Tag Archives: definition

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.

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Quidditch flies into new era

It’s not really a surprise that the inclusion of quidditch in the latest Oxford Dictionaries online update has garnered so much publicity. After all, Harry Potter is an international phenomenon, quidditch is now known the world over, as a word it is very well established.

US Quidditch

US Quidditch

Of course, it is not JK Rowling’s mythical game which has been recognised by the Oxford experts. Instead, it is the real-world equivalent, played by people who mount broomsticks and run around a field, throwing balls through hoops in a grounded version of the game popularised in the skies of Hogwarts. Such is the popularity of real-life Quidditch that there are two competing authorities in the United States responsible for tournaments, rules and so on, while the rapid worldwide growth of the game since it was first played in 2005 attests to not only the enduring popularity of Potter but also to the fact that it is evidently enjoyed by those who take part.

The reasoning for its inclusion is therefore completely sound – a new sport, now established, with a name that needs to be recorded. I guess the irony for a lot of people is that they are not actually aware of this version, and will have assumed that it was the fictional equivalent which had received lexicographical recognition. Which of course would not have happened.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether there is a certain uniqueness to the word quidditch. Words from fiction are a well known source of neologisms – the latest Oxford update includes cromulent, coined on The Simpsons, and embiggen, popularised on the same programme. But they are words which are used with the meaning which they have carried over from their TV appearances.

It is not just that the quidditch immortalised in the dictionary is different to the original fictional version. It is that something in fiction has inspired the creation of a real-world equivalent, and it is the real-world equivalent which is now recognised. I am trying to think of another example of something created in fiction which has subsequently been made real and then gone on to become established in the language in its new incarnation.

I am not coming up with anything else, but I am happy to be corrected. If anybody can think of other examples, please leave them in the comments below.

Phubbing comes of age

Wordability has now been running for over four years, with more than 200 posts. Inevitably, favourite new words emerge over a period like that. And the word I have enjoyed writing about more than any other is still Phubbing.

Stop Phubbing

Anti-Phubbing poster

Phubbing – phone snubbing – describes the act of ignoring people you are physically with because you are interacting with your phone instead. When it first emerged in 2013, I found I started using it and celebrated it as a genuinely useful word, one which filled a semantic vacuum and also tripped off the tongue. And I was not the only one. It featured when I spoke exclusively to Oxford Dictionaries about words which were on their radar for dictionary inclusion.

Of course, it then transpired that Phubbing wasn’t actually a word that had come into being naturally. It had actually been coined as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for an Australian dictionary. In many ways, I warmed to it even more as it was now a useful word with a backstory. I even celebrated it by calling my collection of writings about words in 2013 Phubbing All Over the World.

It seemed however that Phubbing the word would die away, though phubbing the action would remain resolutely and increasingly with us. I barely saw it in 2014 and certainly never heard anybody say it. But a resurrection of sorts occurred last year, as a new round of articles started to appear in the media focusing on phubbing, and so usage picked up once more.

And life has now followed marketing art, with Phubbing finally taking its place in the online annals of Oxford Dictionaries, albeit later than I ever anticipated.

All of which goes to prove that the English language remains the most wonderful, organic beast, encompassing change and growth in myriad ways.  It doesn’t matter how that vital new word first emerges. What does matter is that it is needed, it is used, and it makes a contribution to the overall tapestry of the language itself.

So I shall continue to use Phubbing with pride, knowing that it is now well on its way to permanent acceptance in the language. Which is of course a shame in another way. It is a terrible habit.

Let’s All Do A Leicester

King Power StadiumFootball fans like me, and those less enamoured of the beautiful game, have been captivated by the Leicester City story over the last few months, as a team of outsiders outfoxed everybody to win the Premier League.

They have left in their wake innumerable memories and have seemingly changed the rules over success in football. One thing they have also changed is the English language.

Thankfully, I don’t mean regular use of the phrase ‘Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong’,  the reference by their urbane manager Claudio Ranieri to the imaginary bell he rings in training sessions to get his players’ attention. That phrase has popped up in coverage and is I think adorning flags and clothing, but I don’t think it’s a stayer. Unlike a phrase used by everybody else, especially pundits. After all, they like nothing more than being able to ask: ‘Who will be the next team to do a Leicester?’

So what does ‘to do a Leicester’ actually mean? Does it mean to assemble a group of rejected and also-ran players, forge them together into an unstoppable force and then watch as they conquer all before them? Not really, but it could.

Does it mean resurrecting the career of a manager whose best days were thought behind him, giving him the platform to rebuild his reputation and into the bargain delivering him the big trophy had eluded him his entire career? Again, no.

Does it mean forcing pundits to eat humble pie because of their absolute certainty that this couldn’t be done and they would go on television in their underpants if it did? Sadly not.

Does it mean defying the bookmakers to such an extent  that they will no longer offer such ludicrously long odds on something not impossible taking place? Again no.

Does it mean creating a team spirit so energising and a bond so great, a joy so profound that the whole country is carried along with the journey and is cheering with the diehard supporters when the trophy is finally lifted? Again no. But like all the examples above, it could.

And this goes to show that the Leicester story is unique, and to truly ‘do a Leicester’, all of the above would have to be in place. It is not what anybody means whey they use the phrase. They simply mean which unexpected team can break through the ranks next and win something, which average performer in any sport will suddenly have a breakthrough year and achieve what was previously thought impossible. Whoever now has an unexpected triumph will be said to be ‘doing a Leicester’.

But as the details of this story have shown us, there were so many elements which made up the Leicester fairytale that the only people capable of truly doing a Leicester are, well, Leicester.

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.

How to Muggle Things Up

Literature has been a common source of new words for a very long time. But I doubt whether the replacement of one word created by an author with a new word from the same author has ever created the uproar we have seen this week. But then again, JK Rowling is no ordinary author.

The story is simple. Rowling coined the term Muggle in the Harry Potter series to mean a non-magical person. But in information which has come out this week about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, next year’s film from Rowling’s wizarding imagination, that word has been changed. The film is set in America, a number of years before the birth of young Potter, and it has been revealed that the Americans don’t call their non-magical counterparts Muggles. No, they call them ‘No-Maj’, meaning they have no magic.

Cue the Twitter outpouring, cue the lamentations of Potter fans united in grief at what they see as the demise of one of their favourite words.

It’s nonsense of course. What might have been more surprising was if American wizards and witches had used the word Muggle. Do people not understand language variation across countries? Is it not entirely likely that a slang term, which is after all what Muggle really is, would be different in America from Britain. Star Eddy Redmayne has now done interviews explaining this and also saying that the term Muggle has not been replaced, as some have erroneously claimed. It is simply that a different word is used by people in a different country, no replacement involved. And when you say it with an American accent, you can fully understand why No-Maj sounds right in a way that the more British Muggle would not.

But the episode is interesting for a couple of linguistic reasons, aside from the social observation that yet again the internet is full of people focusing their energy and anxiety on the most trivial of things. What it does show is how beloved the language of JK Rowling is and how masterful she was with the words she coined and chose for her wizarding world. It would be an exaggeration to say that if she had come up with an inferior word for Muggle then her books would not have succeeded. But it does demonstrate that her consistent choice of the right word, finding ones which have really stuck with the public, gives us insight into why her books have succeeded.

The other thing to mention is that much of the reporting of this story has stressed that Muggle has even been recognised by Oxford Dictionaries. That’s lovely, and I must admit I was surprised by the idea that a reputable dictionary was including a definition for people who aren’t magical. But of course, it doesn’t. Muggle has taken on a new meaning for someone who is ‘not conversant with a particular activity or skill’. I can’t off the top of my head think of another example of a word from literature which has then gained a new meaning in the real world and been given dictionary recognition as a result of that.

So the supposed Muggle controversy isn’t really a controversy at all, and in fact demonstrates Rowling’s acute understanding of the English language. And maybe that is the greatest magic of all.

Breastsleeping May be the Answer

One of the difficult issues facing new mothers is feeding their children overnight. The decision over whether or not to have your baby in bed with you is one often fraught with difficulty, with uncertainty over whether it is safe counterbalanced by the fact that for many tired parents, having your child close by is the only realistic option if you want to breast feed.

A pair of researchers may have now solved the problem by writing a paper analysing the practice and coining a term specifically to remove the stigma surrounding it. James McKenna and Lee Gettler propose the word Breastsleeping.

To make the point, they include the term in the title of their paper, which is called: “There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping.” In the abstract they comment that this new word will help to resolve the debate about bedsharing and help researchers understand in greater detail different ways of breastfeeding children.

There has long been a huge debate over whether sleeping with your baby is safe or not, and the creation of this new word is not going to close the issue down. However, it gives legitimacy to the practice by identifying it and analysing it, and the millions of people who do this with their babies may well feel support and backing for their actions by this, especially if the word starts to catch on. And because breastsleeping is so widespread, I think there is a chance that it will.