A New Year’s Resolution

A Gap Year is the standard term for a year off. I’d like to claim that the near 12-month hiatus in writing any new entries for Wordability is the result of a life-changing time away in which I have visited countless new places, met hordes of fascinating new people and learned to grow my own vegetables.

Sadly, none of the above is true. The simple fact is, writing Wordability had stopped being fun. When I started the blog, back in 2011, I knew there would always be enough material to keep it fresh. Its remit was to pick up new words as they emerged and write about where they came from, how they were being utilised, and whether they appeared to have the stamina to remain part of the ever-changing English Language. And more than 200 posts later, this blog has fulfilled that remit.

Last year I found that the constant trawl for new words was becoming a chore, or when I did see something I was convinced was novel, it actually turned out to have been around for two or three years, thereby breaking the slightly draconian rules I had created for myself when the blog started. And so I got out of the habit.

But the bug to be part of the conversation about language remained, and it was helped by the realisation that since this is my blog, then I can amend the rules I use to decide whether a word can be featured. So what if a word has been used for a year or more when I first come across it? It’s still pretty new, and still represents change and creativity in English, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

So, I thought to myself, rather than constantly hunting for newsworthy items, and only writing about them if they fit strict criteria, what about simply celebrating things which are new to me or other people, even if they are not freshly minted. And while I’m at it, how about removing the pressure I sometimes placed on myself to get something out as soon as I came across it, and instead simply write one post a week that covers whatever I have seen over the last seven days. Now that sounds a lot more entertaining.

So what I have seen this week? Well, I have decided not to hark back to the words of last year, though I did enjoy the American Dialect Society’s various words of the year, mostly because their slang word of the year was Yeet, a word my daughter often uses when sending me messages, for no apparent reason. Entertainingly, she had been using it with no idea for what it meant, and seemed uninterested when I told her it is an ‘indication of surprise or excitement’. This raised a wider concern to me that people may simply be putting random words onto instant messages without worrying overly about what any of it means, which is slightly perturbing for the future of communication in general.

I have also decided to leave Donald Trump and Brexit well alone this week. I am confident that over the course of the next 12 months, they will contribute reams of material to me, as they continue to dominate political landscapes on either side of the Atlantic.

However, veganism has featured prominently in my mind, largely because I thought I had seen a new generic word for Vegan Cheese. Sky News used the term Sheese to describe this product this week, but on further investigation, it looks like Sheese is simply one vegan cheese product, and not a catch-all for the category.

Having said that, a generic term for vegan cheese would prove quite useful, on the basis there isn’t one at the moment. Vegan cheese eaters spotted this a couple of years ago, and an online movement to rename it Gary was born. Hard to imagine really how this didn’t catch on. But while we wait to see whether further first names are hijacked to become monikers for vegan fare (“Do you want some melted Gary on that fried Bert?”), it is worth nothing that the term ‘plant-based’ instead of vegan is beginning to be used with increasing frequency, primary as a way of countering the ire with which veganism is greeted by some. Veganuary is in full swing now, and while it is yet another of those remodelled months which has so irked me in the past, it does demonstrate that words about what we eat are set to dominate and evolve as the next 12 months passes.

As people are happy to say, we live in interesting times. The English language is bound to reflect that as the year progresses, and it will be fun to see what changes.

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The rise of the Stabilitocracy

One of my favourite words in the early days of Wordability was Ineptocracy, defined as “a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing.” Given the events of the last couple of years in the US and the UK, it seems surprising that Ineptocracy has not come back into vogue.

However, a recently formed word with similar linguistic roots does seem to have more chance of becoming established as it skilfully manages to describe an evolving phenomenon in the realm of geo-politics.

Flag of Montenegro

Writing at the end of last year, Srđa Pavlović, who teaches at the University of Alberta, described Montenegro as a Stabilitocracy. His piece argued that despite evidence of corruption and voting irregularities within the country, the support conferred by the West on Prime Minister Milo Đukanović gave him and the country a sense of status and legitimacy, and this created the illusion of a totally stable country while glossing over the issues bubbling under the surface.

Sometimes, a term just works, and this is one such word, because Stabilitocracy has been picked up by others and is already being extended to other democracies where an apparent stability is not truly representative of the true nature of the country, especially across the wider Balkan region. The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group has used the word to title a recent publication.

Aware of how the term has been used, Dr Pavlovic himself has published a detailed follow-up about how the term really encapsulates the relationship the West has with many of these emerging nations, skilfully demonstrating that by supporting what appears to be stability on the surface, the West risks creating longer-term issues. His point that Stabilitocracy “as a rule, produces everything but stability and security. More often than not, it legitimises the existing animosity towards the West and helps new resentment emerge and thrive where there was none,” is a disturbing description of what the future might be in these nations. The blog as a whole is an excellent read and demonstrates how sometimes, finding the right term can lead to a detailed and nuanced analysis of a complex situation which was not previously possible.

I have one quibble – I am finding Stabilitocracy a difficult word to say, and an even more difficult one to type. I keep having to slow down as I write to ensure I have got it right, which can affect the flow of my thoughts. A prosaic issue, but a practical one, which may hamper its chances of breaking out of what I am sure is a certain academic future into a more media-driven mainstream one.

That would be a shame. Stabilitocracy is a new term which is genuinely useful and perfectly captures a new and changing situation in modern politics, and I hope it comes to gain greater usage in time.

The true meaning of Covfefe

There has been a mass outbreak of new word fever this week after Donald Trump somehow contrived to tweet a word which nobody had ever heard of.

‘Despite the constant negative press covefefe’ he trumpeted, kicking off a social media firestorm as people fell over each other to define the word, use it in a range of hilarious images or generally just throw it into random sentences for comic effect. Even the President himself joined in the fun, with a follow-up tweet building on his earlier apparent error:

How we all laughed and enjoyed the joke – why, even the president was joining in, poking fun at himself, making himself part of a worldwide conversation in which he was in some ways the hero. Good old Donald Trump. Almost symblomatic of the man himself, you might say.

Of course, two days later, Mr Trump pulled the United States out of the global climate accord, risking huge danger to the planet both now and in the future. He was roundly condemned, villified, but at the same time, the covfefe momentum had not slowed.

So, conspiratorially, what if it was no accident? What if it was a deliberately insane tweet?

Therefore I present to you the true definition of Covfefe – a distraction created to make someone seem more human and appealing, thereby attempting to deflect some of the criticism likely to come their way after they do something particularly appalling and devastating.

In which respect, Mr Trump’s covfefe worked rather well.

Quidditch flies into new era

It’s not really a surprise that the inclusion of quidditch in the latest Oxford Dictionaries online update has garnered so much publicity. After all, Harry Potter is an international phenomenon, quidditch is now known the world over, as a word it is very well established.

US Quidditch
US Quidditch

Of course, it is not JK Rowling’s mythical game which has been recognised by the Oxford experts. Instead, it is the real-world equivalent, played by people who mount broomsticks and run around a field, throwing balls through hoops in a grounded version of the game popularised in the skies of Hogwarts. Such is the popularity of real-life Quidditch that there are two competing authorities in the United States responsible for tournaments, rules and so on, while the rapid worldwide growth of the game since it was first played in 2005 attests to not only the enduring popularity of Potter but also to the fact that it is evidently enjoyed by those who take part.

The reasoning for its inclusion is therefore completely sound – a new sport, now established, with a name that needs to be recorded. I guess the irony for a lot of people is that they are not actually aware of this version, and will have assumed that it was the fictional equivalent which had received lexicographical recognition. Which of course would not have happened.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether there is a certain uniqueness to the word quidditch. Words from fiction are a well known source of neologisms – the latest Oxford update includes cromulent, coined on The Simpsons, and embiggen, popularised on the same programme. But they are words which are used with the meaning which they have carried over from their TV appearances.

It is not just that the quidditch immortalised in the dictionary is different to the original fictional version. It is that something in fiction has inspired the creation of a real-world equivalent, and it is the real-world equivalent which is now recognised. I am trying to think of another example of something created in fiction which has subsequently been made real and then gone on to become established in the language in its new incarnation.

I am not coming up with anything else, but I am happy to be corrected. If anybody can think of other examples, please leave them in the comments below.

Shrinkflation shows that size matters

Chocolate
Chocolate set to shrink
Even though 2016 was regarded as the year of Brexit and Trump, 2017 is the year when the ramifications of those electoral turn-ups begins to take effect. From a linguistic point of view, this means that we can expect to see an increasing number of new words and phrases coming into the English language as Brexit kicks and Trump starts to, well, kick as well.

The latest word to find itself dominating the news is Shrinkflation – the practice of making products smaller because it is becoming increasingly expensive for manufacturers to maintain the previous size and not increase the price. Many have opted to go for the smaller option rather than the enlarged cost to cusomters as they struggle with unhelpful exchange rates and commodity prices.

In the last week, we have seen reminders of Doritos, Coco Pops and Pepperami as being among the many products shrinking before our eyes, while there are now warnings that Cadbury’s chocolate could be set to follow. The word shrinkflation itself has quickly bedded in as the term to describe this, and it looks like a word that will be around for some time to come. It doesn’t trip off the tongue easily, and it sounds a little forced when you hear people using it in conversation, but as a written word, it seems very likely to be a stayer. It has also had to bide its time – shrinkflation was used in 2014, before Brexit was even connected to it, but it is only now that it is finding its place.

I suppose the question now is what will be the next products to suffer from shrinkflation. Will the fast food giants be forced to rename their signature dishes – will the Big Mac and The Whopper become the Little Mac and The Tiddler? Will Hot Dogs become Hot Puppies?

One thing which I hope won’t suffer from shrinkflation is Wordability, though I am conscious that this has been the case the for last few months, given the lack of new postings on this blog. With language set to reflect the changes across the globe like never before, it is time to to writing again and ensure that at least on these pages, shrinkflation doesn’t strike again.

An Unpresidented Presidency

Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency this year has already made an indelible mark on the English language. Phrases like ‘Drain the Swamp’ and ‘Lock her up’ became an integral part of his campaign rhetoric and are continuing to be widely used, showing the power of finding the right terms and sticking with them in order to get your message across.

But one entertaining linguistic legacy of this year is a word which isn’t a word, and ceased to exist almost immediately after its brief birth on social media. In a tweet where he accused the Chinese of stealing a US drone, he described it as an ‘Unpresidented’ act. The word was swiftly deleted in favour of the always intended ‘Unprecedented’. But the power of the President Elect’s Twitter ramblings is such that once there has been a social media utterance, it will never go away again.

Amusingly, the Guardian newspaper promptly picked Unpresidented as its word of the year, and coined various definitions to do with unfitness for Presidency, the carrying out of un-Presidential acts or the saying of things which people are not really thinking at all.

Unpresidented is already showing signs of catching on in the arena in which it was first coined, with derogatory tweets about the incoming president being marked with an Unpresidented hashtag. It also gives commentators a term which in some ways encapsulates the astonishing sequence of events which we have seen unravel in the US this year. Don’t be surprised if this word is used to describe some of Mr Trump’s actions post-inauguration and he ends up being hoist by his own Twitter petard.

It is also not the first time that the Donald has used a non-word which people have nonetheless been interested in. I wrote some years ago about the word Symblomatic, which he used when discussing the Oscars. I found that searches for the word kept bringing traffic back to Wordability for quite some time after he said it, so even four years ago, there was an interest in Mr Trump’s peculiar regard for the English language.

The difference this time though is that any linguistic mistakes he makes from January 20 next year could have rather more far-reaching consequences.

The Truth About The Word of the Year

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man. Earlier this year, I said that Brexit was a shoo-in to be named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. Thankfully my fiver remained in my pocket rather than with my local bookmaker. The lexicographers of Oxford have announced instead that Post-Truth is its international word of 2016.

But I think they’ve got it wrong.

To me, a word of the year has to encapsulate the year just gone and also be a word that is actually being used on a regular basis. In terms of the former criterion, post-truth fits the brief. Given the crazy political climate we have just lived through, where the veracity of what we hear is open to question and elections are won and lost on the basis of at times spurious claims, the notion that we now live in a post-truth world is a very real one. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, it clearly sums up the year we have all lived through.

But while we all recognise this and know it to be true, and while Oxford say that usage has gone up 2,000% in 2016, is it word that anybody ever hears anybody else actually say in daily conversation? Or is it a word of media commentary and online discourse, handy for summing up the zeitgeist and therefore one of the words which helps us to describe the year, but not indisputably the word which defines it.

Despite Donald Trump’s victory, I still maintain that Brexit is the word of 2016, a view which Collins Dictionaries recently endorsed. I think it has international connotations, as it is used as the touchstone by which other elections or movements are now judged. I’ve no idea how much usage has gone up, but I would wager (there I go again) that it is a great deal more than the 2,000% increase recorded by post-truth.

But crucially, it has become a word used by everybody this year and has become fully adopted into the English language better than any other recent word which comes to mind. It went from a slightly odd formation on the sidelines to becoming a fully fledged member of the English language, used and understood by everybody. For goodness sake, we even have a Brexit Minister now, that is how established the word has become. (Hopefully we will never be entering a Government that feels the need to appoint a Post-Truth Minister, but that is a blog for a different site). Its universal acceptance should have sealed the deal.

I do sometimes wonder whether the timing of the word of the year calendar affects Oxford Dictionaries slightly. Collins always goes first, and having bagged the obvious choice, I can only speculate on whether the Oxford powers that be felt that they couldn’t choose the same thing, so had to come up with something related but different. I can’t help feeling that they have plumped for the more academic and erudite choice as a way of marking themselves out, but have simply got it wrong this year.

I probably haven’t enhanced my already minimal chances of being invited to join the committee which decides these things in the future, but no matter. For me, Brexit is and always will be the defining word of 2016. And that is the whole truth.