No Laziness on Climate Change

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.

But one thing that is interesting about the choices for the UK’s two most prominent nominators is how similar their decisions are. Collins Dictionaries went first, picking Climate Strike as word of the year – Oxford Dictionaries has now followed with Climate Emergency.

Climate protestThis 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.

A world of mentrification

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.

Men claim to dominate the computer industry

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.

MeToo Takes on New Power

Twitter hashtags often emerge at key moments to become the defining word of a particular news story. The emergence of #jesuischarlie and its subsequent offspring after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France is a good illustration of a new formation emerging to become the linguistic embodiment of a story, and use of the hashtag and term then gives people the chance to feel part of a story or a movement around it.

These are often new formations, coined specially for the occasion. Less common perhaps is the commandeering of an existing word or phrase to become the flag-bearer for a response to a key event. However, that seems to have changed with the Harvey Weinstein story.

American actress Alyssa Milano encouraged people who had been sexually abused to reply to her tweet with the phrase Me Too:

Very soon afterwards, the hashtag #MeToo was picked up across social media as thousands of people shared their own experiences. #MeToo quickly became a way for people to feel empowered to speak up, and if anything good can come of the scandal which has engulfed Hollywood this week, then it may be that a new term has emerged which people can use as a way of fighting back from those who have mistreated them.

Linguistically, it is also interesting to think about whether this is a short-term use of the term or whether it will become the de facto phrase for people when discussing these issues in the future. It is after all a pretty common turn of phrase, used by many people on a regular basis. This won’t change that, but it may well add an extra nuance of meaning now when people do use it, and may make them stop and think in the future.

When I looked up Me Too on Google this morning, the top link was Meghan Trainor’s video of her song Me Too from last year. Thankfully this didn’t deal with the issues raised by the Weinstein scandal, but was still a song of female empowerment. It has now been replaced at the head of Google’s results by the new developments.

People in product development and marketing also often talk about Me Too products, which are basically copycat products designed to try and replicate the success of commercial rivals, or created so that people don’t feel they have missed out on something. In that sense, a Me Too product is simply about wanting to be part of something and doing whatever it takes to catch up. In the case of the #MeToo hashtag, nobody who is using it has willingly become part of something. It will be interesting to see if this term declines in the marketing world as a result of this new usage.

The Weinstein story has been a harrowing and disturbing one for all those involved. However, if this term can become a way of allowing people to fight back from terrible experiences, then perhaps there can be a better future for those have been abused in the past.

The true meaning of Covfefe

There has been a mass outbreak of new word fever this week after Donald Trump somehow contrived to tweet a word which nobody had ever heard of.

‘Despite the constant negative press covefefe’ he trumpeted, kicking off a social media firestorm as people fell over each other to define the word, use it in a range of hilarious images or generally just throw it into random sentences for comic effect. Even the President himself joined in the fun, with a follow-up tweet building on his earlier apparent error:

How we all laughed and enjoyed the joke – why, even the president was joining in, poking fun at himself, making himself part of a worldwide conversation in which he was in some ways the hero. Good old Donald Trump. Almost symblomatic of the man himself, you might say.

Of course, two days later, Mr Trump pulled the United States out of the global climate accord, risking huge danger to the planet both now and in the future. He was roundly condemned, villified, but at the same time, the covfefe momentum had not slowed.

So, conspiratorially, what if it was no accident? What if it was a deliberately insane tweet?

Therefore I present to you the true definition of Covfefe – a distraction created to make someone seem more human and appealing, thereby attempting to deflect some of the criticism likely to come their way after they do something particularly appalling and devastating.

In which respect, Mr Trump’s covfefe worked rather well.

The dangers of Close Passing

I’m not a cyclist, an irony given that I live in Oxford, but that does mean that I circumnavigate cyclists on a regular basis, and therefore do my level best to leave them in the condition in which I found them.

Until last week, I didn’t know that was a thing. I assumed that giving cyclists some space as you go past them was just normal. But it turns out that I was wrong. Welcome to ‘close passing’.

A safe distance
A safe distance

It’s a term to be welcomed. West Midlands police put the phrase into the news last week by announcing that its force would target drivers who ‘close pass’ cyclists, which means passing less than a metre and half from where they are pedalling. The force’s use of inverted commas around ‘close pass’ suggested that the term was not one in current usage, and a quick scoot around the internet backs that up. This is a behaviour previously without a word to describe it.

But it’s interesting to note some of the other things which emerge online when you search for close passing. Football was always likely, and you can imagine a team renowned for a close passing game using the term in team meetings. Or more worryingly, I found illustrations of asteroids zooming past the Earth. I wonder if some kind of extra-terrestrial police force is up there in the sky now, enforcing a safe ‘close passing’ distance past our planet to protect us from wanton destruction.

I think ‘close passing’ has a good chance of slipping into the driving vernacular, especially in an era which cycling accidents appear to be on the rise. It is a useful term and a more than worthwhile initiative.

Guilty of Lateism

I am not a fan of most reality television, and have never watched reality shows from South Africa. However, a word coined in a recent South African show has quickly gone viral, justifiably so.

A recent episode of Our Perfect Wedding featured the build-up to the wedding of Mr and Mrs Madikane, but with time ticking, a guest walked into the room and in hurrying people up, declared that “lateism is never ever in my gender or calendar.”

Lateism became very popular across social media in South Africa, and not just because of the slightly bizarre sentence in which it featured. It actually left me wondering why we don’t already have this word, as many people have a tendency to be late the whole time, and this word seems to sum up that condition perfectly. I have been accused of it, only sometimes fairly, and I can certainly think of others I know well for whom lateism could be said to be a natural state of being.

So while lateism may be end up being a word which has a brief flourish in South Africa and then disappears again, I think it fufils a valuable gap in the vocabulary and we should try to use it where at all possible.

Maybe lateism never become ‘the late lateism’.

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.