Geeks Inherit The Earth

I’ve always wondered a little why Oxford Dictionaries unveils its word of the year in November, when there is still quite a bit of the year left to run. But now I can see the advantage of going first. You become the word of the year by which all other words of the year are judged, and you also ensure that other esteemed language bodies have to choose something else.

I think that since Selfie was unveiled as the Oxford choice, it has become established in people’s minds as the definitive word of the year, a status of course helped by Barack Obama et al. Nevertheless, further nominations have followed, and the latest two are interesting in different ways.

Collins dictionary has gone with Geek. I think this choice has been made for reasons more to do with the English language itself, rather than as a reflection of what society has been doing for the last 12 months. The main reason behind Geek’s prominence in Collins’ eyes is that its definition has now been radically changed over the last 12 months. No longer a pejorative term which almost demeans those to whom it is applied, it is now defined as “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. The addition of further terms such as Geekery and Geekdom simply sealed the deal.

It’s interesting reasoning but I wonder whether geek really has completely shaken off its past. The people I know in technology still describe themselves geeks in a tongue in cheek, slightly embarrassed way, rather than in a way that seems to wear it like a badge of honour. And in much the same way that Swedish nerds campaigned for a similar redefinition last year, I feel that this kind of alteration loses something of the genuine meaning of the word.

Dictionary.com has taken an alternative approach, going for a word that is neither new nor altered during the year, but has instead summed up the overriding themes 0f 2013. That choice is Privacy, and in an interesting analysis it cites Edward Snowden and Google among others that have contributed to privacy’s prevalence over the year.

If you are going down this route for your selections, then I think this one fits the bill pretty well as it certainly focuses on issues that have been strongly in people’s minds during 2013. I think it is certainly a more suitable choice than Merriam-Webster’s recent selection of Science.

So we now have Selfie, Bitcoin, Science, Geek and Privacy all rejoicing as words of the year. And Phubbing of course. I still prefer that above all others.

Bitcoins Prove Their Worth

The words of the year choices keep on coming, and Australian lexicographers have fixed on a suitable candidate to take their accolade.

Bitcoin is undoubtedly a word which has found its place in the lexicon this year, despite having been created five years ago. This digital currency has seen its usage in both financial and linguistic senses explode this year, and so the Australian National Dictionary Centre has named it as its word of the year.

It’s undoubtedly a good choice. It is a word which has been significant in public consciousness this year in a way that it wasn’t previously, while measurable usage itself has shot up 1,000%, according to the Australian experts.

Bitcoin is probably not quite as popular as Selfie, which simply confirmed its Oxford Dictionaries choice this week by becoming the centre of Barack Obama’s world. I suspect Australian experts couldn’t choose Selfie as well once Oxford had given it the nod, though it included it in its shortlist for the year, along with Twerk, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), Captain’s Pick and Microparty.

Sadly Phubbing did not make the shortlist, a shame considering it is a word of Australian origin. But when you consider that words like Bitcoin and Selfie are now being heralded as the words of the year, it means we may look back on 2013 as a year when we were self- and money-obsessed, which is not necessarily the most flattering reflection of ourselves.

The Scientific Approach

There are many ways to choose a word of the year. Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary in the United States, opts for a scientific approach. It sees which word word has increased its look-ups in its online dictionary the most over the year, and simply gives it to that one. Ironically, this approach has yielded the word it deserves this year. The scientific methodology means that its word of the year is Science.

Its true that science has been in the news more this year than many others, with fresh space exploration on Mars, spectacular meteors and comets and the search for the Higgs Boson particle all issues which entertained the public and the media during 2013. “It is a word that is connected to broad cultural dichotomies: observation and intuition, evidence and tradition,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.

For me, the problem with taking this approach to choosing a word of the year is that it ignores the gut instinct part, the human analysis that says while a word may be getting people’s attention more than it has in recent years, that doesn’t make it the word that sums up the year. Look-ups of science rose 176% this year to win it the prize. If the word Mugwump had been looked up 50 times last year and 200 times this year, it would have had a greater increase but would certainly not have been a suitable candidate for this accolade.

Writers around the world have had fun comparing the choice of Science with the Oxford Dictionary choice of Selfie, But Selfie says something about 2013 in a way that I don’t think Science really does. We will look back on this year as one where science came more the forefront of people’s minds than previously, but it wasn’t the subject that defined the year. All of which means that you need more than a scientific approach when it comes to deciding on the word of the year.

Selfie Wins Oxford Vote

When Selfie was included in Oxford Dictionaries Online earlier this year, I commented that I had been looking for a good reason to write about a word that was clearly gaining in usage and was pleased to have an excuse.

Well its status has now been cemented after Oxford Dictionaries announced it as its word of the year for 2013. Although coined in 2002, with the first usage cited in Australia, it is only in the last 12 months that selfies have really made it into the mainstream, with people’s phone-taken self-portraits really forcing their way into public consciousness and national newspapers. Oxford noted that usage of selfie has risen 17,000% over the last 12 months.

Other words on the shortlist included some others featured on Wordability during 2013, including virtual currency Bitcoin; Showrooming, the practice of looking at goods in a store before buying them online; Olinguito, a newly discovered mammal; and Twerk, the dance craze beloved of all tabloids and a word that I am delighted was not chosen for this linguistic accolade. The other shortlisted words were Schmeat, for synthetic meat; Binge-watching, the habit of watching multiple episodes of a single TV show in one sitting; and the always controversial Bedroom Tax.

I think it has been a hard year for choosing a word of the year. Oxford’s choice of Omnishambles last year and Squeezed Middle the year before really summed up society as a whole at that time and gave a keen insight into the state of the nation. This year it has proved harder to find a word that really encapsulates the country’s mood. Perhaps the choice of Selfie suggests that society itself is not as coherent as it was 12 months ago and we are more fractured and individualistic, obsessed with ourselves at the expense of others. In that sense, Selfie perhaps sums up some of the isolation of modern life. Or it may just be a British thing. Dutch experts have chosen Participatiesamenleving – participation society, a society where people take control of their own lives, as the Dutch word of the year.

I have been pondering the word of the year myself and will reveal Wordability‘s choice next week. At this stage, I am happy to reveal it is not Selfie. I will also be revealing details of a brand new book of the year to follow last year’s Eastwooding with the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012, which remains available on Amazon.

English Influence Boosting Dutch

The latest update of the Dutch Van Dale dictionary demonstrates just how strong the influence of English has become across the Netherlands.

Last year, Wordability reported on how the popular messaging app WhatsApp had been recognised in the dictionary by getting its own verb. Twelve months on, the new list is redolent with words of an English bent.

So step forward 3D-Printer and Gamechangers, Factchecken and Pinpointen. I also like the word GeluksMachine, meaning Happiness Machine and coined by the country’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Clearly you wouldn’t be a geluksmachine if you were involved in Sukkelsex, defined as sex which is not focused on delivering top performance. I’m not sure I can think of an English equivalent of that. Maybe it is not something that is a problem over here.

It’s actually interesting to note just how many English-inspired words are getting into an increasingly wide variety of international dictionaries. Reports suggest that the Royal Spanish Academy will be adding Goglear, Tuitear and Guasapear, translated as Google, Tweet and WhatsApp, to the Spanish dictionary.

It has to be hoped that languages will continue to maintain their own identities as the world gets more global and technology terms in particular become more widespread and international. While it is far too soon to worry about the future of distinct languages, I wonder if we are witnessing the beginning of a very slow homogenisation.

The Phubbing Truth

It’s clearly not enough for phubbing to have emerged as the best new word of the year. It’s now got the best story as well.

Phubbing – phone snubbing – exploded internationally a couple of months ago. Publications across the globe, Wordability included, reported on how a Melbourne student had spotted the growing trend for people to pay more attention to their phones than other people in social settings and had set up a campaign and the Stop Phubbing website in response. The response to the story was so big that the word quickly became entrenched, and is now even on Oxford Dictionaries radar, as revealed exclusively to Wordability.

It now turns out that the story behind phubbing is a little different. It was in fact the brainchild of an advertising agency, designed to raise excitement about words and ultimately sell print copies of the new Macquarie dictionary.

The McCann agency actually created the word Phubbing during a brainstorming session in May 2012 – a video showing the process has now been released, and the efforts involved perhaps go some way towards demonstrating why the word is so damn good. A lot of brains gathered together to come up with it.

Stop Phubbing
Anti-Phubbing poster

Once the word was established, the website and social media tools swiftly followed. But it wasn’t until Australia’s Herald Sun ran a piece on phone etiquette that the word really took off. Alex Haigh, the alleged student behind the phenomenon but actually an account executive with McCann, contacted the paper to push the Stop Phubbing campaign, and the rest is viral history.

So now that the truth is out there, do I feel slightly hoodwinked? Well a little bit, yes. The romance of the original story has been lost, innocent student conquers the world with his great new word, washed away by advertising agency plans careful viral marketing campaign and worms its way into our consciousness.

But that analysis isn’t really fair. Regardless of its genesis, the rise of phubbing has still demonstrated all that is good about modern word formation. It filled a semantic gap, it’s a great word in its own right and its establishment confirms that the way that words evolve and become established is now utterly different to how it was even a few years ago.

And those behind it agree. The official video, ‘A Word is Born’, is a wonderful watch. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself, it is embedded at the bottom of this article.

Susan Butler, publisher and editor of Macquarie Dictionary, said: “The rise of phubbing as an original coinage has been a wonderful illustration of the process by which my word becomes your word becomes our word until finally it is a word which belongs to us all.” McCann executive director John Mascell added: “A Word is Born is a love story about words, and how incredible they are.”

And ultimately, that’s the great thing about this. Yes it comes from marketing, yes it might sell some dictionaries, but the phubbing story tells us so much more than that. It reminds us that language is always changing in new and wonderful ways.

Exclusive: New Words on Oxford Radar

The recent coverage of the inclusion of Twerking in Oxford Dictionaries’ latest online update showed just how much people genuinely care about the state of English and the words that we use.

But lexicography moves on, and the guardians of the Oxford lists are already looking at what the next new words to be included might be.

In an exclusive interview, Wordability spoke to Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor, Oxford Dictionaries, who revealed some of the words which are currently being tracked by lexicographers and which may be the ones which feature prominently in updates of the future. You can watch the full interview here:

So to summarise, the words she selected are:

Bacne – basically, acne on your back

Hatewatch – an old Wordability favourite, first identified last year. The practice of watching something you really don’t like, and chatting to your friends about it while hating it.

Dosant – a cross between a doughnut and a croissant

Legsie – hot on the heels of Selfie’s recent inclusion, a photograph you take of your own legs. One can only imagine where this will end, but politeness means I will decline to suggest it

Appisode – an online episode of a television show

Phubbing – one of the great new words of this year, a personal favourite and one which has already entered everyday use in my household. Phone snubbing, using your smartphone when you are supposed to be talking to someone else

Nocialising – See above

Meme – not a new word, but a new sense, as Meme, a cultural idea which passes from person to person, now starts to become a verb

Lolarious – LOL branches out into its own verb. Not sure what David Cameron’s version would become.

So that’s the latest list – now we sit back and wait to see which of them finally makes it all the way through the selection process.

Twerking Has Not Killed English

Oxford Dictionaries Online had a major PR success recently, when its quarterly update included the word Twerk, just as Miley Cyrus was hitting international headlines for performing the provocative dance move at the MTV Awards.

Twerking, for those of you who have been hiding under a duvet for the last month to avoid it, is officially defined as “to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”

Of course, there were those who bemoaned this development as the death of the English language, or others who criticised lexicographers for responding to the news reports by adding the word in. Then there were those who don’t know the difference between Oxford Dictionaries Online and The Oxford English Dictionary, and proclaimed that Twerk had made it to the OED’s hallowed pages. Which it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.

Now that the twerking dust has settled I feel it my duty to acknowledge this furore, and also to note that while Twerking has been around for 20 years, 2013 is the year of its populist birth, the year that it really came into public consciousness. It’s a bit like Fracking in that respect, an old word for an established technique for extracting fuel that has emerged front and centre in 2013.

Undoubtedly Twerking will feature as one of the words of this year, when such lists come to be compiled, but it certainly shouldn’t be winning any garlands. This is not the year of its birth, merely the year of its recognition, and while it has undoubtedly played a big part in 2013, other terms have been more prominent and will prove to be more deserving.

And as for the accusation that Oxford Dictionaries jumped into Twerking for its update because of the news agenda, think again. It takes much longer than a couple of days for a new word to be added, and the coincidence of the Cyrus dance and the Oxford announcement was nothing more than that – coincidence. And if you don’t believe me, Fiona McPherson, Senior Editor, Oxford Dictionaries, confirmed this to Wordability. And here’s the video to prove it:

Dictionary Gone, Dictionary Still to Come

The changing nature of English vocabulary has been neatly summed up by two recent stories from opposing ends of the linguistic spectrum. Both give us an insight of how our dictionaries might look over the next few years, but reached their conclusions in contrasting fashions.

The first was research by Disney’s Club Penguin into the language used by teenagers online. The result, unsurprisingly, is that for the most part, their parents don’t understand it. So Disney has published a Digital Dictionary as part of its overall online safety campaign as a way of helping parents to understand what their offspring are actually talking about.

So no longer will words like Keed, Dub and Derp be mystifying, while parents will be able to understand that in this context, Sick is good and Jelly is bad, and that is not just because of the after-effects of eating too much trifle.

The interesting thing for language watchers of course is whether the words in this specific dictionary have enough staying power to cross over into mainstream dictionaries, and whether this listing is just a passing fad that will fade into history, or is instead a tantalising glimpse of the OED in 50 years’ time.

And talking of 50 years, research by Lancaster University has given us an idea of how much language has changed over the last 50 years. They analysed millions of books, articles and speeches to come up with a list of the 2,500 most common words in the English language, and compared it with a list compiled half a century ago.

The results were not necessarily that surprising. Marriage, Religion and God are all on the decline, Sex and Celebrity are on the increase. Words such as Mobile, Internet and Computer are fairly obvious new arrivals.

The list of disappeared words really does capture the imagination and speak of a world now disappeared. Servant, Plough, Gaiety, Telegraph, Mill, Coal – all are redolent of times gone by. It is good to see Hunger going, but maybe the departure of Handshake points to a decline in manners.

So while the lexicographers of the future consider adding Yolo, Spinout and Noob to their pages in years to come, if they have to make space in printed editions, will Grammar, Comb and Bless be the things that make way? It is a sneak peek of the dictionary of tomorrow.

Not the End of the World. Literally

There has literally never been a reaction like it. The last bastion of linguistic pedantry knocked over. Reams of invective across the media. And why? Because the Oxford English Dictionary has done its job.

Alleged misuse of the word ‘Literally’ is one of the favourite bugbears of those who delight in nothing more than correcting other people’s grammar and bemoaning the apparent desecration of our beautiful language. Literally means ‘in a literal manner, exactly’, rather than its increasingly common usage as a word of emphasis and exaggeration, they say.

Except that the OED disagrees, and has in fact disagreed since 2011. It’s just that nobody noticed until this week that the definition had been extended to include the sense of emphasis, reflecting the way the word is actually used by speakers today.

Of course I wholly endorse the extended definition. As I have said literally thousands of times, language changes and those who document this need to recognise that evolution and record it, which is what has happened here.

What is funny about this story is that it seems to be the straw which has literally broken the camel’s back. There has been a wonderful outpouring of emotion on the subject. The alleged misuse of literally is the linguistic touch paper which stokes up all pedants, so this is the story which has enraged them more than any other.

But of course it is not the death of English as we know it, as some have suggested. It is just an acknowledgement that the English language is always changing, as the strap line of an excellent blog on new words points out.

Those who are upset by this change should literally get over it.