A New Year’s Resolution

A Gap Year is the standard term for a year off. I’d like to claim that the near 12-month hiatus in writing any new entries for Wordability is the result of a life-changing time away in which I have visited countless new places, met hordes of fascinating new people and learned to grow my own vegetables.

Sadly, none of the above is true. The simple fact is, writing Wordability had stopped being fun. When I started the blog, back in 2011, I knew there would always be enough material to keep it fresh. Its remit was to pick up new words as they emerged and write about where they came from, how they were being utilised, and whether they appeared to have the stamina to remain part of the ever-changing English Language. And more than 200 posts later, this blog has fulfilled that remit.

Last year I found that the constant trawl for new words was becoming a chore, or when I did see something I was convinced was novel, it actually turned out to have been around for two or three years, thereby breaking the slightly draconian rules I had created for myself when the blog started. And so I got out of the habit.

But the bug to be part of the conversation about language remained, and it was helped by the realisation that since this is my blog, then I can amend the rules I use to decide whether a word can be featured. So what if a word has been used for a year or more when I first come across it? It’s still pretty new, and still represents change and creativity in English, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

So, I thought to myself, rather than constantly hunting for newsworthy items, and only writing about them if they fit strict criteria, what about simply celebrating things which are new to me or other people, even if they are not freshly minted. And while I’m at it, how about removing the pressure I sometimes placed on myself to get something out as soon as I came across it, and instead simply write one post a week that covers whatever I have seen over the last seven days. Now that sounds a lot more entertaining.

So what I have seen this week? Well, I have decided not to hark back to the words of last year, though I did enjoy the American Dialect Society’s various words of the year, mostly because their slang word of the year was Yeet, a word my daughter often uses when sending me messages, for no apparent reason. Entertainingly, she had been using it with no idea for what it meant, and seemed uninterested when I told her it is an ‘indication of surprise or excitement’. This raised a wider concern to me that people may simply be putting random words onto instant messages without worrying overly about what any of it means, which is slightly perturbing for the future of communication in general.

I have also decided to leave Donald Trump and Brexit well alone this week. I am confident that over the course of the next 12 months, they will contribute reams of material to me, as they continue to dominate political landscapes on either side of the Atlantic.

However, veganism has featured prominently in my mind, largely because I thought I had seen a new generic word for Vegan Cheese. Sky News used the term Sheese to describe this product this week, but on further investigation, it looks like Sheese is simply one vegan cheese product, and not a catch-all for the category.

Having said that, a generic term for vegan cheese would prove quite useful, on the basis there isn’t one at the moment. Vegan cheese eaters spotted this a couple of years ago, and an online movement to rename it Gary was born. Hard to imagine really how this didn’t catch on. But while we wait to see whether further first names are hijacked to become monikers for vegan fare (“Do you want some melted Gary on that fried Bert?”), it is worth nothing that the term ‘plant-based’ instead of vegan is beginning to be used with increasing frequency, primary as a way of countering the ire with which veganism is greeted by some. Veganuary is in full swing now, and while it is yet another of those remodelled months which has so irked me in the past, it does demonstrate that words about what we eat are set to dominate and evolve as the next 12 months passes.

As people are happy to say, we live in interesting times. The English language is bound to reflect that as the year progresses, and it will be fun to see what changes.

Time to stop Micro-Cheating

Dear Wordability readers. I feel I owe you an apology. I have been neglecting you these last few months. Yes I know that Donald Trump got me back into action last week, but that was after an absence of three months. Aside from that I have been cheating on you in a big way, concentrating on other distractions and not keeping you up to date with the latest new words emerging in the English language.

This year, I pledge to do better, to be more faithful. I’ll try not to cheat on you at all. Well maybe a little a bit of Micro-cheating perhaps.

Micro-cheating is the new kid on the relationship block. Coined by Australian psychologist Melanie Schilling, it means acting in small, what might seem insignificant ways, but which when added up constitute a greater cheating crime than the sum of its parts. Leaving heart emojis on a friend’s Facebook post? Storing somebody’s number in your phone under an alias? Sharing a private joke with an ex? Not writing a Wordability post because you are reading a different blog about the English language? (OK, I made that one up)

I see the point of this. In today’s new interconnected world, where we have so many touchpoints with other people, albeit of a more superficial nature than we had before, there are many more opportunities to betray inappropriate desires and feelings.

But there has been a backlash against the term, with many suggesting that it opens the way for controlling and abusing characters to further strengthen their grip on their partners by forbidding behaviour which could also be construed as innocent and harmless. People have always had secrets, harmless flirtations and the like. Does the fact that technology now lays them barer mean that they should be demonised? Many cyber column inches have already been devoted to debates over the subject, and they show little sign of going away.

All of which goes to show that whichever side of the micro-cheating debate you are on, it is a word which clearly describes a mode of behaviour familiar to many because it has landed with a punch and got people talking. It has filled a semantic need and may therefore have staying power in the language.

And of course it has reminded me to cheat on you less from now on.

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.

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.

When Three is Not a Crowd

As gay marriage has become more prevalent around the world, so people have cropped up from time to time to say that the institution needs a new word to describe it, a position I have vehemently argued against on innumerable occasions.

However, there are times when even I will admit that a new word may be just what is needed.

In Colombia, plans are afoot for the first legal ceremony to join three people together in matrimony. The three men currently live as a ‘throuple’ – another word I will admit that I didn’t know but one which has apparently been a thing for the last three or four years – and are now all set to be joined legally.

There is no legal term for the union of Victor Hugo Prada, Manuel Bermudez and Alejandro Rodriguez, so Colombian officials have had to invent one. They are calling it a “régimen patrimonial especial de trieja”, translated as “a special patrimonial union”.

If marriages between throuples start to take off, and it might given that a trend for three people living together in blissful harmony seems to be catching on, then a new word which is catchier than the one attempted in Colombia is likely to be needed. Throupliage? Or maybe Threesome could take on a new meaning? Or is this just a variant of polygamy dressed up as something else.

Whatever is finally chosen, the coverage which this story has received suggests that not only will throuple become a word with which we will become increasingly familiar, but also that soon there may be a groundswell of opinion pushing for a new word for a new kind of union.

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.

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.