A Time of Peace and Harmony

We all know that we live in extraordinary, tumultuous, unprecedented times. What many of us don’t feel at the moment is that we live in times of peace and harmony. And the words which have dominated the recent news agenda reflect that sentiment.

Reiwa in characters (Photo: Prime Minister of Japan’s Office)

Except in Japan, where the dawn of a new imperial era in May has been greeted with its new official name, Reiwa. Japanese officials have translated Reiwa as ‘Beautiful Harmony’. However, even that has created disharmony and discord with certain people, with social media concerns being raised that the term actually refers to command and control, as that is one possible meaning of the ‘Rei’ part of the term. In our current, febrile society, even giving something a name of positivity will generate controversy and a backlash.

In the UK and US of course, the political maelstroms surging around us are nothing if not acrimonious. As the tortured Brexit process lurches into yet another new phase, the word ‘Flextension’ has started to be used in earnest in the last couple of weeks. ‘Flextension’ is basically a flexible extension, and is being proposed by EU Council President Donald Tusk as a way of the UK having its cake and eating it. Here you go, have an extension until next year, but don’t use all of it if you don’t need it.

Wouldn’t flextensions be wonderful things if they became a permanent feature of our lives. We kind of want something finished by next Tuesday, but frankly, if it takes another three months, don’t worry! Homework due in tomorrow. Flextension please! Of all the ludicrous words Brexit has given us, here is one we could apply brilliantly to everyday life, a new word to justify permanent laziness.

What it certainly isn’t is a word of peace and harmony. Nobody can even seem to agree on what flexibility a flextension should offer, which seems to negate the point of it in the first place. We may soon have to start talking about flexible flextensions. It’s like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors.

On the other side of the Atlantic, discord from beyond the grave. Former first lady Barbara Bush has been quoted as having written in her diary in 1990 “Trump now means Greed, selfishness and ugly.” A sentiment from some time ago but one which backed up other concerns she had over him, as revealed in a newly published biography. At least the President responded with concern and sensitivity, being quoted as saying: “I have heard that she was nasty to me, but she should be. Look what I did to her sons.” Good to see mature and reasoned debate in these peaceful times.

Outside politics, a number of other language issues point to issues of disharmony. For example, British paralympian Dame Sarah Storey believes that such is the animosity towards cyclists, a new word should be coined for people who ride to work on a bike, to differentiate them from racing cyclists, for example.

Pointing out that Dutch has words for just such a distinction, she was quoted as saying: “We need to realise that a cyclist isn’t just a Lycra-clad yob, as per the stereotype, and that cyclists are just people on bikes moving around on a mode of transport.”

The need to protect cyclists is fair enough – a recent Australian survey came up with the bewildering result that more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not fully human. But I don’t think that giving cyclists a different name is going to address this legitimate concern. I think it will just lead to people thinking that this newly-named group remain sub-human for some reason, and attitudes will remain unchanged. Education and road awareness is what is needed, not another word in our cycling vocabulary.

There are of course times when a new word can help with driving issues. Texting and driving is a growing concern, and people don’t listen properly to rules and regulations not to do it. The American Automobile Association is launching a new campaign to encourage people to stop becoming distracted by texting while driving, calling the habit ‘Intexicated’. It’s quite a neat new word and it will be interesting to see if it has a life beyond an individual awareness campaign.

One other area where there always appears to be disharmony is veganism. I have written recently about the supposed misappropriation of the word cheese to vegan products. Well now the debate over other words being used for plant-based produce is back again, with the EU unveiling new proposals that would stop words such as burger and sausage being used for non-meat produce. Instead these items might be renamed discs or tubes to describe their shape. I maintain that this kind of linguistic prejudice against non-animal derived produce is as nonsensical now as it was when the cheese debate was raging a few weeks ago. Language changes, our understanding of these words changes, and a veggie sausage is a veggie sausage. Nobody is going to buy it expecting pork. But nonetheless, these debates will continue and will face further European legislation later this year.

Of course, depending on the outcome of the Flextension, the UK may not have to deal with this linguistic debate going forward. But whether it does or not, the country will not have a few months of beautiful harmony ahead of it. Maybe that planned UK trade deal with Japan cannot come quickly enough.

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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.

Under The Influence

In our interconnected world, the ability of individuals to influence the thinking of others on a global scale has probably never been greater. Being retweeted by somebody with a huge number of followers can be an enormous boost, while the ability to spread fake news and therefore influence the views of countless others is a power which has never existed before.

Interesting then that this week, I have come across a lot of new or unfamiliar words which focus on people or things which strongly influence us.

The Guardian in particular has been leading the way. In one piece, it described the growing trend for people such as Marie Kondo to go online or on TV to try to make others tidy up their homes. It describes them as Cleanfluencers. The article certainly picks up on a new trend, and at this stage, I am only finding the term online referencing the Guardian piece, but I may be wrong, so if anyone can find an earlier citation, please let me know.

This definitely ticks the box of being a new word arriving to fill a semantic gap. But in my opinion, it’s a terrible word, being neither easy to say nor particularly clear in its meaning when you first see it. I hope it doesn’t catch on, but I fear that now that it is being used, it will clean up.

Those with enormous social media followings are regarded as major influencers. On the flip side, I also read about Nano Influencers, who are people with much smaller social media followings but who nonetheless have the power to influence people’s views on emerging products. The suggestion of how to work with these creative souls is to harness the power of hundreds of Nano Influencers simultaneously and use their output to help to drive your brand. One Marie Kondo = 100 Nano Influencers.

Hardly surprisingly, it turns out The Guardian wrote about Nano Influencers as well last year. Is there an influential trend that The Guardian doesn’t want to influence you to think about?

alcohol-alcoholic-drunk-52507Not content with the influence of people, the Guardian also turned to influence of alcohol and write about Hangxiety, the sense of guilt and stress that often accompanies drinking too much, allied to the hangover which follows. Its lengthy article on the subject looked at the chemical influence which alcohol has on the body and the reasons why the feelings of anxiety can be unavoidable.

The main feeling I had reading this was to be reminded of Hangry, an increasingly popular word which describes the combination of being hungry and angry and the feelings of rage which can sometimes accompany the need to eat. Again, there are documented scientific reasons for this phenomenon.

I’m no scientific researcher, so I cannot comment on the validity of the findings behind these two words. But as a linguist, I am hoping we are not at a trend of combining words beginning with A with words beginning with H to create an increasing range of peculiar portmanteau words. Meet my hairy friend Andrew, or Handrew as he likes to be known. If this carries on, I’m going to get really Haggravated.

One influence we can never escape is the weather. While the cold snap in the UK hasn’t been as harsh as predicted, the same cannot be said for the extraordinarily cold weather in the US, with the term Polar Vortex making one its irregular appearances on the front pages. Much more unusual were the reports of a Sun Dog, which is a rare phenonemon where the sun reflects off ice crystals in the atmosphere and there appear to be bright, sun-like spots flanking the sun as it rises. It’s almost like you get three suns for the price of one.

And while we’re at it with the things influencing our lives, we can never escape Brexit in the UK. My favourite contribution to the debate this week, from a linguistic viewpoint, was the report that a new verb ‘To Brexit’ had been coined in Russian, loosely defined as ‘To say goodbye but not to leave’. The kind of thing you might say if you were drunk and unable to leave the room. A case of being struck down by Hangxiety, perhaps.

An Awks Week for All

It’s been an awkward week for many people. It started with the Golden Globes, and the meeting of present and possibly future James Bond, Daniel Craig and Idris Elba. The photo of the two of them together, with the single word ‘Awks’, was one of the dominant images of the day:

What is particularly Awks about embedding the above tweet is that the word Awks disappears and you have to click on the tweet itself to see the Awkwardness in all its glory. But at least that represents the first time I have ever used the word Awks in any sort of company, and while it has been common across social media for some time, and has even made it to Oxford Dictionaries Online (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/awk), the Bondesque tweet certainly gave it a new lease of life this week.

Awkwardness was certainly the order of the day in the UK Parliament this week, as the Brexit debate rolled back into view. And it wasn’t so much the coining of new words which dominated linguistic debate, but more the reappearance of a very old word, as the controversial decision to allow an amendment to the Brexit procedure allowed Jacob Rees-Mogg to question the meaning of the word forthwith in John Bercow’s interpretation of parliamentary procedure. Cue parliament getting derailed into a discussion about nuances of meaning and Twitter comedians throwing the word forthwith into many of their utterances. Even TV commentators got into the act, debating the meaning of forthwith on the BBC rather than the substance of the issues facing the UK instead. It could hardly be said that a word of Middle English origin made it to social media popularity ‘forthwith’, but it has now finally arrived.

An attempt this week to coin a new word seems unlikely to catch on because it is just too awkward. In the United States. sports agent Scott Boras has discussed options for different types of contracts for top players and suggested the ‘Swellopt’. This is a type of contract that changes as it goes on and can be of benefit to the player or the club. Or as he explained it to Ken Rosenthal on Fox: “For the club, if the player performs well, the club can opt in (contract swells). For the player, if the club doesn’t opt in, the player has the choice to continue with the contract (swell) or opt out. It’s a swell option for both.” Clear as mud then.

Bit of awkwardness for me after my posting last week. My daughter has now pointed out to me that she uses the word Yeet to mean Yes, which means I did her a disservice when I suggested that she is joining the masses of people putting meaningless words in random order, but also suggests that the definitive meaning of Yeet is still to be fixed. She responded by telling me about the issuing of an Apology Project on instagram, a concept which seems to be a deeply thought out apology for a perceived social media slight. On initial search, this doesn’t seem to be a wide practice, but if anyone can correct me on this, then I owe her an apology project.

An awkward subject? The name for research into human waste. There is currently no specific term for it, so Professor Aadra Bhatt has suggested In Fimo, derived from the Latin Fimus meaning, fairly obviously, dung. The Verge has got so excited about this development it has devoted an entire article to it. I prefer to keep the pages of Wordability clean, so just offer the link instead.

To return to Brexit to finish, even with the UK set to leave the European Union, maybe there is still away for the UK’s influence to continue to take over. Henning Lobin, director of the Leibniz Institute for the German language, gave an interview to Deutsche Wells in which he admitted that Anglicisms are continuing to creep into the German language, with words such as Clickbait and Bingewatching being recognised as part of the language. He said that while the overall integrity of German is not currently under threat, “it’s definitely susceptible…many terms come from things that were first invented, discovered and named in an English-speaking environment.”

So the UK may be leaving Europe, but its language is being left behind as an increasingly dominating force. And that could be awkward for everyone.

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.

Shrinkflation shows that size matters

Chocolate
Chocolate set to shrink
Even though 2016 was regarded as the year of Brexit and Trump, 2017 is the year when the ramifications of those electoral turn-ups begins to take effect. From a linguistic point of view, this means that we can expect to see an increasing number of new words and phrases coming into the English language as Brexit kicks and Trump starts to, well, kick as well.

The latest word to find itself dominating the news is Shrinkflation – the practice of making products smaller because it is becoming increasingly expensive for manufacturers to maintain the previous size and not increase the price. Many have opted to go for the smaller option rather than the enlarged cost to cusomters as they struggle with unhelpful exchange rates and commodity prices.

In the last week, we have seen reminders of Doritos, Coco Pops and Pepperami as being among the many products shrinking before our eyes, while there are now warnings that Cadbury’s chocolate could be set to follow. The word shrinkflation itself has quickly bedded in as the term to describe this, and it looks like a word that will be around for some time to come. It doesn’t trip off the tongue easily, and it sounds a little forced when you hear people using it in conversation, but as a written word, it seems very likely to be a stayer. It has also had to bide its time – shrinkflation was used in 2014, before Brexit was even connected to it, but it is only now that it is finding its place.

I suppose the question now is what will be the next products to suffer from shrinkflation. Will the fast food giants be forced to rename their signature dishes – will the Big Mac and The Whopper become the Little Mac and The Tiddler? Will Hot Dogs become Hot Puppies?

One thing which I hope won’t suffer from shrinkflation is Wordability, though I am conscious that this has been the case the for last few months, given the lack of new postings on this blog. With language set to reflect the changes across the globe like never before, it is time to to writing again and ensure that at least on these pages, shrinkflation doesn’t strike again.

The Truth About The Word of the Year

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man. Earlier this year, I said that Brexit was a shoo-in to be named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. Thankfully my fiver remained in my pocket rather than with my local bookmaker. The lexicographers of Oxford have announced instead that Post-Truth is its international word of 2016.

But I think they’ve got it wrong.

To me, a word of the year has to encapsulate the year just gone and also be a word that is actually being used on a regular basis. In terms of the former criterion, post-truth fits the brief. Given the crazy political climate we have just lived through, where the veracity of what we hear is open to question and elections are won and lost on the basis of at times spurious claims, the notion that we now live in a post-truth world is a very real one. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, it clearly sums up the year we have all lived through.

But while we all recognise this and know it to be true, and while Oxford say that usage has gone up 2,000% in 2016, is it word that anybody ever hears anybody else actually say in daily conversation? Or is it a word of media commentary and online discourse, handy for summing up the zeitgeist and therefore one of the words which helps us to describe the year, but not indisputably the word which defines it.

Despite Donald Trump’s victory, I still maintain that Brexit is the word of 2016, a view which Collins Dictionaries recently endorsed. I think it has international connotations, as it is used as the touchstone by which other elections or movements are now judged. I’ve no idea how much usage has gone up, but I would wager (there I go again) that it is a great deal more than the 2,000% increase recorded by post-truth.

But crucially, it has become a word used by everybody this year and has become fully adopted into the English language better than any other recent word which comes to mind. It went from a slightly odd formation on the sidelines to becoming a fully fledged member of the English language, used and understood by everybody. For goodness sake, we even have a Brexit Minister now, that is how established the word has become. (Hopefully we will never be entering a Government that feels the need to appoint a Post-Truth Minister, but that is a blog for a different site). Its universal acceptance should have sealed the deal.

I do sometimes wonder whether the timing of the word of the year calendar affects Oxford Dictionaries slightly. Collins always goes first, and having bagged the obvious choice, I can only speculate on whether the Oxford powers that be felt that they couldn’t choose the same thing, so had to come up with something related but different. I can’t help feeling that they have plumped for the more academic and erudite choice as a way of marking themselves out, but have simply got it wrong this year.

I probably haven’t enhanced my already minimal chances of being invited to join the committee which decides these things in the future, but no matter. For me, Brexit is and always will be the defining word of 2016. And that is the whole truth.