Why Fake News is Fake

Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.

It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.

So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.

And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.

Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.

Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.

What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.

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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.

Making Up For Lost Time

I ran out of time to write a new Wordability post last week. Basically, I just didn’t organise myself properly. Fortunately, I have had a couple of linguistic pointers recently to help myself prepare a better schedule so that I can continue to publish once a week.

Inspiration comes of course from Donald Trump, amid reports that a large amount of his daily schedule is devoted to something called ‘Executive Time’. Naturally enough his staff has been quick to characterise these great swathes of undocumented hours as opportunities for the President to be busy with all manner of important activities which he doesn’t want officially recorded.

But inevitably, it has become another linguistic stick with which to beat the President, with the phrase becoming rapidly adopted as a way to criticise what he may, or may not be doing, while others are now simply using the phrase Executive Time as their excuse for not having got on with an activity that they were really supposed to have accomplished. Clearly, I am doing the same, and was flat out with Executive Time last week, so couldn’t write Wordability.

The interesting thing is why it seems to be particularly prevalent now. Executive Time as a concept first appeared just over a year ago, but has gained new oxygen recently. Perhaps it’s the President’s possible redefinition of the term ‘National Emergency’ which has focused attention on some of the other phrases which surround him.

I’m not convinced that Executive Time is the best way to get anything done. Perhaps Micro-Scheduling would be the better option. Micro-Scheduling involves planning everything down to the second so that maximum productivity can be achieved. This seems the very antithesis of Executive Time, unless that time is filled with a micro schedule which is not made public. On balance though I doubt that even a meticulously planned week would have allowed me to write a blog. I find that when I have a week which is packed full of scheduled activity, I have enough energy left to crawl onto the nearest couch and eat crisps. In truth, these options seem like opposite ends of the productivity schedule, and neither is really the path to success.

Whichever way we choose to plan our time, young people have certainly been in the news recently trying to make the most of it. We were treated to the UK’s first ‘Student Strike’ this week as thousands of schoolchildren descended on City Centres to protest about Climate Change. Though if you believed Conservative Minister Andrea Leadsom, there is a different way to define the term:

So, good to see our political leaders taking the views of young people seriously.

A Cambridge Professor has also been interested by the activities of the young, and has suggested they might be reacting to something he has termed Nepocide, a portmanteu of Nepotism and Genocide. Professor Tony Booth, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge, defines it as: “the conscious willingness to sacrifice future generations for current convenience.” It seems that young people are fighting back against this and may not be prepared to accept that some of the luxuries we live with today are worth it, if there is too high a price to pay tomorrow. The Student Strike would support this way of thinking, though Andrea Leadsom might disagree.

And to finish, something completely different. The term Bokeh is one that is well known from photography circles, meaning the ability to blur out certain parts of a photo to accentuate others, something which is now possible on smartphones such as the iPhone. Apple has released a new advert where one mother is angry with another for using this effect to make her child blurry in the background. “Why did you bokeh my child?” she asks:

Is To Bokeh set to become a new insult in the world of smartphone photography. Or has this been at the heart of all our issues all along. Perhaps Donald Trump’s full schedule was merely Bokeh’d before we got to see it.

The language of love

While the creativity of the English language never ceases to entertain me, one thing it doesn’t tend to do is become full of words which are particularly long.

Thank goodness then for a brief diversion provided by Welsh, where a new word coined this week has certainly set a pleasing bar for longest new word of the year in any language.

To promote the Welsh launch of Lumen, a dating app for the over-50s, the word credwchmewncariadarôlpumdegoherwyddeifodmorllawennawrfelybuerioed has been coined.

Tripping nicely off the tongue, the word was created by writer Sarah Russell from Monmouthshire, and it was constructed to include the words’cariad’ (love), ‘credwch’ (believe) and ‘llawen’ (joyful).

It now rivals famous placename Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and at seven characters longer, may yet achieve greater fame than its predecessor. I just want to see both words together on a billboard.

One thing English speakers the world over love to talk about is the weather, and the extreme weather being experienced in many places is leading to the inevitable conversations about whether we need some new words to discuss particular weather phenomena.

One word which got particular usage in England this week was Thundersnow, which while not new is certainly not common. But despite the dire warnings of snow-filled storms lashing the countryside, the Thundersnow didn’t materialise, meaning the word needs to return to the sidelines.

One person never on the sidelines of course is Donald Trump, and this week, he found a way to temporarily end the shutdown of the US Federal Government. It was suggested that Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi had ‘dog walked’ him into submission, leading to suggestions that Dog Walk is an early contender in the World of the Year stakes. It will be interesting to see if this phrase develops over the year.

So the moral of this week’s words – find love, avoid bad weather, walk your dog.

Trump Gives Us Food For Thought

In a week in which an egg has become the most liked post in the history of Instagram, it seems appropriate that a mistaken Donald Trump Tweet about food should have become one the most parodied of the week.

With the partial government shutdown in the US still ongoing, the President boasted about the fast food feast he served to his visitors from American College Football team the Clemson Tigers. However, the internet went into a predictable frenzy of delight when he described the thousand ‘hamberders’ he had brought in for his guests.

Typical online meltdown ensured, as people scrambled to come up with hilarious definitions of hamberder.

And of course, Mr Trump has form here, as many remembered his Covfefe fiasco and suggested serving a cup of it to go along with his imaginary new food.

Is all of this funny? Yes, I suppose so. Does it get a bit tiresome after a while? Yes, absolutely. A part of me just gets a bit fed up with internet wags jumping on every typo, error or other slight misjudgement to race online and show just how clever they are.

Of course these errors can be used for satirical purpose, and the ingenuity that’s out there is often amusing and pointed. But when there are so many significant issues around the world, does the obsession with eggs and misspelt hamburgers signify that people are now totally disengaged from things which matter? Or are we so bound up with the problems of everyday life that any excuse to escape will be leapt upon? I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon here, but I am just a bit bored of knowing that every time somebody significant makes a slight error, the internet reflex will go into overdrive to take advantage of it as people chase not to be left behind.

Maybe it is an example of Politainment, a word which has been around for some time and means the use of elements of PR or other entertainment norms to make political points. It wasn’t a word I had thought of much but I came across an opinion piece by a Colorado-based lawyer which seemed appropriate, given the narrative of the week.

Away from the internet, one other language story which has engaged people this week has been the release of a dictionary of Yorkshire terms, researched painstakingly by historian Dr George Redmonds, who died last year. His work has been completed and put online, allowing people to look up bizarre and unusual Yorkshire terms from years gone by.

If you’re interested, a Gripe Egg is the term for the egg of a Griffin. So maybe I should create a picture of one of those to see if I can become next week’s Instagram sensation.

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.

An Unpresidented Presidency

Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency this year has already made an indelible mark on the English language. Phrases like ‘Drain the Swamp’ and ‘Lock her up’ became an integral part of his campaign rhetoric and are continuing to be widely used, showing the power of finding the right terms and sticking with them in order to get your message across.

But one entertaining linguistic legacy of this year is a word which isn’t a word, and ceased to exist almost immediately after its brief birth on social media. In a tweet where he accused the Chinese of stealing a US drone, he described it as an ‘Unpresidented’ act. The word was swiftly deleted in favour of the always intended ‘Unprecedented’. But the power of the President Elect’s Twitter ramblings is such that once there has been a social media utterance, it will never go away again.

Amusingly, the Guardian newspaper promptly picked Unpresidented as its word of the year, and coined various definitions to do with unfitness for Presidency, the carrying out of un-Presidential acts or the saying of things which people are not really thinking at all.

Unpresidented is already showing signs of catching on in the arena in which it was first coined, with derogatory tweets about the incoming president being marked with an Unpresidented hashtag. It also gives commentators a term which in some ways encapsulates the astonishing sequence of events which we have seen unravel in the US this year. Don’t be surprised if this word is used to describe some of Mr Trump’s actions post-inauguration and he ends up being hoist by his own Twitter petard.

It is also not the first time that the Donald has used a non-word which people have nonetheless been interested in. I wrote some years ago about the word Symblomatic, which he used when discussing the Oscars. I found that searches for the word kept bringing traffic back to Wordability for quite some time after he said it, so even four years ago, there was an interest in Mr Trump’s peculiar regard for the English language.

The difference this time though is that any linguistic mistakes he makes from January 20 next year could have rather more far-reaching consequences.