The true legacy of Boaty McBoatface

Not Boaty (image NERC)

It’s the boat I feel sorry for. At the centre of the cocked-up attempt to get the public on board with naming a new research vessel, there is a boat which has no knowledge of the column inches devoted to its moniker. But it seems absolutely certain that it will never be called Boaty McBoatface.

I don’t need to recount the story here. It is well documented that the Natural Environment Research Council elicited help from the public with the naming of its new multi-million pound research vessel, and once the ludicrous but hilarious suggestion of Boaty McBoatface took hold, well there was only going to be one winner. And equally inevitably, it was never really likely that a boat of serious purpose would sail off into chillier climbs with such stupidity emblazoned on its hull.

I am leaving it to others to debate the rights and wrongs of this incident, whether it is funny or not, what David Attenborough thinks and so on. Wordability’s interest is obviously more from the English language point of view, because even though this campaign has made no difference to the boat, it may have inadvertently changed the language itself.

It hasn’t taken long for Boaty’s cousins to come to the fore, with Trainy McTrainface and Horsey McHorseface now well documented. Only this week, a poll to rename a Texan school sees Schoolie McSchoolface in the running. Now it has started, it may never stop.

So the legacy of the Boaty McBoatface story is not that it will bequeath a newly named ship with a name for eternity, but rather it has added a new linguistic twist to the English language, ensuring that whenever the subject of new names is debated, Namey Mc Nameface will bubble to the top of the list.

And maybe that linguistic change will be Boaty’s ultimate legacy. Because next time somebody decides it is a good idea to ask the public to help name something, Boaty will inevitably bob into view as a warning against doing that. And if that is enough to put them off and force people to make decisions for themselves without bothering the rest of us, then Boaty has done its job.

Snowzilla Makes Storm Unforgettable

There’s nothing like giving something a really good name to cement it in people’s minds. But if we have learnt anything from recent significant weather events, it is that those doing the naming perhaps need to be a little more creative.

I first started thinking about this towards the end of the last year, when the UK was hit by a series of storms. This was the first time that winter storms had carried names, following a Met Office appeal, and the style was very much in keeping with the way that cyclones and hurricanes are named, with an alphabetical list of forenames serving as the pre-ordained names for the storms as they occurred.

I began to wonder whether there were more storms than normal or there was a perception of more storms than normal, because the fact that they were now being named gave them more of an identity and so reinforced the notion that their frequency was becoming greater. I did discuss this with a weather expert, who said that the weather was pretty much the same as every year. But I think the naming aspect somehow made the overall effect seem greater.

The names themselves were not that striking. Even Desmond, which wrought the most havoc, seemed indistinguishable from the rest, with the name not really giving any sense of the ferocity of the event and the luck of the draw meaning that anybody called Desmond might forever be associated with giant floods and howling gales. The names were in fact chosen by the public, but the limited parameters of choice contributed to the less than inspiring list.

How much better it would be if those options could actually describe the events with which they are associated.

So all hail the Washington Post, which decided that the snow event which has just engulfed the North East of the United States needed a proper name to describe both the event as it happened and to immortalise it in the annals of dreadful snowfalls. They held a much more insightful poll, and while they didn’t actually pick the poll’s winner, because let’s be honest ‘Make Winter Great Again’ is not a name which trips happily off the tongue, the runner-up, Snowzilla, clearly does fulfil the brief in every respect.

Embed from Getty Images

So Snowzilla it will be now and forever more, and of course it’s brilliant because it sums up the scale and ferocity of the snow blast, it is slightly irreverent but also encapsulates the danger that turned out to be all too real. And it will make people pay a lot more attention than ‘Winter Storm Jonas’, the official original title, now lost in the drifts.

This isn’t the first time that Wordability has noted the use of –zilla as a suffix, but it is not common, and frankly the Avozilla described previously was a bit of a limp offering. Snowzilla may see a new influx of –zilla related words emerging. And it may also prove that when there is a big weather event in the offing, it may be best to turn to find a truly creative way to name it.

The Cost of Changing Your Name

It has been the best month I can ever remember for stories about names. Wordability has written in the past about how changing the name of something changes how we see it. What has been interesting this month is to see how many times names have been changed because of the demands of sponsors, and what impact this has had.

First there is the positive, and Farnborough Town’s deal with bookmaker Paddy Power. To get the money, all of Farnborough’s players had to change their names by deed poll. So instead of  Reece Jones, Stephen Laidler and Scott Donnelly read George Best, Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham, while Pele and Lionel Messi are all, genuinely, in the line-up. Manager Jose Mourinho just adds to the comedy. The result of all this is an entertaining story and something genuinely amusing.

Compare this to the reaction to Merthyr Tydfil, who signed a sponsorship deal with an electronic cigarette firm and renamed their ground the Cigg-E Stadium as a result. No laughs this time, instead controversy about the promotion of something which has unknown ramifications on health.

And then there was the name change story which never was. Tennis star Maria Sharapova was supposedly going to change her name by deed poll to Sugarpova for the duration of the US Open in order to promote her Sugarpova line of sweets. Of course this was never going to happen, and simply provided superb publicity for the product, but the idea of the umpires announcing ‘Advantage Miss Sugarpova’ was absurd enough to be ridiculed globally.

So what does all this go to show? That as naming rights become an increasingly important part of sponsorship deals, the name that you choose is absolutely vital. I have said before that we become used to names and our sense of what a person or place is like is governed by what their name is, so to change that is to change our very perception of that entity. In all these cases, perceptions have been changed by the name changes – Farnborough’s players are imbued with ability that they probably don’t have, but may even play better because of their new monikers; Merthyr’s directors find their ground may be perceived as an unhealthy place to go; and Maria Sharapova would have been, well, just silly really.

It was also the month that the latest lists of the most popular names in Britain were unveiled, with Harry and Amelia’s continued lead slightly masking the changes happening underneath. It is not so much that newer names are coming into vogue, it is more that names like John and Rebecca have dipped out of the top 100, which shows how naming fashions are changing at the moment.

But perhaps the most intriguing story came from Tennessee, where a judge, who was not even supposed to be ruling on the subject of a child’s first name, nevertheless ordered that he could no longer be called Messiah, and had to be known as Martin instead. He felt that it would be unfair on the child to grow up with this name in a predominantly Christian locale, adding that Messiah is a title, not a name.

This story above all others shows that what somebody or something is called directly impacts on how we see them. Quotes from the child’s mother suggest she simply saw him as her son with a name she liked the sound of. The growth of Messiah as a first name in the States confirms many agree with her. And yet the perception of that child was different in the judge’s eyes and he saw a different future for that person as a result.

Having named my own child in the last few months, I know just how onerous a responsibility naming can be. And this month’s rash of stories proves the ramifications of getting it wrong.

When Is a Pope Not a Pope?

It is unlikely that during the tumultuous few day which have just passed in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI thought much about the linguistic ramifications of his decision to stand down. But an act unprecedented in modern times created a linguistic vacuum which had to be filled. And that chasm was the question of what to call a living Pope when he is no longer a Pope.

I don’t think this was really much of a concern when Gregory XII quit in 1415. There wasn’t a hungry news cycle or hordes of social networks crying out for an epithet with which to title the newly unemployed holy man. But in the 21st century, one of the key questions is what new title do you come up with for a role that nobody ever thought would need to be filled. So step forward Pope Emeritus.

It’s a really interesting example of a title that almost creates more problems than it solves. And it is simply the inclusion of the word ‘Pope’ that does it. The situation will surely be difficult enough for the next Pope to have to take over when his predecessor is still alive, and therefore in the eyes of some still in his role. So for him to still be called Pope, as well as the fact that he will be living close by, could simply make things harder.

Of course, the other issue is that the Vatican could be sued, with Oakland Rapper Pope Emeritus threatening action to protect the name he has performed under since 2006. I suspect the ecumenical issues will provide bigger concerns than the legal ones.

But job titles really are very important for how people cope with their roles. Even if the newly-named Pope Emeritus simply slips into the background and there are no problems at all, we can look elsewhere for confirmation. Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez proved it this week with his stupendous rant about everything, in particular his job title. Calling him ‘Interim Manager’ has clearly left him feeling angry and undermined, it has been a simple thing which he feels has profoundly affected his ability to do his job.

Of course drawing a connection between the Pope and a football manager is doing at least one of them a disservice, but to complete the analogy, just think about what might happen at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson finally calls it a day.

When Sir Matt Busby stepped down from the hot seat, his continued presence at the club made things difficult for his successors. When Sir Alex finally goes, his shadow will inevitably hang over the next man in the role. So imagine him sitting in the best seat in the ground while bearing the title ‘Manager Emeritus’. Think how difficult that would be for the new incumbent. Correct, very difficult. And that’s just how it might be for the new Pope.

Frankenstorm May Be Monster Mistake

Sometimes people can just get a new word wrong. It must have seemed such a good linguistic idea  when Hurricane Sandy started its progression northwards up the eastern United States and prepared to amalgamate with other systems, so creating a super storm. What a great joke to dub it Frankenstorm, a monster storm for the Halloween season.

The problem is of course that it sounds funny, it automatically raises a smile as a word. But given the devastation that Frankenstorm is now predicted to wreak, it is a hollow and wholly inappropriate joke, where the name selected completely undermines the seriousness of what is expected to happen.

At the time of writing this, I don’t know whether the dire predictions for New York came true. It may be that it turned out to be a Frankenstorm in a teacup, and the name will have gone back to being a bogeyman-type appendage that gets wheeled out in the future as a way of scaring people when the wind begins to howl.

But if havoc ensued, then Frankenstorm will forever be remembered in a ghoulish way and any humour associated with the initial coining will have vanished.

Stoptober? No, Just Stop!

The UK Government’s upcoming campaign to try and help people give up smoking is a noble effort. Less noble is the linguistic approach they have taken to try and sell their campaign. They want you to stop smoking for 28 days in October. So welcome to Stoptober.

I fear we could be on a slippery slope here. Just because Movember is now well established in the lexicon and the calendar as the month in which men sprout facial hair and collect money for cancer charities, it doesn’t mean that we can all now jump on the bandwagon, grab a month and attempt to rename it as a way of promoting our own campaign. Stoptober feels a little like this to me.

And where will it end? Let’s run a series of self-help sessions to lift people’s morale – welcome to Peptember. What if people need it after a period where they have found life really dull – good old Boregust. And how about Christmas conviviality, and a month leading up to it which is full of drinking. Well, I’ll leave you to your own December conclusions.

Good luck to the Department of Health, and to all those people who want to give up smoking and who manage to achieve it because of this campaign. But world at large, please don’t continue to adopt months, change their names, and assume you will get instant success. Or it’s Banuary for all of you.

Staines-Upon-Thames I Hardly Knew You

And so it’s true. Staines, that humble town in Surrey, or Middlesex, depending on your point of view, is no more. From now on, it is Staines-upon-Thames.

Why do I care? Here I declare my personal interest. I was brought up in Staines. My father ran a business there for years. My grandfather was the mayor. There is even a road named after my family.

Why does Wordability care? Well, as  argued when Newcastle United announced plans to rename St James’ Park, names matter. They are fundamental words which define the way we see things, and changing long-established ones can cause immense upheaval.

The good people of Staines have decided enough of derision, enough of the Ali G association. They say that Staines is a vibrant town with an enviable riverside location, and by recognising that in the name, it will immeasurably improve the town’s standing and perception.

A commendable argument. But wrong, I think, in a peculiarly 21st century way. If the council had decided this 100 years ago, not many people would have noticed. They could have subtly introduced the name, changed signs, letterheads and so on, and people would have gradually become aware of the change and accepted it

But in the interconnected modern world, where Ali G is infamous and the internet has spread the story far and wide, it has opened the decision up to potential ridicule which can spread across the world. So rather than people merely accepting the decision, it automatically comes coloured with the comments, the links and the opinions of countless people that this is a pointless and slightly laughable exercise.

While there will be official efforts next year to implement the name, everybody will still refer to it as Staines. Who talks about Richmond-upon-Thames or Kingston-upon-Hull? Probably only the councillors who thought this was a good idea in the first place.

And if people ask me where I am from, the answer will still be Staines. Because in reality, that will still be its name.

What’s In a Name? Just ask Newcastle fans

There was a predictable outcry after Newcastle United announced that their St James’ Park ground is to be renamed the Sports Direct Arena. But putting aside football loyalty, why was this reaction inevitable from a linguistic point of view?

Names may not seem an obvious choice of subject for Wordability, interested as it is in new words and usages in the English Language. Proper names seem somehow outside the normal run of language, and when they are coined, it is not part of a language’s evolution. But proper nouns are fundamental to language and are words we use all the time, so when new names are used, our reaction to them is just as valid as it would be to any other kind of new word. Justification over.

I actually think about people’s names quite often. It is one of the most defining characteristics we have, and yet it is something over which we had no control. It was a decision taken about us by others, possibly before we had even been born, and people may form immediate opinions about us from our name before they have even met us. Don’t believe me? If I told you Tarquin and Persephone were coming round for dinner, you would prepare something different to what you would cook if I said that Wayne and Sharon were popping over.

Of course people do shorten their names, adopt nicknames, use middle names, add variety to the names they were given to help define their personality. But it is much harder to adapt when somebody makes an active change to their name and expects you to get used to it. I knew someone who used different names for different periods of their life, so depending on who you you spoke to about them, they used totally different names to discuss them. Other friends have decided to stop abbreviating their names, but I find it impossible to adjust. Andy, that’s you!

And this is equally true of celebrities. Former footballer Andy Cole suddenly announced he wanted to be known as Andrew Cole. Every time commentators mentioned him, I assumed they were referring to someone I had never heard of. Prince became a squiggle, and all people could do was call him the artist formerly known as Prince. Choosing an emblem has its problems, and had Prince really wanted to make a change, he should have chosen another name. Derek, perhaps.

Which brings us back to Newcastle. The reason that the change to the Sports Direct Arena is so hard for fans to take is that it is like having to use a new word, it is like being told that there has been a fundamental change in the English language, and from now on you have to refer to bread as bacon and to bacon as toast. It is impossible to do. That name is locked in your head as the right word to use for that stadium, and you can’t unlearn a word in your native tongue and replace it with something else.

It’s fine with new stadia. They are brand new concepts, if you like, so they need a new word to describe them. The fact that many of them are sponsored is irrelevant, and if they then go on to change their name again, so what, you hardly had time to get used to it in the first place. Leicester now play at the King Power Stadium. Before that, it was the Walker’s Stadium. Only fan power stopped it being called The Walker’s Bowl before that. Fans know something about what stadia should be called. Newcastle be warned.