Tag Archives: english

The dangers of Close Passing

I’m not a cyclist, an irony given that I live in Oxford, but that does mean that I circumnavigate cyclists on a regular basis, and therefore do my level best to leave them in the condition in which I found them.

Until last week, I didn’t know that was a thing. I assumed that giving cyclists some space as you go past them was just normal. But it turns out that I was wrong. Welcome to ‘close passing’.

A safe distance

A safe distance

It’s a term to be welcomed. West Midlands police put the phrase into the news last week by announcing that its force would target drivers who ‘close pass’ cyclists, which means passing less than a metre and half from where they are pedalling. The force’s use of inverted commas around ‘close pass’ suggested that the term was not one in current usage, and a quick scoot around the internet backs that up. This is a behaviour previously without a word to describe it.

But it’s interesting to note some of the other things which emerge online when you search for close passing. Football was always likely, and you can imagine a team renowned for a close passing game using the term in team meetings. Or more worryingly, I found illustrations of asteroids zooming past the Earth. I wonder if some kind of extra-terrestrial police force is up there in the sky now, enforcing a safe ‘close passing’ distance past our planet to protect us from wanton destruction.

I think ‘close passing’ has a good chance of slipping into the driving vernacular, especially in an era which cycling accidents appear to be on the rise. It is a useful term and a more than worthwhile initiative.

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.

Guilty of Lateism

I am not a fan of most reality television, and have never watched reality shows from South Africa. However, a word coined in a recent South African show has quickly gone viral, justifiably so.

A recent episode of Our Perfect Wedding featured the build-up to the wedding of Mr and Mrs Madikane, but with time ticking, a guest walked into the room and in hurrying people up, declared that “lateism is never ever in my gender or calendar.”

Lateism became very popular across social media in South Africa, and not just because of the slightly bizarre sentence in which it featured. It actually left me wondering why we don’t already have this word, as many people have a tendency to be late the whole time, and this word seems to sum up that condition perfectly. I have been accused of it, only sometimes fairly, and I can certainly think of others I know well for whom lateism could be said to be a natural state of being.

So while lateism may be end up being a word which has a brief flourish in South Africa and then disappears again, I think it fufils a valuable gap in the vocabulary and we should try to use it where at all possible.

Maybe lateism never become ‘the late lateism’.

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.

The true legacy of Boaty McBoatface

NERC

Not Boaty (image NERC)

It’s the boat I feel sorry for. At the centre of the cocked-up attempt to get the public on board with naming a new research vessel, there is a boat which has no knowledge of the column inches devoted to its moniker. But it seems absolutely certain that it will never be called Boaty McBoatface.

I don’t need to recount the story here. It is well documented that the Natural Environment Research Council elicited help from the public with the naming of its new multi-million pound research vessel, and once the ludicrous but hilarious suggestion of Boaty McBoatface took hold, well there was only going to be one winner. And equally inevitably, it was never really likely that a boat of serious purpose would sail off into chillier climbs with such stupidity emblazoned on its hull.

I am leaving it to others to debate the rights and wrongs of this incident, whether it is funny or not, what David Attenborough thinks and so on. Wordability’s interest is obviously more from the English language point of view, because even though this campaign has made no difference to the boat, it may have inadvertently changed the language itself.

It hasn’t taken long for Boaty’s cousins to come to the fore, with Trainy McTrainface and Horsey McHorseface now well documented. Only this week, a poll to rename a Texan school sees Schoolie McSchoolface in the running. Now it has started, it may never stop.

So the legacy of the Boaty McBoatface story is not that it will bequeath a newly named ship with a name for eternity, but rather it has added a new linguistic twist to the English language, ensuring that whenever the subject of new names is debated, Namey Mc Nameface will bubble to the top of the list.

And maybe that linguistic change will be Boaty’s ultimate legacy. Because next time somebody decides it is a good idea to ask the public to help name something, Boaty will inevitably bob into view as a warning against doing that. And if that is enough to put them off and force people to make decisions for themselves without bothering the rest of us, then Boaty has done its job.

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.

Don’t be Scared of Putinophobia

There has been an interesting example this week of of a neologism being used to deflect attention from the substance of a story.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin (image http://www.kremlin.ru)

Amid the many people entangled in the aftermath of the leak of documents from Panama is the Russian President Vladimir Putin. I should of course point out that the President himself was not mentioned at all in Panamanian dispatches – instead, a number of people or organisations with connections to him have been cited. Such revelations inevitably focused attention on President Putin himself.

So how did his official spokesman deal with all of this? Simple. He used a word nobody had ever heard before and, sheep-like, everybody focused on that word and used it in their headlines, rather than actually pursuing the story.

The word was ‘Putinophobia’.

Dmitry Peskov said: “This Putinophobia abroad has reached such a point that it is in fact taboo to say something good about Russia, or about any actions by Russia or any Russian achievements.” Brilliant moving of the goalposts. Invent a term which everybody will latch onto and is likely to be used again, and use it as a way to get people to focus on something else rather than the substance of the story. The art form of coining a new word as a way of owning the story.

Given the way that David Cameron has now become embroiled in the Panamian fallout, can we expect to see one of his spokesmen using this formulation as a way of moving the attention away from him? Maybe the criticism will be described as ‘Cameronophobia’ or ‘Toryphobia’. However, given the level of criticism currently being levelled at the Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine #toryphobia replacing #resigncameron as a popular Twitter hashtag any time soon.