Category Archives: Technology

The influence of technology on the English Language

Beware the Smombie Apocalypse

Sometimes a word is so perfect that once somebody mentions it, everbody else has to follow suit. One such example has flooded the press in the UK in the last few days. It is the rise of the Smombie.

Smombie, short for Smartphone Zombie, describes behaviour which we increasingly see the world over, and which we are all almost certainly guilty of. It is the habit of checking your mobile phone while walking along and becoming oblivious to all around you, running the risk of causing yourself, and others, zombie-like danger.

The sudden appearance of the word is not tied into anything particular. Smombie was actually named as the German youth word of 2015, though this itself was not a popular decision as the word seemed more to denigrate smartphone users rather than celebrate them and was noted as not being used particularly prominently among German youth.

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Its sudden UK fame is tied into a Sunday Times feature a few days ago, using the German victory as a springboard to describe the increasing amount of smombie activity around the country. It  illustrated this with quotes from motoring organisations about the dangers this poses which are similar to driving while texting, and even mentioned that there are now ‘Smombie Lanes’ in some cities to allow texters to amble in peace without distracting those seeking a quicker route to their destination.

I think this word is interesting on a number of levels. The first is who uses the word and who it is aimed at. It is quite right that Smombie is pejorative. It accurately describes the way that people walking and using their phones are utterly unaware of everything around them, but it is true that this surely makes it coined by those who look down on such behaviour, not those to whom technology is as innate as breathing, the younger generation. So if it is to gain any currency, it is likely that it will be as a term of criticism.

I also wonder whether Smombie itself is the word that will ultimately catch on. Phubbing, one of my perennial favourites of recent years, is a great amalgam of Phone and Snubbing and does the job beautifully of describing that anti-social act of looking at your phone rather than joining in with the people who you are actually with. But in some ways, it is not immediately apparently what it means, it is only when you say that it is short for phone snubbing that it truly hits its mark.

Great as Smombie sounds, I feel the same way about this word, and that it needs the explanation to give it its context. And that may be the key to its future. Smartphone Zombie is actually perfect, it completely gets its meaning across and you could genuinely see people using it. I think this is a case where the abbreviation could ultimately lose out to the long from.

Smartphone zombies are undoubtedly here to stay. I think the only issue left is how we will continue to refer to them. And making sure we get out of their way, of course.

A New Language Emerges

I doubt there has ever been a more fascinating time to study the evolution of language. Change, a natural part of language, has been sped up in such a way that we can now see that evolution happening right in front of our eyes, as if an ape had simply hopped down from a tree right in front of us and immediately stood upright.

Technology and lighting speed mass communication tools are the agents of this change, and they are affecting not only individual languages but also the nature and structure of language itself. And now, a new language itself has been born out of the increasing use of symbols to express ideas – the language of emoji.

The global language monitor recognised this last year when it named the heart emoji as its word of the year, Now, Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University has declared emoji the fastest evolving language of all time, comparing their usage to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and given their increasing usage and ability to render more than just simple ideas, he clearly has a point.

Emoji

Emoji

“As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” he said. “Emoji is the fastest growing form of language in history based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.”

To illustrate this, Talk Talk Mobile put out a quiz to see how well you know your emoji. More by deduction than anything else I came out with a respectable 50%, though I will still admit that I don’t know my emoji arse from my elbow (a phrase I so far seem unable to render in picture form). My wife and 10-year-old daughter blazed to much closer to 100%, to prove the point

But with emoji emerging as a universal language that, unlike Esperanto, people will actually use in the future, what does this mean? Will emoji have evolved to such an extent that in a few years’ time, it will actually become a lingua franca of digital communication?

Clearly the jury is still on that, but a form of communication based on iconography and human faces has the power to be understood by everybody. And as scholars look for clues about the universal language capability at the root of all of our speech, perhaps the growth of this form of communication can give us some genuine insights into the brain’s hard-wired ability to learn a language

Mobilegeddon not Apocalyptic

If you really want to stress somebody out about an impending technological disaster then give it a really scary name. Just think Millennium Bug.

Of course the turn of the millennium proved to be less parasitical than had been predicted, and the downside of crying technology wolf is that when you incorrectly predict the apocalypse, so dire warnings that are important might end up being ignored. And so that brings us to Mobilegeddon.

Last week you could barely avoid articles about the subject and could have been forgiven for thinking that the mobile network was about to melt, such is the impact of coining a -geddon word. But no. Instead, Google was making a change in its search algorithm, meaning that websites not in tip-top condition when viewed on mobile phones would be penalised in mobile search results, potentially hitting traffic to them.

When I write that sentence, I can see the need for a catchy term of some sort to promote interest, as clearly there is nothing sexy about the subject matter when you come to describe it. But by coining something so over the top, and the website Search Engine Land has been credited for it, it overplayed something which might not otherwise have made the national press but equally might not have deserved to as it’s not really that interesting.

The dearth of coverage outside the techie press since Mobilegeddon Day on April 21 confirms this was never really a mainstream story and not really deserving of the growing usage of -geddon as a suffix. It is not a word that will be with us for long.

And because I know you’re wondering, Wordability passed its mobile-readiness test with flying colours. So there’s no excuse for not reading.

Wordability

Wordability passes the test

China Goes Duang Crazy

This week, the internet has been in meltdown about the internet being in meltdown. And it’s been the creation of a new word which has done it.

Duang

Duang

Chinese social media almost exploded with the appearance of the word ‘Duang’, according to reports. Heard initially in a shampoo commercial by film star Jackie Chan in 2004, it re-emerged recently in a remix of the ad. Shortly afterwards the word went viral to such an extent that there were reports shortly afterwards about the word which broke the internet in China.

The facts about all of this seem curiously hard to pin down. What does duang mean? Nobody knows. One of its virtues seems to be that it has no meaning. The Chinese internet has supposedly melted because people have been putting into random statements and contexts indiscriminately, with everybody making sure they have been part of the neologistic craze, without, it seems, knowing why.

And why it has taken off is the other question I can’t really find an answer to. Some reports suggest it is timed to coincide with a new session of a legislative board which advises China’s government and of which Chan is a member. The word therefore either satirises him or pays homage to him. Who knows!

What is clear is that it remains a Chinese phenomenon. While it is now surfacing with reasonable frequency on Twitter, most of those links seem to be to articles about its usage, rather than using the term in the way in which it initially appeared, or at least that is true of the citations in English. In Chinese social media of course it is completely different, and that is where the major growth has been. So I don’t think this is an internationally born word which will make a crossover into English.

But what it does demonstrate is the way that new words can explode across our new forms of communication with almost bacterial speed, and that sometimes, they don’t even need to have a tangible meaning in order to exist. Sometimes, usage of word is enough to show you belong to something, and that is why people have been using it in their droves, to ensure they are part of the trend. And I’m Duang sure I’m right about that about that.

 

Phubbing Becomes A Phenomenon

Lets be honest. We’ve all done it. I’m not proud of it but I’ve definitely done it. And I’ve had it done to me as well. What am I talking about? Phubbing.

Phubbing, an amalgam of phone and snubbing, is defined as ‘The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention’. The word is the brainchild of Melbournian Alex Haigh, who has set up the hilarious Stop Phubbing website as a way of drawing attention to the practice and allowing people to fight back and stop it. So successful has this been that the term is now going viral.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

It’s a brilliant word, undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Why, I hear you ask? Well firstly, it passes the test of being a semantic gap needing filling. This is a modern phenomenon, it is an emerging aspect of modern life, and when you talk to people about it, they all agree they’re aware of it. Well they would agree if they weren’t so busy sending Tweets.

Secondly, it’s a great neologism in its own right and blends the right two words to get the new one. Phubbing retains enough of the sense of its ancestry to aid understanding and stand alone, and also sounds just judgmental enough to make its point. It is also infinitely better than other options. I don’t think phignoring or phold-shouldering would really have cut it.

And its usage is already taking off and moving away from the original source. The day after reporting the advent of the word, The Independent used it in perfect context in a story about how crossing the road is dangerous when you are glued to your phone.

So phubbing as both a concept and a word is here to stay. I think we can all agree that it’s rude and people shouldn’t do it. Unless they’re reading Wordability of course, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

Keep Your Eyes Out For Glassholes

There seems little doubt that when Google started promoting Glass, their wearable computer, they had one eye on the effect they would have on the English language. After all, the term Glass Explorers has already been coined for the early trailblazers, and doubtless the technology giants would be hoping for further linguistic developments in the months to come.

But the problem with introducing something new is that the pesky public does have a habit of coining epithets of its own. And so it is with Google Glass, and the early perception that some of the initial users are behaving in ways that are more than slightly irritating. Being Glassholes, in fact.

It’s early days for the word, but its usage is already being noted and is spreading, and seems very likely to stick. Why is it so successful? Basically, it’s because it’s funny. I mentioned it to somebody the other day and he burst out laughing. It takes that very English type of wordplay of rhyming one word with another, a trick which is always successful, and creates a perfect play on words. It encapsulates a huge amount of meaning in a very short space.

And wouldn’t it be great if the idea of glass rhyming with its buttock-related cousin could be extended to other well-known words and phrases. You’d never think the same way about a ‘glass half full’ person. People who ‘live in glass houses’ would have a very different kind of lifestyle. Even an innocent ‘glass of milk’ would be consumed in an altogether different manner. Anyway, enough. Time to stop glassing around and publish this.

Look Through The Eyes of Glass Explorers

I once did a temping job in an office which concentrated on building and maintenance projects. I always particularly enjoyed dealings with the Electrical Foreman or the Mechanical Foreman. This was nothing to do with their personalities or the nature of the work I had to do. It was simply that I liked their job titles, and imagined them as either built of metal or plugged in as they went about their days.

Google’s new term Glass Explorers has a similar sense. Surely these are people who are tearing through jungles or across ruined buildings while taking care not to shatter. If not that, then they must be people searching for the greatest glass ever made.

Of course, neither is true. Glass Explorers are the 8,000 intrepid souls selected by Google to test their new wearable computer, which is called Glass. If Glass become a success, then the term Glass Explorers will become established as a permanent new technology word, the pioneers at the start of a new type of computing.

From a language point of view, it’s a shame that some other initiatives announced by Google have turned out to be April Fool’s japes, rather than real innovations. It’s a shame that we will not really be able to hunt for buried treasure on Google Maps by using ‘Treasure Mode’, or that ‘Google Nose’ will not become a standard way of searching for smells.

Glass Explorers however are no joke, and as technology takes another step forward, so another array of new words is set to appear.