Category Archives: General

General observations on the English Language

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.

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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.

 

Binge-Watch the Surprise Choice

Word of the year season is upon us, and I have been wondering of late what words would end up taking the gongs this year, given the generally disappointing nature of the new words which have emerged during 2015.

So in that respect, the first winner out of the blocks is entirely in keeping with the less than stellar linguistic year we have been through. Collins Dictionaries has chosen ‘Binge-Watch’ as its word of 2015.

Now there is no denying that binge-watching, the viewing of multiple episodes of a television series in a short time span, is on the rise. New viewing habits and on demand video services have changed the nature of the way we watch television, and access to box sets is increasing. My concern is not with the word itself, it is more with the fact that it doesn’t feel to me like this year has been the year when binge-watching has come of age. I think it had already come of age and was already entrenched, and this year has not been significantly different to last year, though Collins do cite a 200% increase in usage. I suspect that growth probably happened the year before as well. I also don’t feel it defines the year, like a good winner should. And it featured in the Oxford Word of the Year shortlist in 2013.

To me, some of the other words on the Collins shortlist are more representative of 2015 than the eventual winner. Corbynomics, the economic policies advocated by the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is included, and Jeremy Corbyn’s influence on the language has already been documented on Wordability this year. Transgender, relating to a person whose gender identity does not fullycorrespond to the sex assigned to them at birth, has been a big discussion point. And Contactless, making payments without signature or PIN, has gone increasingly mainstream this year and would have been a justified winner.

So the benchmark has been set for Word of the Year winners. I hope that subsequent winners will be able to exceed it.

Breastsleeping May be the Answer

One of the difficult issues facing new mothers is feeding their children overnight. The decision over whether or not to have your baby in bed with you is one often fraught with difficulty, with uncertainty over whether it is safe counterbalanced by the fact that for many tired parents, having your child close by is the only realistic option if you want to breast feed.

A pair of researchers may have now solved the problem by writing a paper analysing the practice and coining a term specifically to remove the stigma surrounding it. James McKenna and Lee Gettler propose the word Breastsleeping.

To make the point, they include the term in the title of their paper, which is called: “There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping.” In the abstract they comment that this new word will help to resolve the debate about bedsharing and help researchers understand in greater detail different ways of breastfeeding children.

There has long been a huge debate over whether sleeping with your baby is safe or not, and the creation of this new word is not going to close the issue down. However, it gives legitimacy to the practice by identifying it and analysing it, and the millions of people who do this with their babies may well feel support and backing for their actions by this, especially if the word starts to catch on. And because breastsleeping is so widespread, I think there is a chance that it will.