Tag Archives: english

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.

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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.

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.