Phubbing Becomes A Phenomenon

Lets be honest. We’ve all done it. I’m not proud of it but I’ve definitely done it. And I’ve had it done to me as well. What am I talking about? Phubbing.

Phubbing, an amalgam of phone and snubbing, is defined as ‘The act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention’. The word is the brainchild of Melbournian Alex Haigh, who has set up the hilarious Stop Phubbing website as a way of drawing attention to the practice and allowing people to fight back and stop it. So successful has this been that the term is now going viral.

Stop Phubbing
Anti-Phubbing poster

It’s a brilliant word, undoubtedly one of my favourites of the year. Why, I hear you ask? Well firstly, it passes the test of being a semantic gap needing filling. This is a modern phenomenon, it is an emerging aspect of modern life, and when you talk to people about it, they all agree they’re aware of it. Well they would agree if they weren’t so busy sending Tweets.

Secondly, it’s a great neologism in its own right and blends the right two words to get the new one. Phubbing retains enough of the sense of its ancestry to aid understanding and stand alone, and also sounds just judgmental enough to make its point. It is also infinitely better than other options. I don’t think phignoring or phold-shouldering would really have cut it.

And its usage is already taking off and moving away from the original source. The day after reporting the advent of the word, The Independent used it in perfect context in a story about how crossing the road is dangerous when you are glued to your phone.

So phubbing as both a concept and a word is here to stay. I think we can all agree that it’s rude and people shouldn’t do it. Unless they’re reading Wordability of course, in which case it’s absolutely fine.

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The Swiftkey Way To Learning New Words

The number of new words contributed to the English language by technology is well known. But how does a company which provides technology to help with language and communication cope with the ever-expanding tide of vocabulary?

Swiftkey
Swiftkey in action

Swiftkey has garnered praise and awards for its predictive text app. Its nifty software allows users of Android devices to speed up their typing by anticipating what they are going to type and then suggesting it for them.

I wondered how the Swiftkey database keeps up to date, to ensure that it can offer users the newest words on the block. So I asked Dr Caroline Gasperin, who leads a team of eight language processing engineers responsible for most language-related tasks at the London-based company.

She explained that Swiftkey learns an individual’s linguistic habits, and that by extension this grows its global database as a result.

“Your SwiftKey will learn any word you teach it, you only have to type it once and it will be included in your personal language model on your device,” she said.

“Through the Personalisation feature – which allows you to sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts – and through continuous use, SwiftKey learns the words you use and the contexts in which you use them so that its predictions and corrections are based on your own way of writing.”

This learning can then feed into the overall word database to help the word corpus grow. Caroline said: “We’ve started putting in place the infrastructure for learning new words from our user base.

“As users use the Personalisation feature of SwiftKey, we are able to collect statistics about the words they use and identify words that we did not know before. We are putting in place a semi-automatic process to identify which of those words could become part of a standard dictionary and consequently become part of our downloadable language modules.

“This process consists of observing the frequency of use of words over time: words which used to have few occurrences across our user base, but which start becoming more frequent over time, and which are mentioned by several of our users instead of by just one or a few, are considered as good candidates for being added to our dictionaries.

“It’s worth adding we take our users’ privacy extremely seriously and have policies in place to safeguard this. We do not process a user’s data personally.”

Dr Caroline Gasperin
Dr Caroline Gasperin

So has the way that new words are assimilated changed, and is the process quicker than before? Caroline said: “We look into how many different people have used an unknown word in order to consider it as a potential new word in the language instead of a personal word.

“We take our users’ privacy seriously, so we’ve developed ways to discover words in wide use instead of focusing on single users.

“We haven’t followed users’ language use for long enough to know whether new words are being adopted faster than before, but we are working on getting those statistics.”

I have long since believed that new words are being created and accepted into the language considerably quicker than before, with technology the principal driver behind that evolution. It would be interesting to revisit Swiftkey at some point soon to see whether those promised statistics back up that theory. And the company also gives us a very clear steer about how its core business has to adapt to the ever-changing delights of the English language.