears anybody else actually say in daily conversation? Or is it a word of media commentary and online discourse, handy for summing up the zeitgeist and therefore one of the words which helps us to describe the year, but not indisputably the word which defines it.

Despite Donald Trump’s victory, I still maintain that Brexit is the word of 2016, a view which Collins Dictionaries recently endorsed. I think it has international connotations, as it is used as the touchstone by which other elections or movements are now judged. I’ve no idea how much usage has gone up, but I would wager (there I go again) that it is a great deal more than the 2,000% increase recorded by post-truth.

But crucially, it has become a word used by everybody this year and has become fully adopted into the English language better than any other recent word which comes to mind. It went from a slightly odd formation on the sidelines to becoming a fully fledged member of the English language, used and understood by everybody. For goodness sake, we even have a Brexit Minister now, that is how established the word has become. (Hopefully we will never be entering a Government that feels the need to appoint a Post-Truth Minister, but that is a blog for a different site). Its universal acceptance should have sealed the deal.

I do sometimes wonder whether the timing of the word of the year calendar affects Oxford Dictionaries slightly. Collins always goes first, and having bagged the obvious choice, I can only speculate on whether the Oxford powers that be felt that they couldn’t choose the same thing, so had to come up with something related but different. I can’t help feeling that they have plumped for the more academic and erudite choice as a way of marking themselves out, but have simply got it wrong this year.

I probably haven’t enhanced my already minimal chances of being invited to join the committee which decides these things in the future, but no matter. For me, Brexit is and always will be the defining word of 2016. And that is the whole truth.

Phubbing comes of age

Wordability has now been running for over four years, with more than 200 posts. Inevitably, favourite new words emerge over a period like that. And the word I have enjoyed writing about more than any other is still Phubbing.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

Phubbing – phone snubbing – describes the act of ignoring people you are physically with because you are interacting with your phone instead. When it first emerged in 2013, I found I started using it and celebrated it as a genuinely useful word, one which filled a semantic vacuum and also tripped off the tongue. And I was not the only one. It featured when I spoke exclusively to Oxford Dictionaries about words which were on their radar for dictionary inclusion.

Of course, it then transpired that Phubbing wasn’t actually a word that had come into being naturally. It had actually been coined as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for an Australian dictionary. In many ways, I warmed to it even more as it was now a useful word with a backstory. I even celebrated it by calling my collection of writings about words in 2013 Phubbing All Over the World.

It seemed however that Phubbing the word would die away, though phubbing the action would remain resolutely and increasingly with us. I barely saw it in 2014 and certainly never heard anybody say it. But a resurrection of sorts occurred last year, as a new round of articles started to appear in the media focusing on phubbing, and so usage picked up once more.

And life has now followed marketing art, with Phubbing finally taking its place in the online annals of Oxford Dictionaries, albeit later than I ever anticipated.

All of which goes to prove that the English language remains the most wonderful, organic beast, encompassing change and growth in myriad ways.  It doesn’t matter how that vital new word first emerges. What does matter is that it is needed, it is used, and it makes a contribution to the overall tapestry of the language itself.

So I shall continue to use Phubbing with pride, knowing that it is now well on its way to permanent acceptance in the language. Which is of course a shame in another way. It is a terrible habit.

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.

I Heart The Word of the Year

If you need any more proof that the very fabric of the English language is changing then I give you the Global Language Monitor as Exhibit A. More specifically, I give you the announcement of its word of the year. Triumphant this year is the ❤ emoji.

It’s not even a word, I hear you cry. Au contraire. If we take a word to be a discrete unit of meaning, which when used by one person is understood by another, then any emoticon clearly fits the bill. And while like letters they are symbols, in terms of usage they are words because they express an idea and a meaning, and sometimes a quite complex and subtle meaning, providing context and commentary on what is being written in a very neat and efficient manner. They have become one of the ultimate shorthands in informal, and sometimes even formal, communication, and I even now hear ‘heart’ in spoken situations, where it seems to mean something distinct from like or even love, a slightly more trivial affection.

So what does all this mean for our beloved language. Well basically, its evolution gathers pace. In the past I have written about how technology is changing grammar and even parts of speech. Now it is influencing the symbols themselves that we use to write with, so that our basic alphabet is now expanding and taking on new characters.

Does this mean we are all going to start writing in pictures and will now express ourselves solely with smiley faces and pictures of foaming mugs of beer? No, undoubtedly not.

But as technology increasingly influences the way language is used, and English continues to proliferate as a lingua franca across the globe, emoticons and symbols will increasingly break down language barriers and become part of a universal language of the future. So for the fans of Esperanto, :(.

Vape Wafts To Oxford Accolade

I’d been wondering more than usual this year as to what Oxford Dictionaries would announce as its word of the year. The reason is that I don’t think it has been a vintage year for words. I’ve been struggling to think of a new word coined this year that has really taken off, and this has been my least productive year since opening the virtual files of Wordability.

So it’s not a surprise that Oxford’s choice this year is not a word coined in 2014, and it’s not a surprise that the word was nigh on impossible to predict. The Oxford experts have plumped for Vape.

Vape is both a noun and a verb associated with electronic cigarettes. As a verb it means to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette, while the noun refers to either the electronic device itself or the act of inhaling or exhaling the vapour produced.

Explaining the choice, Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director for Oxford Dictionaries, said: “As vaping has gone mainstream, with celebrities from Lindsay Lohan to Barry Manilow giving it a go, and with growing public debate on the public dangers and the need for regulation, so the language usage of the word ‘vape’ and related terms in 2014 has shown a marked increase.” That marked increase has seen usage of the word more than double over the last 12 months.

Other contenders were Bae, a term of endearment for one’s partner; Budtender, someone who dispenses cannabis; Contactless, relating to payments taken from cards or phones; Indyref, the Scottish Referendum; Normcore, ordinary clothes worn as a fashion statement; and Slacktivism, online participation for a cause but requiring little effort.

The real question for me is whether Vape really sums up 2014? Recent choices like Selfie and Omnishambles really summed up the mood of the year, they were great choices because they acted as a commentary on the 12 months they represented.

I can’t feel the same about Vape. When I think about 2014, Vape will not come to mind as a word that really captures the mood and spirit of the age. Rather it serves as a reminder of one particular development. Nonetheless, it could be the best of a bad bunch, as not only have great new words not emerged, actually capturing a sense of what the year has been all about has been strangely elusive in 2014.

And maybe that makes Vape a better and more profound choice than I first realised. It’s kind of unreal, ethereal even, and fake. Maybe a year that has been hard to sum up deserves a word of the year that relates to something which is a replacement for the real thing.

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.