Tag Archives: english

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.

Beware the Smombie Apocalypse

Sometimes a word is so perfect that once somebody mentions it, everbody else has to follow suit. One such example has flooded the press in the UK in the last few days. It is the rise of the Smombie.

Smombie, short for Smartphone Zombie, describes behaviour which we increasingly see the world over, and which we are all almost certainly guilty of. It is the habit of checking your mobile phone while walking along and becoming oblivious to all around you, running the risk of causing yourself, and others, zombie-like danger.

The sudden appearance of the word is not tied into anything particular. Smombie was actually named as the German youth word of 2015, though this itself was not a popular decision as the word seemed more to denigrate smartphone users rather than celebrate them and was noted as not being used particularly prominently among German youth.

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Your Wordability author in Smombie mode

Its sudden UK fame is tied into a Sunday Times feature a few days ago, using the German victory as a springboard to describe the increasing amount of smombie activity around the country. It  illustrated this with quotes from motoring organisations about the dangers this poses which are similar to driving while texting, and even mentioned that there are now ‘Smombie Lanes’ in some cities to allow texters to amble in peace without distracting those seeking a quicker route to their destination.

I think this word is interesting on a number of levels. The first is who uses the word and who it is aimed at. It is quite right that Smombie is pejorative. It accurately describes the way that people walking and using their phones are utterly unaware of everything around them, but it is true that this surely makes it coined by those who look down on such behaviour, not those to whom technology is as innate as breathing, the younger generation. So if it is to gain any currency, it is likely that it will be as a term of criticism.

I also wonder whether Smombie itself is the word that will ultimately catch on. Phubbing, one of my perennial favourites of recent years, is a great amalgam of Phone and Snubbing and does the job beautifully of describing that anti-social act of looking at your phone rather than joining in with the people who you are actually with. But in some ways, it is not immediately apparently what it means, it is only when you say that it is short for phone snubbing that it truly hits its mark.

Great as Smombie sounds, I feel the same way about this word, and that it needs the explanation to give it its context. And that may be the key to its future. Smartphone Zombie is actually perfect, it completely gets its meaning across and you could genuinely see people using it. I think this is a case where the abbreviation could ultimately lose out to the long from.

Smartphone zombies are undoubtedly here to stay. I think the only issue left is how we will continue to refer to them. And making sure we get out of their way, of course.

Language Flowers in Italy

Daisy Pollen Flower

Daisy Pollen Flower

An attractive story from Italy, not just because it allows me to decorate the pages of Wordability with this delightful picture of a daily pollen flower. An eight-year-old may now see a word which he invented recognised as an official Italian word.

Matteo, a schoolboy in the town of Copparo in central Italy, used the word Petaloso in a school project to describe a flower as ‘full of petals’. His teacher Margherita Aurora was so impressed she contacted the Accademia Crusca, guardians of the language, and received an encouraging reply.

They said that while the word was not yet in sufficient usage to be able to garner official recognition, it was “well formed word, and could be used in Italian. Your word is beautiful and clear.”

Of course it only takes a bit of social media encouragement and publicity for the word to start being used an awful lot, in order to force lexicographic minds, and while the initial flurry will certainly not be sufficient to get it officially recognised as a word, repeated genuine usage might just do the trick.

Do we need a word for ‘full of petals’ in English? Doubtful, and doubtful as well that it wound quite as lyrical as Pelatoso does. And maybe the lilt of Italian is part of its appeal. After all, other words apparently on the radar for official Italian recognition include Photoshappare and Spoilerare, both of which are ugly Italianisations of English words which I suspect the language could well do without.

So good luck to Pelatoso and who knows, maybe it could make the jump to English and make our own language that tiny bit more beautiful.

France Flexes Linguistic Muscles

CircumflexIt is never a surprise when a change in the French language causes outcry and controversy. After all, control of the French tongue is heavily proscribed by the Académie Française, an organisation which has defended the purity of the language for many years, fighting in particular against the inclusion of English words in the vocabulary.

So it is hardly surprising that this week’s news that new spellings have been unveiled for more than 2,000 words, with the removal of a superfluous circumflex in many of them perhaps suggesting the demise of the hat-shaped accent, has understandably caused outcry and linguistic breast-beating on an epic scale.

Of course, the story is not as simple as the headlines would suggest. The Académie’s advice actually dates back to 1990, and it is only the decision of educators to include the new spellings in textbooks which has caused the current furore. #JeSuisCirconflexe the opponents cry,unwittingly undermining their own argument by choosing a linguistic form which didn’t exist two years ago to express their disgust over the fact that language constantly changes.

Rather than pick through the list of changed words in detail, I have pondered more the English reaction to language change, and how the country might feel if an official language arbiter made changes such as this. Of course, we are probably quite lucky that there isn’t a body which regulates the English language in this way. Given the reaction that new words and trends often seem to get, you would imagine that the vitriol that might be directed to such a body operating in the UK would dwarf anything we are seeing in France at the moment.

The Oxford Dictionary is of course regarded as the ultimate watchword on English, but its lexicographers are observers and recorders of the language, and don’t have the responsibility of having to make the final rules. Nevertheless, if something is acknowledged by it as correct, than that confers a degree of authority on the usage. And plenty of people are happy to weigh in and protest whenever new words are added to Oxford Dictionaries online, or variant spellings or meanings are included, so I suspect that Oxford types are quite happy not to have that responsibility.

What the French experience tells us is that people remain passionately connected to their language, and are resentful when the basic parts of it appear to be arbitrarily changed. But of course language does change, and the Académie’s ruling is not an imposition of rules but is instead a reaction to change which was already present, codifying the usage as it has evolved.

So while people howl in protest, as they do in England, they are merely objecting to changes which they are using already. They just don’t like having it pointed out to them.

 

Snowzilla Makes Storm Unforgettable

There’s nothing like giving something a really good name to cement it in people’s minds. But if we have learnt anything from recent significant weather events, it is that those doing the naming perhaps need to be a little more creative.

I first started thinking about this towards the end of the last year, when the UK was hit by a series of storms. This was the first time that winter storms had carried names, following a Met Office appeal, and the style was very much in keeping with the way that cyclones and hurricanes are named, with an alphabetical list of forenames serving as the pre-ordained names for the storms as they occurred.

I began to wonder whether there were more storms than normal or there was a perception of more storms than normal, because the fact that they were now being named gave them more of an identity and so reinforced the notion that their frequency was becoming greater. I did discuss this with a weather expert, who said that the weather was pretty much the same as every year. But I think the naming aspect somehow made the overall effect seem greater.

The names themselves were not that striking. Even Desmond, which wrought the most havoc, seemed indistinguishable from the rest, with the name not really giving any sense of the ferocity of the event and the luck of the draw meaning that anybody called Desmond might forever be associated with giant floods and howling gales. The names were in fact chosen by the public, but the limited parameters of choice contributed to the less than inspiring list.

How much better it would be if those options could actually describe the events with which they are associated.

So all hail the Washington Post, which decided that the snow event which has just engulfed the North East of the United States needed a proper name to describe both the event as it happened and to immortalise it in the annals of dreadful snowfalls. They held a much more insightful poll, and while they didn’t actually pick the poll’s winner, because let’s be honest ‘Make Winter Great Again’ is not a name which trips happily off the tongue, the runner-up, Snowzilla, clearly does fulfil the brief in every respect.

So Snowzilla it will be now and forever more, and of course it’s brilliant because it sums up the scale and ferocity of the snow blast, it is slightly irreverent but also encapsulates the danger that turned out to be all too real. And it will make people pay a lot more attention than ‘Winter Storm Jonas’, the official original title, now lost in the drifts.

This isn’t the first time that Wordability has noted the use of –zilla as a suffix, but it is not common, and frankly the Avozilla described previously was a bit of a limp offering. Snowzilla may see a new influx of –zilla related words emerging. And it may also prove that when there is a big weather event in the offing, it may be best to turn to find a truly creative way to name it.