Charlie No Longer

Back iJe ne suis pas Charlien January, I wrote a blog suggesting that the word of the year might already have been coined. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, I noted how #jesuischarlie had emerged not only as hashtag of solidarity with the French satirical magazine itself but also as a statement for freedom of speech itself. I further speculated that #jesuis may have established itself as a Twitter prefix that would establish itself as a statement of belonging.

No more.

The appalling decision of the Charlie Hebdo team to publish two cartoons mocking the death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child whose image propelled the migrant crisis across Europe into the consciousness of everybody, has changed all of that.

I won’t describe the cartoons or reproduce them. They have had quite enough oxygen already. Instead let’s focus on the immediate change this has made on social media. Apart from a small number of supporters, #jesuischarlie as a hashtag and a word is now discredited. People are using it on postings as a way of distancing themselves from the mood a few months ago, using the term now becomes a way of emphasising what it stood for and what has therefore been abused.

Instead, #jenesuispascharlie is being used to condemn Charlie Hebdo. Rather than being a term which could take on generic significance, this is simply an attack on the organisation, anger directed at them for wasting the stock of goodwill they had been given, anger even for polluting the term itself.

Calls for freedom of speech will go on, of course they will, and other causes will be found and become the new focus of social media and comment. New terms will come forward to be the one of choice to express adherence to the philosophy. But #jesuischarlie will not be that term, #jesuis will not become a new prefix. That moment has gone.

We may still end up saying that #jesuischarlie is the word of the year. But the narrative we will now tell will be of how a word flourished and died within a year, rather than that of a word which become important and then continued to resonate for many years to come.

#weareallmonkeys #newpartofspeech

New word production seems a bit thin on the ground so far this year. We’re nearly a third of the way through 2014, and I find that the annals of Wordability seem to have less to report on than normal.

But one area that is as fertile as ever is Twitter, and in particular reminders that it has spawned an entirely new type of word.

I refer of course to the hashtag, which is both a word and yet not a word. Originally an easy way to search for content, the hashtag has evolved into something which in time might come to be recognised as a new part of speech altogether. By taking a short sentence and sticking it together with no spaces, a new term is formed as a way of summing up the sentiment expressed in the tweet which precedes it. The hashtag becomes a commentary, or maybe a contextual aside to give more depth to what has been said. In a medium where 140 characters are king and each character has to count, these hashtags have come to be a way to express far more than the tweet allowance normally permits.

I found myself thinking about this following this week’s incident involving Barcelona footballer Dani Alves and a racist taunt from the crowd. His brilliant riposte at having a banana thrown at him was to pick up the offending fruit and take a bite, before continuing with the game.

Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez
Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez

But what was more magnificent still was the social media reaction. Many notable footballers took to Twitter to post photographs of themselves eating bananas, and the banana habit swiftly became a viral phenomenon. But rather than new term such as Tebowing coming to the fore, at least not so far, the tweets all came with a hashtag of solidarity, namely #weareallmonkeys.

So what does the use of this hashtag tell us about language? Well firstly, it’s a bit like a badge, you in effect wear it on your tweet to show that you support the cause. Secondly, it’s a great example of words run together to create a meaning above and beyond that which is expressed in the original sentence which spawned it. If you had to define this example, you’d end up with something which nods to support for Alves’ action, is a general support for anti-racism work and also articulates the point that humans are all derived from the same source and that those who fail to understand this really should learn to. Not bad for four words strung together.

But finally we need to consider its status as a new word. It’s clearly not a word that will have a long life and end up in the Oxford English Dictionary. But in the language of Twitter, it is a new word, and it is used to mean all of the the things I have suggested whenever anybody appends it to their tweet. In this context, it has all the attributes of being a new word, though not in the conventional sense.

It is clear that as technology changes the way we communicate so the words that we use will change to keep pace. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the structure and formation of language itself is going to start to change, with new rules, new formations, and as hashtags suggest to us, new parts of speech. Or as they say on Twitter, #theenglishlanguageisalwayschanging.

Au Revoir Le Hashtag

The French have a famous aversion to the Anglicisation of their language. But such is the pervading influence of the Internet and global terms which surround it that sometimes drastic action is called for.

So it is with hashtag, that vital little addition with which all Twitter users are of course familiar. The term hashtag has started being used by the French twitterati, meaning that the arbiters of all things lexical and French have been forced to step in.

So from now on, French Twitterers are expected to refer to “mot-dièse” meaning “sharp word” whenever they wish to preface anything with an #. Like that’s going to work, and by all accounts, the move has already a received a Twitter thumbs down, especially as a musical sharp, as denoted by the new term, is not the same symbol as a hashtag.

So while France’s Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie decides which popular online term to unsuccessfully target next, we are left to ponder whether this is a seminal moment for French. If the efforts of language officials do not manage to mandate what the correct word should be for the language in this case, will French continue to be a tongue which is limited and proscribed in terms of its vocabulary or will it start to take on a more English identity and be allowed to grow in a more natural way? Je ne sais pas.

Banish The Banished Words List

I fear that by the end of this blog, people are going to be condemning me as a curmudgeon with no sense of humour. Ah well.

Lake Superior State University has been receiving global coverage for its annual list of words which should be banished, a list which it has been issuing for close on four decades. It contains a dozen words which it says should immediately be sent packing from the English language.

Now on Wordability, I have certainly commented that I dislike certain new words and phrases, and hoped that they don’t catch on. But once they do cement their place in the language, well that’s just linguistic life. And just because you don’t like them, there is nothing you can do about it. Thankfully, English is not a language where membership is decided by fusty academics behind closed doors, and I find myself slightly aggravated by the idea of banishing words, even though it is clearly tongue in cheek. I assume, anyway.

Fiscal Cliff tops the new list. But it is typical of all of the words on the list. It came into being because it needed to, because it fulfilled a linguistic gap that was demanding to be filled, so to banish it is to banish the concept itself or to ignore the need to find a way of talking about it. Spoiler Alert is an equally useful linguistic shorthand, YOLO has become a vital tool of social communication, and Trending is the perfect descriptor of what is happening on social networks, despite my wife telling me it is not a word whenever I use it.

Frankly, all these words need to exist. Do some of them offend my ears? Yes. Should we therefore get rid of them, just because they irritate us? Of course not. And I do find it slightly rich of Lake Superior University to run its results on the same page as its slogan, ‘Redefining The Classroom’, which is a phrase which sounds much worthier of banishment than any of those I have previously mentioned.

One final note – I would imagine that the American Dialect Society believes these words should not be banished either, as many of them made it to the shortlist for its word of 2012. But in the end Fiscal Cliff and Yolo, to name but two, lost out to hashtag.

I’m slightly surprised by the result – for me, hashtag has been well established for some time and was already entrenched before last year. But that’s just my view. What is clear is that it is a modern word which is necessary. So expect to see it on a list of words which should be banished any moment now.