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.

Advertisements

A Shellshock From Bendgate

It’s not been a conspicuously great week for Apple. Problems with its latest operating system have seen customers complaining about their phones not working properly, and the subsequent decision to pull a software update hit the company’s share price.

Then of course there is the internet’s obsession with the physical problems associated with the new iPhone 6, and the claim that some of them are bending out of shape. Linguistically, Bendgate was almost inevitable, and while I have a general dislike of the ubiquity of the -gate suffix, every so often a gate comes along which is entertaining enough to pay attention to. Bendgate is so silly, and so trivial, that it somehow seems to hit the spot.

Away from phones, Apple Macs are also running into problems over a security vulnerability known as Shellshock, which has entered the technical language a few months after its Heartbleed cousin caused its own breed of havoc across the world’s computers.

Apple says that the vast majority of its users will be unaffected by this latest bug. However, a company which has influenced the language so much in the past must have been hoping that its big launch last week would lead to its new features being the words which would be dominating the tech press and making it into general usage now. Instead, the words which have gone into common usage are ones which paint a negative image of the company.

iLanguage: How Steve Jobs Changed English

It is rare for somebody to have a profound influence on the way we live our everyday lives, but Steve Jobs was just such a person.

My interest in technology is not of the flashy buttons and whizzy gadgets variety. I am far more taken by the fundamental ways that technological innovation has utterly transformed our lives, and in this respect, the products that Steve Jobs and Apple brought to market achieved exactly this.

But Wordability’s interest is inevitably in the usage of new words, and to that end, I have been pondering how much of a linguistic legacy the Apple co-founder will leave behind.

I think there is one, but it is not as obvious as might first appear. For example, it is a stretch to say that without him, a mac would still only be a rainproof coat and the only thing we would picture when talking about a mouse would be a fairly cute rodent.

As for personal music players, I don’t think that iPod has quite become generic in the way that Google has, as I discussed in a previous post. Users of differently branded MP3 players would be quite aghast to have them called iPods, even though it is used by many as the standard term.

It is also interesting that the phrase iPod generation, coined in 2005 to describe the difficulties faced by those under 35, is more of a play on iPod rather than a description of their musical listening habits. iPod here is an acronym for Insecure, Pressured, Over-Taxed and Debt-Ridden.

But the iPod does give us a clue as to where the Jobs influence is truly felt in newly coined words. In fact, if you just put a lower case ‘i’ in front of any word, it transforms it into an Apple inspired version of itself. If I said I was thinking of producing an iRadiator, an iRockingHorse and an iSunHat, you would instantly picture these items playing music, affording their users instant communication and giving easy access to games of Angry Birds. So he has certainly left us the ‘i’ prefix, and #iSad was a top trending topic on Twitter in tribute, to prove the point.

However, I think that Steve Jobs’ biggest contribution to language is outside the normal remit of Wordability and is more in the realm of what linguists call pragmatics, the study of all the other factors surrounding language which help us to understand it.

Possession of a smart phone means that you can now embellish your everyday conversation with pictures, videos and access to other information instantly, as you talk to people. Touching and swiping have become gestures in conversation every bit as normal as nodding and shaking your head. And access to all this material makes conversation multimedia – instead of trying to describe that picture to the person you are talking to, you just show it to them instead.

So it could be argued that the ubiquity of Apple devices has made language different by adding all manner of elements to it so it is not just verbal, and the way that we communicate with people in person is now different because of the sophisticated devices in our pocket. And that would mean that one of Steve Jobs’ legacies is a subtle but permanent shift in the way we talk.