Why Fake News is Fake

Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.

It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.

So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.

And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.

Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.

Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.

What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.

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When is a Vote not a Vote?

When I studied linguistics, I was very taken by the concept of a Speech Act. This is the idea that by saying something in a certain context, it becomes more than just an utterance and instead actually causes something to change. A person could say “”I do” as many times as they want, but if they say it in front of a designated celebrant, while holding a ring and staring lovingly into the eyes of another human being, the phrase takes on the force of performing an action.

I have been pondering this concept during the last few weeks of Brexit madness in relation to the concept of a vote, or what makes a vote an actual vote. Clearly, me putting a cross on a random piece of paper is simply me doing a doodle. Me putting a cross on an official piece of paper and putting it into the designated box is me expressing my opinion, having it recorded and contributing to an overall result. To Vote means to perform a specifically prescribed action at the anointed time in the appointed place.

It seems to me that over the last few weeks, we have lost our sense of what the word vote actually means. It should always be enough to say that when there is a vote on something, it is clear and straightforward, and once the result comes in, then that is the end of the matter. But such is the controversy that swirls around the big dilemmas currently facing us, that it has become necessary to characterise voting in specific ways, as if by elevating it from just voting itself, it will somehow have more import.

I am not the first person to point out that any vote in the UK Parliament should be meaningful (unless it is one of the now much talked about “indicative” votes, of course). After all, what is the point of MPs spending their time voting for something if there isn’t a reason for it? And yet, the phrase ‘Meaningful Vote’ has crept into into our discourse to characterise the definitive judgement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

Remember, she never wanted such a vote to begin with, and was only bounced into holding a vote at all by a ruling from the Supreme Court. And the phrase meaningful vote passed from being what seemed a vague term to describe the final vote to the title of the vote itself, with its sequels of Meaningful Vote 2 or MV3 sounding like a bad film franchise rather than the political horror movie they actually are.

But now that it has become a title, rather than the description of an activity, it has lost the essence of voting and become instead the backdrop to arguments and in-fighting. If another Meaningful Vote is to be held, it is no longer really about settling the Brexit debate and more about working out what it means for Theresa May or the future of the Government. People will not necessarily vote for the motion but for how their vote will be interpreted. Meaningful, but not in the way originally intended.

Meanwhile, the proponents of a second referendum have very cleverly hijacked the word Vote for their own ends with the term People’s Vote, trying to characterise another referendum as something different to what it actually is. Every national election held in the UK is a people’s vote, so the actual term a People’s Vote is tautological. But by defining it in these terms, it is an attempt to make it sound bigger and more inclusive than it actually is. Ardent Brexiteers say it is simply a chance to have another go, being promoted by people who didn’t like the result the first time round, a betrayal of democracy. Whether it is or not is not a matter for Wordability. But it does come across as a manipulative use of the English language to make something sound distinct from what is actually being proposed.

There are many countries in the world where democracy is a sham and the word vote has no actual meaning, even if people are invited to cast an opinion every so often. Many who voted leave in the 2016 Referendum already feel this way and feel that their vote is at risk of being rendered meaningless by the voting that has happened subsequent to this.

It is a huge concern that in the home of the ‘mother of parliaments’, the meaning of the word vote seems to be under such pressure.

English in the Shithole

Back in the day when Wordability was just a twinkle in my eye, there was no way I would have written the above headline. After all, certain words were simply taboo, and any self-respecting publication would have an asterisk policy in place and would give serious thought to whether the asterisks themselves were acceptable in such a prominent place.

Not any more. Now, apparently shithole is journalistically acceptable. And while it is generally regarded as being unacceptable language for a president, its general appearance across the world’s media last week in its unexpurgated form signalled that for swear words, the landscape has now changed.

The reality is, that our swear words have undergone a metamorphosis over the last few years, so that those things which were taboo to say and write when I was growing up, are now regarded as acceptable, normal, not even that shocking any more. Shithole is clearly de rigeur, annoyed people say they are ‘pissed’ on TV programmes all the time, ‘bloody’ and ‘bollocks’ seem to be barely swear words at all.

And as for the language my five-year-old uses, if I’d used words like ‘bum’ and ‘fart’ in polite company at his age, that company would have been a lot less polite in reminding me that saying such things was unacceptable. Now they seem to be normal words in a child’s vocabulary.

So is it a bad thing that our swear words seem to have become less, well, sweary? I actually think it is, in many ways. After all, we need taboo words because they serve a function. They allow us to relieve stress in a way that no other form of language can. They’re funny when used in the right context. And they carry a necessary ability to shock when used in particular circumstances. President Trump’s alleged shithole remark shocked because it was not the context to use such a word. But in our everyday lives now, swearing has become so much the norm and the potency of certain words has reduced so much, that we are no longer surprised at what we hear and more likely to swear ourselves as part of our normal discourse.

Certain words are still of course completely taboo in polite conversation, but if the current trend is to reach its natural conclusion, then even the f word might eventually become the kind of thing you could say to your grandmother without expecting her to keel over from the shock. And if our litany of swear words is to evolve into a collection which is just mildly rude, then we will need some new words to take their place, some neologisms, preferably related to bodily functions, to emerge from the gloom as our profanities of choice.

Donald Trump’s diplomacy skills have reminded us that cursing in the English language is something which is definitely changing. May that be his most damaging legacy.

The rise of the Stabilitocracy

One of my favourite words in the early days of Wordability was Ineptocracy, defined as “a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing.” Given the events of the last couple of years in the US and the UK, it seems surprising that Ineptocracy has not come back into vogue.

However, a recently formed word with similar linguistic roots does seem to have more chance of becoming established as it skilfully manages to describe an evolving phenomenon in the realm of geo-politics.

Flag of Montenegro

Writing at the end of last year, Srđa Pavlović, who teaches at the University of Alberta, described Montenegro as a Stabilitocracy. His piece argued that despite evidence of corruption and voting irregularities within the country, the support conferred by the West on Prime Minister Milo Đukanović gave him and the country a sense of status and legitimacy, and this created the illusion of a totally stable country while glossing over the issues bubbling under the surface.

Sometimes, a term just works, and this is one such word, because Stabilitocracy has been picked up by others and is already being extended to other democracies where an apparent stability is not truly representative of the true nature of the country, especially across the wider Balkan region. The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group has used the word to title a recent publication.

Aware of how the term has been used, Dr Pavlovic himself has published a detailed follow-up about how the term really encapsulates the relationship the West has with many of these emerging nations, skilfully demonstrating that by supporting what appears to be stability on the surface, the West risks creating longer-term issues. His point that Stabilitocracy “as a rule, produces everything but stability and security. More often than not, it legitimises the existing animosity towards the West and helps new resentment emerge and thrive where there was none,” is a disturbing description of what the future might be in these nations. The blog as a whole is an excellent read and demonstrates how sometimes, finding the right term can lead to a detailed and nuanced analysis of a complex situation which was not previously possible.

I have one quibble – I am finding Stabilitocracy a difficult word to say, and an even more difficult one to type. I keep having to slow down as I write to ensure I have got it right, which can affect the flow of my thoughts. A prosaic issue, but a practical one, which may hamper its chances of breaking out of what I am sure is a certain academic future into a more media-driven mainstream one.

That would be a shame. Stabilitocracy is a new term which is genuinely useful and perfectly captures a new and changing situation in modern politics, and I hope it comes to gain greater usage in time.

An Unpresidented Presidency

Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency this year has already made an indelible mark on the English language. Phrases like ‘Drain the Swamp’ and ‘Lock her up’ became an integral part of his campaign rhetoric and are continuing to be widely used, showing the power of finding the right terms and sticking with them in order to get your message across.

But one entertaining linguistic legacy of this year is a word which isn’t a word, and ceased to exist almost immediately after its brief birth on social media. In a tweet where he accused the Chinese of stealing a US drone, he described it as an ‘Unpresidented’ act. The word was swiftly deleted in favour of the always intended ‘Unprecedented’. But the power of the President Elect’s Twitter ramblings is such that once there has been a social media utterance, it will never go away again.

Amusingly, the Guardian newspaper promptly picked Unpresidented as its word of the year, and coined various definitions to do with unfitness for Presidency, the carrying out of un-Presidential acts or the saying of things which people are not really thinking at all.

Unpresidented is already showing signs of catching on in the arena in which it was first coined, with derogatory tweets about the incoming president being marked with an Unpresidented hashtag. It also gives commentators a term which in some ways encapsulates the astonishing sequence of events which we have seen unravel in the US this year. Don’t be surprised if this word is used to describe some of Mr Trump’s actions post-inauguration and he ends up being hoist by his own Twitter petard.

It is also not the first time that the Donald has used a non-word which people have nonetheless been interested in. I wrote some years ago about the word Symblomatic, which he used when discussing the Oscars. I found that searches for the word kept bringing traffic back to Wordability for quite some time after he said it, so even four years ago, there was an interest in Mr Trump’s peculiar regard for the English language.

The difference this time though is that any linguistic mistakes he makes from January 20 next year could have rather more far-reaching consequences.

Will The Whitelash Last?

One of the strangest things about the tumultuous political events of this year is that the reality of what it will all mean is still to come. 2016 is the year of Trump, the year of Brexit. But in some senses, it isn’t at all. The effects of the Trump presidency will not be fully felt until the start of 2017, the ramifications of Brexit will play out over a number of years. This is the year when the world changed – the next few years will tell us how much.

From a linguistic point of view, it is inevitable that new words and phrases will start to come into our language as the new realities take effect. One that has been around since last year is Trumpism, but interestingly it still feels a little like a word in search of a fully defined meaning. What is clear is that in the short-term, it will be used as the catch-all headline term for all policies and agendas set by the future US President, and a clear understanding of the values it represents will only really become apparent over the next few months.

A clearer word emerged in the immediate aftermath of the election. CNN commentator Van Jones felt that the result could partly be explained by a backlash of white people in the States against a black president, while the other issues of racism present in those working definitions of Trumpism also played their part. He termed the reaction a Whitelash, a word that has quickly caught hold and become of the key buzzwords that commentators the world over have used when describing the result.

It is understandable and tempting for people to hang on to words such as this as they seek to make sense of the week we have just witnessed. The reason this one seems to work is that it gets to the heart of one of the key issues of the election and brings to the fore issues of racism which are disturbing to many of us, making those ideas central to the overall result. I suspect that the term whitelash will be around in political comment for some time to come, especially with a round of volatile elections in Europe just around the corner.

On a lighter note, it was almost inevitable that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would try to get in on the act. He has been reusing Gloomadon Poppers with almost monotonous regularity over the last few months, but this week tried for a new entry in the annals of words that nobody will ever use with ‘whinge-o-rama’, saying that the collective whinge-o-rama over the Trump victory had to stop. I wonder if there was a whinge-o-rama in the Johnson household when his bid to become Prime Minister became unstuck? There may well be one when he finds that yet another of his neologisms has disappeared without a trace.

Four years ago, I wrote a number of blog posts about Mitt Romney and his almost insatiable need to mangle the English language at any given opportunity. But this year’s election does not feel like a time to make jokes about the way words are used. I now need to keep track of the words and phrases used by the new administration to see how language is being modfied to exert influence and whether words are being coined or redefined to create danger in both subtle and unsubtle ways. The power of the spoken word and its ability to create great change and danger is now more real than it has been for a long time. The internet allows ideas to spread like wildfire. New words and meanings can take hold almost before we have realised. Rhetoric can have a profound effect that nobody expected. Tracking how these things evolve is now increasingly vital.

Put your money on Brexit

Union JackI am not a betting man, so will not be putting a penny on the outcome of the EU Referendum later this year. The fact that I haven’t got a clue which way it will go is also a contributory factor to that decision.

But if I could find a bookmaker who would give me odds on the Oxford Word of the Year for 2016, I think I could put a wager down now and be confident of collecting my winnings in time for Christmas.

Brexit was not born this year. But this is the year in which it has blossomed and bloomed and become the go-to word to encapsulate the campaign to leave the European Union. The Leave campaign? Doesn’t resonate. The Brexit campaign? Bingo!

I first wrote about Brexit in January 2013, when the word began to be used in relation to a possible UK referendum on the EU at some distant time in the future. At the time I said I was surprised to see that Grexit had spawned cousins and was not just a one-off, especially as Brexit remains as inaccurate then as it was now. We are not debating a British exit from Europe, rather a UK-wide one. UKexit still doesn’t cut it.

Nonetheless, the word works. People understand it, it is an easy term to rally behind, it seems to fully encapsulate its subject. It has comfortably bequeathed us Brexiteers to mean people supporting a Brexit, and we all just nod and get on with it. Sometimes a word just fits, and this is one of those times.

In fact, so little do people now care about its etymology that they use Brexit as the catch-all term for stories about Northern Ireland as well, paying no heed to the linguistic snub to which the country is being subjected.

Already secure in the Oxford Dictionary online annals, the word is now fully established in the English language. If the vote in June goes in favour of staying, Brexit will still hang around to fuel the debate. After all, as the Scottish Referendum has shown us, just because a vote ends up leaving the status quo intact it doesn’t mean that the debate over having the vote again won’t recur.

And of course, if the UK does leave the EU, then we won’t be able to escape the word Brexit at all. Either way, I think its coronation as the word of the year is already assured.