To Gold or Not To Gold

I heard the same interview on two different BBC radio stations yesterday, and it elicited the same response from two different presenters.

Talking about medal prospects for the upcoming Olympics, British Olympic Association chairman Colin Moynihan said that Australia would expect “to gold” in certain events.

Given that I have already been hearing people experiencing paroxysms of rage at “to medal”, which is making its quadrennial reappearance into the lexicon to coincide with the Games, you can only imagine the incredulity with which “to gold” was treated.

It could have just been a one-off – I can find no evidence of this usage anywhere else at the moment. But it could equally be that athletes will be “golding”, “silvering” and “bronzing” come the end of July. And if that does prove to be the case, remember where you read about it first.

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Mother Flame Powers The Torch Relay

I must admit that I have been sceptical about the level of interest in the Olympic Torch relay, now winding its way across the UK ahead of July’s Games. This cynicism has not been directed at the relay itself, which has always struck me as an excellent prelude to the main event, with understandable local enthusiasm when the torch is finally in your vicinity.

No, I have been convinced that the BBC’s dedicated live coverage page, featuring a permanent stream of people running with the torch, together with text commentary, would struggle to find an audience because of the sheer monotony of the event to all but those in any given area on any given day. But with hundreds of thousands of people seemingly becoming addicted to the coverage, it seems I was wrong. Ah well.

So why Wordability’s interest. Well the Torch Relay has already started to contribute some fresh terms to the English language. The best of them came when the torch went out on Day Three. This was the point at which we found out that the fire being carried as a back-up in case the flame goes out is known as the ‘Mother Flame’.

I love this term, complete with its connotations of space ships and aliens. Actually, the rules governing relighting the flame are interesting, as the original flame from Greece has to be kept burning at all times, with relighting coming straight from this source, the aforementioned Mother. Bear in mind, Mother Flame flew all the way from Greece in a specially chartered plane. One hopes she was treated to first class.

It’s also important to remember that the relay is about the fire, and not the actual torches. Each torch bearer has their own torch, lit by its predecessor in a delicate operation known as a ‘Torch Kiss’. To cover longer distances during its daily journeys, the torch travels in a van and is not visible to the public. This is known as ‘Convoy Mode’. It’s where the BBC’s coverage becomes less interesting and is basically just live footage of a drive down the A30. Of course, the BBC itself is responsible for the term ‘Torchcam’, the camera which broadcasts all the live footage, together with its associated Twitter hashtag #bbctorchcam.

There have already been moments in the coverage where a new word has not yet emerged. Controversy has erupted over the decision by some torch bearers to sell their torches on eBay. What do we call such people – ‘Torch-Bayers’? ‘Flame Throwers’? And there is criticism over the celebrity status of some of the torch bearers and accusations of publicity seeking over some of the choices. I think the idea of asking Didier Drogba to take the torch through Swindon was particularly bizarre. ‘The Rich and Flamous’ perhaps?

As the Torch Relay powers on, it seems that interest in it will only increase, leading up to July and the start of the Olympics. It will be fascinating to see what the Olympics’ linguistic legacy turns out to be.

He Shoots. He Scores. Goalgasm!

When Fernando Torres rounded Barcelona’s goalkeeper to confirm Chelsea’s place in the Champions League final, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the moment would only remembered for the drama of his goal.

But no. Accompanying the goal came a shriek of delight from Sky co-commentator Gary Neville. It was so high-pitched and excessive it has shot round the internet. It has been dubbed a Goalgasm.

While it is quite clear how this delightful word came to be derived, there is actually no -gasm suffix in English which denotes an outpouring of climactic joy. Orgasm itself is derived from the French orgasme, or modern Latin orgasmus, or Greek orgasmos, from organ ‘swell or be excited’. No Or- with a neatly tucked on -gasm there then.

But this doesn’t matter. The only word which ends -gasm is the aforementioned saucy one, so using it as a suffix automatically confers the correct meaning. I could randomly make up shoegasm, chocloategasm or spoongasm, and you could immediately imagine the kind of reaction somebody would be having to buying a great new pair of shoes, eating superb chocolate, or, er, finding a lovely spoon.

Neville’s reaction is just one of a long line of over-excitable commentaries throughout the ages, while football fans like myself can look back with slight embarrassment to those moments when the emotion of a vital goal made us react in ways we’d rather forget.

So the next time you feel one of those moments coming on, just picture Gary Neville. That should soon calm you down.

The problem with Linsanity

I have a problem with Linsanity. But before I get lynched by legions of Jeremy Lin fans, let me elaborate. Because my problem is purely linguistic.

For readers outside the US, and those that aren’t fans of basketball, I should supply a bit of background. In early February, Jeremy Lin was given a starting opportunity by the New York Knicks in an NBA clash against the New Jersey Nets. The 23-year-old had had an uninspiring career to this point, but when finally given a chance, he scored 25 points to inspire the Knicks to victory. And it didn’t stop there as he embarked on a phenomenal scoring run, averaging more than 27 points in four matches. Add in the fact that he is of Taiwanese descent, making him the first such American-born player to compete in the NBA, and the story’s global appeal starts to make sense.

And the word that appeared and came to encapsulate the Jeremy Lin success story – Linsanity.

I have been pondering this for the last few days and trying to work out why, on a new word level, Linsanity had been making me feel ambivalent. And my feelings of uncertainty only increased as Linsanity flooded the internet and reports started emerging that it is already an early contender in some quarters for word of the year. UPDATE – And since writing this paragraph, the Global Language Monitor has now officially recognised Linsanity as a word, making it one of the quickest rises from nowhere to linguistic status on record.

So what are my issues? Well firstly, it only seemed to be a word for headlines, a shorthand way of referring to the phenomenon before leading into a written piece which didn’t use it again. But that is now fading, and Linsanity is breaking out from its headline-only role.

Then there was the sense that it was quite limited in scope. Linsanity covers one person at one time, and cannot be extended to mean anything else. And unlike Tebowing, the previous linguistic sports phenomenon, it can only be used in reference to the Jeremy Lin story and not for something wider which other people can also take part in.

Finally, there was the feeling that the word’s emergence will be short-lived. Linsanity has only been around for three weeks, at time of writing. In another three weeks, it could be a distant memory, meaning it would then only be used in a historical sense.

But despite all of this, I have managed to put my doubts to one side. If Linsanity does end up winning word of the year garlands at the end of 2012, I think it will be a worthy winner.

And why have I concluded that? Because you could probably have argued all of the above for Beatlemania when that emerged as a word back in 1963. It was first coined as a shorthand way of describing the group’s appeal, it was limited in scope to the Beatles themselves and it died away as the Beatles’ popularity became more normal. And despite that, Beatlemania is an excellent word.

Above all, it looks like the Jeremy Lin story will be one of the major sports talking points of 2012. It needs a word to encapsulate it. And Linsanity does that perfectly.

Tebowing Sets Benchmark for Sporting Gestures

The rise of Tebowing has been a linguistic phenomenon. Despite its global sweep, I forgive my UK readers for not quite knowing what I’m talking about. But it’s a great tale of how new words become fixed in English. So let me explain.

On October 23, the Denver Broncos enjoyed a dramatic 18-15 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. As wild celebrations ensued, star quarterback Tim Tebow was seen at the side of the pitch, down on one knee and and in prayer. So far, so comparatively normal.

Local fan Jared Kleinstein spotted the moment and persuaded a few of his friends to pose in similar vein to celebrate the victory. The picture was duly posted to Facebook. Immediately, people started to ‘like’ the image, and an international smash hit was born.

The tebowing blog followed soon afterwards, liberally filled with people ‘tebowing’ in ever more extravagant places. And by December, ‘tebowing’ was officially recognised as a word by the Global Language Monitor, defining it as the the act of ’taking a knee’ in prayerful reflection in the midst of an athletic activity. It is surely one of the quickest rises to linguistic acceptance of any word and is now an international fad.

So why has this word taken off? I think its success has a lot to do with the silliness which surrounds much of what we enjoy on the Internet. We have all seen and enjoyed countless viral pictures and jokes, via Facebook, email and other methods, and we enjoy them for their absurdity. But for true success,there has to be more. And this can quite often be the ability to personalise and participate.

So it is with tebowing, because its global surge is very little to do with the initial action by the player himself and much more to do with what people did with it. The fact that people could take part, show themselves as active participants in the phenomenon rather than merely observers, gave it its viral oomph. We are all part of the joke, we can all join in, so the word which describes what we are all doing needs to become established quickly because it confirms that we all belong to something official and legitimate.

It is also an action which is easy to replicate, in any place. I found myself thinking through famous goal celebrations of the past. Certain players always celebrated in the same way, but because they were from a different era and because they were not easy to reproduce anywhere in the world, they could never spawn their own word. Thus, running very fast with one arm up will never be known as ‘Shearering’, and running with one arm windmilling madly beside you is only ‘Channoning’ as far as I am concerned.

The final question for linguists is whether tebowing is here to stay, or whether its run as a fully-fledged word is for a single season. But even if it is consigned to the linguistic dustbin almost as quickly as it arrived, we should all go down on one knee and give thanks for a fabulous illustration of how well new words can explode in the English Language.