Harlem Shake New Rival to Gangnam Style

A new year, a new dance, and a new challenger for the biggest craze on the Internet. The Harlem Shake is the biggest new thing on the block.

It has shot to prominence in the last couple of weeks, even though the music which has inspired it has been around since last May, which is when the song Harlem Shake was released by US DJ Baauer. It is only now, when scores of people have picked it and posted their own dances to the track on YouTube, that the concept and phrase have boomed.

So why does it work? I think it is because it ticks all the boxes for something to go viral. Fundamentally, it is easy to do and anybody can take part. A typical Harlem Shake video consists of 15 seconds of one person doing the shoulder-rolling dance, usually wearing a mask. Then everybody who was previously in shot but static is suddenly seen dancing along in equally manic fashion. And that’s basically it.

Of course the fact that it’s ludicrous helps. It is as silly as planking or Tebowing, ridiculous activities that people can partake in and share with their friends. And it has also picked up the Gangnam Style ability to get celebrities to take part, and we are already awash with football teams and other well-known groups of people doing their own Harlem Shake to get in on the act. It feels like Gangnam Style all over again.

So it is no shock that this phenomenon has taken off in the way that it has. And that means that Harlem Shake will inevitably feature in the shake-up at end of 2013 when it comes to discussing the words of the year.

The Top Words of 2012

And so the time has come for Wordability to reveal its word of the year. But I’m not quite going to do that. Because I don’t think that one word does justice to 2012. So in total, Wordability has five words of the year. And a new book – but more of that anon.

The danger of picking one word is that it only tells some of the story. The Oxford Dictionary choice of Omnishambles absolutely gives us a word that says a great deal about 2012. But what about the Olympics, and that incredible feeling that careered across Britain throughout that glorious summer. To ignore that is to miss a part of the year.

And should we go with a new word or something old which has resurfaced? Wordability has shown over the year that brand new words and redefinitions of existing words are equally important when it comes to semantic change in the English language. So I think it is important to include both.

So without further faffing, here are my top five words of the year:

New Words of the Year

Mother Flame: The journey of the Olympic Flame started the Olympics for real for most people in the UK, and the crowds who lined the streets throughout the country to see it were surprisingly large and enthusiastic. The whole process spawned a raft of new words associated with the procession.  Mother Flame, the original flame travelling with the torch and used to relight it when it went out, was my favourite.

Eastwooding: An odd choice? Yes. Eastwooding as a word was never destined to last more than five minutes. And yet what a five minutes. Spawned by Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary empty chair conversation with Barack Obama at the Republican Convention, Eastwooding became a social phenomenon as people raced to share photographs of themselves interacting with unoccupied items of furniture. I have chosen it as a word of the year because in many ways it is the quintessential demonstration of how a new word can arrive and thrive in our interconnected world. And then, just as quickly, fall off a cliff.

Gangnam Style: The music sensation of the year and a phrase that has entered the language. You only have to hear of anybody dancing Gangnam Style to know what kind of performance they are putting in, and plenty of famous people have been queuing up for their five minutes of strutting their horse-like stuff.

 Re-emergence of the Year

There were two contenders for this. Omnishambles, as we know, curried favour elsewhere. But I have plumped for Ineptocracy, a term for a form of government in which those utterly incapable seem to grab the top jobs. Like Omnishambles, it sums up the slightly random state of Government which seems to prevail in many countries this year, and the attitude towards them from the people. And from a Wordability point of view, Ineptocracy is the most viewed article and most searched for term across the blog in 2012, so it is clearly a word demanding of attention.

Redefinition of the Year

No dispute about this one – the furore over Misogyny in Australia takes this award. The global argument this led to about what the true definition of the word is, and whether Australian lexicographers were right to amend their definition, really encapsulates what semantic shifts tell us about changes in society.

So these are my top five, but so many other words have caught my attention – Goalgasm, Lesula, Papple, Marmageddon, Swapportunity to name just a few of my favourites – that even a list like this does not do it justice.

So I have produced a book of the words of the year, which is available right now from the Kindle Store on Amazon, just by clicking here. In it you will find more on all these words, and a great deal more. It’s a portrait of not only the language change of the year but a picture of what has really mattered to us as a society over the last 12 months.

What is the Future for Gangnam Style?

I read an interesting piece a few weeks ago about the Gangnam Style phenomenon. It said that linguists were doubtless having a fine time working out how it had become an idiomatic expression.

The question for me is – has it become an idiomatic expression? For those of you unfamiliar with the worldwide hit (and to my shame I must admit I was ignorant of it until recently, when a South Korean friend showed the video to my wife), Gangnam Style is a Korean music and dance phenomenon which has swept the world. Dictionary definitions, such as they are, refer to it as a Korean neologism for the lifestyle of those in the upscale Gangnam district of Seoul, while the wider definition is emerging as replicating the leg wagging, horse-like dance moves of the international smash hit.

But has it become wider than that yet, in a linguistic sense? When people refer to doing things Gangnam Style, are they talking about taking on an attitude and a way of doing things, or are they just referring to people copying the dance. I think it is the latter. At the moment, the internet is awash with soldiers, prisoners and Eton pupils performing their own takes on the song. But that’s currently all it is, albeit on a vast scale.

So while Gangnam Style will undoubtedly be cited as one of the words of the year when it comes to wrapping up the language of 2012, its meaning is likely to remain fixed to musical interpretations, rather than something which has become more entrenched in society.