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.

Gay Marriage Already Recognised

The Oxford English Dictionary is thinking about extending its definition of marriage to include Gay Marriage. At least, that is what you would believe if you were to read the coverage this story has received in the last week.

Except it’s not really true. Because the OED has already done it.

The story that prompted the flurry of reaction appeared in the Gay Stay News, quoting an OED spokeswoman as saying: “We continually monitor the words in our dictionaries, paying particular to those words whose usage is shifting, so yes, this will happen with marriage.”

But what appeared to be a significant language story was nothing of the sort, despite the number of sources which then picked it up and used it to further whichever side of the argument they subscribe to. Because when Wordability contacted the OED, I got the following statement:

“Many of our dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as oxforddictionaries.com, already include references to same sex-marriage as part of their definitions. Dictionaries reflect changes in the use of language, rather than changes in law, and we are constantly monitoring usage in this area in order to consider what revisions and updates we may need to make. The English language is always developing and, along with many other words, we will continue to monitor the way in which ‘marriage’ is used.”

Here is a link to the definition, which includes the meaning “(in some jurisdictions) a union between partners of the same sex”. Now that seems pretty cut and dried to me. What is weird is that this definition is included in the Gay Star Times story, but never let that get in the way of a good headline. The story dismisses it by saying that campaigners object to this definition, calling it discriminatory, beause if it is law in any country it should be on the same ‘ranking’ as a heterosexual union.

I am happy to admit there may be minutiae of this debate that I don’t understand, but it seems to be that this is a pretty good position for campaigners. The most highly regarded dictionary in the world already has the definition included, and also acknowledges that it is a changing situation. But what it doesn’t do is in any way suggest that an alternative word is needed, as many daft people have continued to argue and Wordability has continually battled against.

It would seem only a matter of time before the OED definition evolves again, and with the gay marriage meaning already encapsulated, it appears that the correct linguistic conclusion will be reached for this particular story.

A Shitstorm in Germany

Good to see that an English word has gone down a storm in Germany. A shitstorm, in fact.

Fresh from celebrating its success as Anglicism of the Year in 2012, shitstorm has now achieved official recognition by being included in Duden, Germany’s foremost dictionary.

The word really came to prominence during the Eurozone crisis, and was picked up by Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, its Germanic usage differs from its original English sense of total chaos to mean a storm of protest, primarily on the internet.

While it is obviously good to see English invading German, it is a shame that the Germans didn’t coin their own new word for this, perhaps one of their famous compound nouns? After all, the language is still on the lookout for a successor to Rindfleischetikettierungsueberwachungs-aufgabenuebertragungsgesetz, the longest word in the language which famously bit the dust a few weeks ago.

Maybe we should push for Germany to vote for flockynockynihilipilification as its next English word of the year.

Tweets Point to Fresh OED Future

I have often bemoaned the length of time it takes for the Oxford English Dictionary to include new words in its official annals. But I also recognise that the OED cannot include anything and everything as soon as it emerges, as it is the ultimate record of words in the English language and can only include those words that are here to stay.

But now there is evidence that things might be about to speed up, albeit that this is only in proportion to the previous tardiness. Alongside its raft of new but strangely familiar words, such as e-reader, dad dancing and fiscal cliff, the new OED update contains an expansion of the meaning of Tweet, to include its social media senses for both noun and verb.

What, I hear you say, it’s only just been included, surely that’s been around for ages. Correct, I retort, but in OED terms, it is still a veritable foetus, not yet born to lexicographical life. And yet it now appears. In what was termed ‘A Quiet Announcement’ in a piece by chief editor John Simpson, he said that the definition breaks an OED rule, namely that a word has to be in use for 10 years before being considered for inclusion, with Tweet in its Twitter sense numbering around six years. As a reason for inclusion, Mr Simpson jokes: “But it seems to be catching on.”

I wonder if this is a sign of things to come. Will the fact that things now ‘catch on’ much quicker mean that as time goes on, OED rules will finally become a little less stringent? Will the new speed with which words become entrenched in the language finally mean a new fast track to their official recognition. I do hope so. Language evolution has been changed forever by technology, and those who work in this world need to recognise and respond to that. Let this be the start of that change.

How To Ungoogle The Dictionary

We all know that Google’s influence on our everyday lives is huge, and Wordability has written in the past about how it affects language. But rather than allowing that influence to just exist naturally, the technology giant has now taken action to directly influence a dictionary definition. The result has been that lexicography has shot into public consciousness around the world.

Google’s beef is with the Language Council of Sweden, which included the word “ogooglebar” or “ungoogleable” in its list of top words of 2012. The definition given was ‘something which cannot be found with a search engine’. However, Google objected, saying that the definition should only refer to being unable to find something when using Google, rather than any generic search engine.

Not wishing to be dictated to, or to enter into lengthy legal proceedings, the Language Council removed the word completely, while launching a robust defence of the word and criticising Google for their stance.

Sweden seems to be a hotbed of language innovation, and those who look after the language there need to be applauded for their reaction to this. Of course Google cannot dictate what should or shouldn’t be in a dictionary. Frankly they should be flattered that their company name has entered the hallowed turf trodden by Hoover or Portakabin, trade names which have crossed the divide from a single brand to become the generic term for anything in that genre. When the brand becomes the definitive word, surely it is a sign for those behind the brand that the battle is won.

Anybody using ungoogleable, or indeed Google as a verb, is using it in a generic form. Yes, most of us actually use Google itself when performing a web search, but I doubt we are thinking about that fact if we use the word, we are using it to mean search the internet. I was surprised to see that official definitions of “to Google” mention Google in them, rather than the generic act. Presumably others have been wary of the Google trademark police.

But I think the most telling thing of all is a quote given by Google to the BBC. A spokesman said: “While Google, like many businesses, takes routine steps to protect our trademark, we are pleased that users connect the Google name with great search results.” And maybe that is the point. Maybe the company is actually quite pleased when Google is used to mean generic searching, but steps in when any negative definition comes along. But the incident has not served at all to link the company with great search results in people’s minds. In fact, it simply reinforces the view that Google controls everything we do. And is now seeking to influence the meaning of words. Which, of course, it can’t.

Canberra Bashing Comes of Age

I must admit to never having heard the word Canberra Bashing. I am a little ashamed of this, given my Australian wife and reasonable lengths of time spent in the country as a result. But no matter.

Canberra Bashing has been added to the Australian National Dictionary. This publication catalogues words which are quintessentially Australian and say something about the history and culture of the country, and lexicographers feel that Canberra Bashing is a term which fits the bill.

The word has two meanings: one is the act of criticising the Australian federal government and its beaurocracy, giving it a more generic meaning of knocking authority; the other is the more parochial act of criticising the city of Canberra and its inhabitants. I have been to the Australian capital once in my life and, as I recall, l was probably guilty of Canberra bashing on my return, albeit that I didn’t know there was a handy word which to describe it.

This is clearly an Australian word, with local resonance, so it is virtually certain that it will not become a part of vocabulary in the wider English-speaking word. However, it would be nice to think that bashing could start to take on suffix duties in the manner of a -gate or a -leaks. Imagine the bashing fun we could have by appending it to all manner of places and people who provoke our ire. It’s a whole new world of word formation which I am fully in favour of.

I also think that changes in Australian English really encapsulate the straight-talking nature of its people. A word localised to Canberra which has also just achieved official recognition by the Australian National Dictionary is the one used as a term for public servants. They are referred to as Pubes. It’s a great example of an apparently simple term which says so much about what people really think.

The Baggy Green Guide To Bikers

The media coverage of the latest Oxford Dictionary online update has reversed the usual trend. Newly-added words tend to dominate the headlines. But on this occasion, it is a redefinition that has captured people’s attention.

Previously, biker has been defined as: ‘A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member  of a gang: a long-haired biker in dirty denims’. However, OED lexicographers have bowed to pressure from the biking community and removed the reference to grubbiness, with the new definition emerging as ‘A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang or group: a biker was involved in a collision with a car.’

While bikers are understood to be pleased with the decision, they may now have to deal with the fact that their mucky tendencies have been replaced in the definition by a slight on their safety record. I look forward to a future definition with the example ‘A clean-cut respectable-looking biker rode along the street and nothing of note happened at all’.

Mind you, if the OED wants to think about redefinitions, maybe it should start to ponder the meaning of the word ‘new’. After all, these quarterly updates always trumpet the new words being given status and inevitably, many of them are not that new, and I end up venting my anger about archaic words being celebrated for their novelty.

But I do feel that this quarter’s update has hit a new temporal low. As a cricket fan, I know that Baggy Green has become popularised in the last 20 years. But Australian cricketers have been donning them since time immemorial once they make the national team, so to acknowledge it now seems bizarre.

Even more bizarre is the arrival of Torch Relay and Olympic Flame. I know these really hit public consciousness during the London Olympics in 2012, but there were genuine new words associated with the torch relay such as Mother Flame, rather than terms, and indeed an event, that have been around for decades.

Or to use another apparently new word, I think this update is a bit of a mare.

A Sombre Way To End The Year

A sombre word of the year to end 2012. Lexicographers at the Australian National Dictionary Centre have recognised the growing trend in Afghanistan for soldiers to die at the hands of their supposed Afghan colleagues. ‘Green-on–blue’ deaths have shot up in the last 12 months, affecting Australians in particular, and so ‘green-on-blue’ is the Australian word of the year.

The move typifies the downbeat nature of many of this year’s choices, from Omnishambles to Bluster, reflecting a sense that the last 12 months have been a difficult affair. And while that has been true, it has not been wholly the case. The Olympics-engendered feelgood summer in England was anything but depressing, and even though all of us who lived it knew it was an oasis away from the daily storm, it was no less enjoyable for all of that and no less a part of the year that has been.

Only the Van Dale dictionary in the Netherlands seems have come up with something more positive, with its Dutch word of the year unveiled as Project X-feest, a party organised via social media which ends up in a riot. Positive with a hint of negative, really.

The complexity of the year, together with the sense that one negative word doesn’t do it justice, was the reason for Wordability’s decision to go with five words of the year, each summing up a particular aspect of 2012. And if you want to rediscover those words in print as well as on your kindle, you now can,  as Eastwooding with the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012 is now available as a paperback in addition to the electronic version.

So as the year draws to a close, what can we expect in 2013. Well, assuming the Mayans were wrong, we can reasonably expect more depression, more hardship and more new words which reflect the dispirited mood which pervades the globe.

But I hope we see more than that, and we see linguistic creativity continue to flourish in a positive way, giving us new words which not only make us smile but also sum up things which have occurred which have made people’s lives a little richer.

A Year Full of Bluster

I find myself at odds with dictionary.com following the announcement of its word of the year. The online dictionary has gone with Bluster as its word of 2012.

The choice is unexpected, as was Tergiversate in 2011. But it’s not that I mind the word that much, or the reasons for choosing it. I always prefer a word of the year to be something coined in that year, but dictionary.com made it clear last year that this was not a prerequisite in its selection procedure, so I will let it go.

The reasons for the selection are cogent – it has been a year of political bluster across the globe and meteorological bluster from the skies. So it is a neat word which ties together the controllable and uncontrollable elements of the last 12 months.

But what I really disagree with was the editors’ assertion that this has been a year which has been “lexicographically quiet”, to borrow their phrase. As the entries in Wordability should have demonstrated, 2012 has been anything but. Not only have there been some entertaining words coined in 2012, confirming the delicious flexibility of the language, but linguistic issues have also sparked significant debates, showing that language matters to people to a high degree. Just look back on Misogyny, Gay Marriage or Swedish Pronouns to see what I mean. It has been a year when issues of meaning and definition have hit the mainstream media.

So maybe Bluster is a good choice after all. It’s just that the bluster has extended to semantic matters as well.

A Shambles of a Year

In many ways, the Oxford Dictionary choice of Omnishambles as the word of the year is an excellent one. It’s a great word, it sums up the mood of the times and it has become hugely popular during 2012.

But I can’t help being a little disappointed. As I said some months ago when the word flew back into public consciousness, it is not an original 2012 word. Omnishambles was actually coined in 2009 in the political comedy The Thick of It, and only now has it crossed from the Westminster to the global village. It would have been much more satisfying if the OED word of the year was one that came into being this year, as previous winners have been, rather than one which has simply been popularised.

I also wonder about the Oxford relationship with Labour leader Ed Miliband. Last year’s winner, Squeezed Middle, was coined by Mr Miliband, while the first recorded use this year also came from him, during Prime Minister’s Questions. Clearly we need to listen to what young Ed says next year if we want to take bets on the winner for 2013.

I was certainly surprised by the OED’s US word of the year, GIF, a computing term which has been around for a quarter of a century. They said it had really come into its own in 2012. But I must say in the tracking I have been doing throughout the year, it was not something I had really paid attention to.

There were some good words on the two shortlists, with Games Makers, To Medal, and Mobot representing the Olympics, and pleb reminding us of Andrew Mitchell. In the US I was pleased to see perennial Wordability favourite Nomophobia, fear of losing your mobile phone, under consideration.

Of course it is easy to carp. What are your words of the year, I hear you saying? Well fear not. I shall reveal my words of the year in the next couple of weeks, together with a very special announcement. And even though Omnishambles has certainly been on my shortlist as well, I can confirm now that it won’t be the winner.