Roll Your Eyes at Tardy Swift Boats

Heard of eye rolling, green technology and swift boats? Of course you have. They’ve been around for years. Or maybe not. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I don’t quite get the Oxford English Dictionary’s policy for their quarterly updates.

In their latest announcement, many of the words now added to the online Oxford English Dictionary seem reassuringly familiar, and not typical of new words at all. The definition for Swift Boat even cites its appearance in the 2004 US Election as the time it came into public consciousness.

Now I know that the OED policy states that words have to have been used for a certain length of time and in a sufficient variety of places for inclusion in the dictionary, and as the official arbiter of language, this is clearly the right policy. The OED is the ultimate record of language, and is clearly not going to validate some of the words which appear fleetingly and then disappear again almost without trace.

But I find the examples above bizarre, as they are all words which have been common for some time, and if I said I had been rolling my eyes over the situation, nobody would have struggled to understand me. It just strikes me that when it is being trumpeted that new words have been added to a dictionary, there should be something vaguely novel about them.

In fact, the recent financial buzz phrases, such as Robin Hood Tax and Debt Ceiling, seem to have been accepted at just the right time. It feels like they have been around for just short enough that their welcome to the OED fraternity is perfectly timed. More of the same, please.

My favourite word on the list was one I was unfamiliar with. A minimoon is a short break taken by a married couple, typically as a prelude to a longer holiday. I probably should have known it. It’s been around since the 1970s. So not so new after all.


An Omnishambles at the Heart of Downing Street?

When I heard that the recent run of Coalition policies was being described as an Omnishambles, I thought that a great new political word had been coined. The fact that I was wrong says a great deal about the political animals currently at the top in the UK.

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s use of Ominshambles during Prime Minister’s Questions in April was not a new piece of linguistic dexterity coined just for the occasion. He was actually quoting political comedy The Thick of It, and in particular, its spin meister Malcolm Tucker.

The good news for Mr Miliband is that the word has stuck. The Omnishambles Budget, the Omnishambles of other recent incidents – this word summing up a number of things going wrong simultaneously is now appearing on radio and in print. It shows once again the power that one word can have to encapsulate a mood and dominate a political discusson.

But what does the rush to use Ominshambles tell use about the users? Are they using it because it is perfect and truly sums up the current situation? Or are they dong it simply to be trendy, to show they are in the know about hip political comedies which are clearly very familiar to our political leaders and they want to be part of the club.

If it is the latter, which seems likely, especially as I have heard it being delivered with an almost smug smirk, then I am happy to admit that I am not in the know and don’t have to slavishly jump on a bandwagon to show that I am part of any clique.

Omnishambles has the power to be a very useful piece of shorthand for the Opposition, and if it enters common usage, then this is a linguistic game well played. But if its in-joke nature annoys people and makes them feel cut off from our politicians and the joke they are sharing with each other, then its usage could backfire. In fact, it could reinforce the sense that behind closed doors, the leading politicians are all great mates, performing for the cameras but sharing interests away from them, and that could serve to highlight the distance people are increasingly feeling from the goings-on in Westminster.

Abadingding The Thing In The Philippines

I love it when a great word comes from an unexpected source. And I really love it when a word is so pleasing on the ear that you find you keep on wanting to use it. Such a word is Abadingding.

Politics is of course fertile territory for neologisms, and the coining of words to encpsulate specific ideas is a vital tool for getting your message across. So it is in the Philippines, where campaigners are trying everything they can think of to fight against rising fuel prices.

The current subject of their ire is parliamentarian Herminida Abad, who is accused by activists of ignoring demands for her to start deliberations on a number of bills which could bring an end to the increases.

And so the gloriously named fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) has coined Abadingding, defining it as “complete refusal to heed the people’s clamour in the hope it will wither away.”

The group is rather good at coining new words, with this effort coming hot on the heels of Noynoying, their tribute to the apparent inertia of President Beningo ‘Noynoy’ Aquino and defined as “doing nothing even if you have something to do”.

Noynoying is already taking physical form in Philippines, with scores of people brazenly sitting around doing nothing in public places to make a point.

Are these words great examples of lexical inventiveness being used effectively in political campaigning? Absolutely. Will they ever cross the borders of the Philippines to receive international lexical acclamation? Probably not.

But just imagine if a leading politician in the UK or the US ever found themselves accused of Noynoying or Abadingding when they failed to deliver on vital legislation. What a colourful linguistic moment that would be.

Frasier’s Effect on The Special Relationship

David Cameron’s visit to the United States to see Barack Obama has brought the phrase “special relationship” back into the daily news agenda.

It has never actually left since first being coined by Winston Churchill in 1946 to describe the Anglo-US connection, but as it enjoys one of its weeks in the sun, the question inevitably comes up over whether the term is still valid.

The two leaders seem to have been quite keen not to utter the exact phrase, though they did use the words in a different order in a joint article in The Washington Post. Instead, phrases such as “essential relationship” and “rock solid alliance” have been used in speeches instead.

So are we going to witness the birth of a new phrase, a linguistic reimagining of The Special Relationship for the 21st century? In short, I think not. Frankly, so long as relations between the UK and US remain strong, I am not sure that there is a phrase which does the job better. “Special Relationship” captures both strength, affection and the importance each country places on each other in a way that “rock solid alliance” simply doesn’t.

But my feelings about the phrase are jaundiced in a way that may just be limited to me and my wife (hereafter Dr Wordability). Like all married couples, there are certain words and phrases which we use between ourselves which mean little to anybody else.

If we find somebody odd, peculiar in any way or annoying in some respect, we describe them as “special”. We didn’t actually make this up. Again, like many personal linguistic habits, this is derived from television and an episode of Frasier called The Dinner Party. With Frasier and Niles suffering torment as their carefully planned dinner party slowly unravels, Frasier asks his father Martin, “Dad, do you think we’re odd.”

After a pause, Martin replies: “No, you’re not odd. You’re just special.” (You can watch the moment on this clip, it comes at three minutes 50:)

So armed with this, what do you think of the phrase “The Special Relationship” now? If either leader describes the other as “Special”, do they mean it in the context of more than 70 years of cordiality? Or have they just been watching a sitcom?

Is Ineptocracy the Future of Government?

Writing in the Guardian this week, sketch writer Simon Hoggart claimed that Labour MP Paul Flynn had invented a new word. He wrote: “11.55: Paul Flynn coins new word for what the coalition has created: “An ineptocracy of greed.” Won’t catch on.”

Unfortunately for Mr Hoggart, he was wrong on two counts. Firstly, Mr Flynn didn’t coin the word. And secondly, it already has.

Ineptocracy has been around very fleetingly for at least 10 years, but seems to have picked up a head of steam towards the end of 2011 and is now starting to increase in usage both in blogs and on Twitter.

It is not yet in any official dictionaries but is being defined by users as “A system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.” Other, simpler definitions, suggest it is simply a ruling government which is incompetent.

It is certainly gaining traction in the United States, and Googling “ineptocracy obama” yields quite a number of results, suggesting that opponents are beginning to fix on the word as a way of encapsulating their negativity towards his presidency.

Mr Flynn is possibly the first person to be using the word in the UK, and always in relation to the Coalition. As well as his mention this week, he also write a blog last October called Building the Ineptocracy, but it seems he was responding to the growing usage of it from across the Atlantic and wanted to see if he could tie the current UK Government into it.

So will ineptocracy stick? There are factors against that. On a prosaic level, it is difficult to say and even to spell. I find I keep stopping to think about it as I type this piece. The fact that it doesn’t easily trip off tongue or keyboard may limit its growth. It may also be limited because it sounds quite specialised and a word owned by political writers and experts.

But I can see it growing as a shorthand way for bloggers and commentators to describe what they see as failed governments, so I can see ineptocracy gaining some official dictionary recognition later this year. And if a campaigning politician should pick up on it and throw it into a speech, then that validation will be very rapid indeed.

Change Leads the Change in Election Language

Lovers of new words will have been delighted to see the success that Rick Santorum had in the Iowa caucuses this week. But while the former senator will have been equally pleased at making a good start in the lengthy journey to the White House, he will not want to be reminded about his contribution to neologisms.

In 2003, Mr Santorum made some comments in an interview which were viewed as anti-gay. Shortly afterwards, gay rights activist Dan Savage wrote about the remarks and was encouraged by a reader to launch a competition to find a new sexual definition for Santorum in order to forever associate the politician with his remarks.

There were more than 3,000 entries and the final result, which I won’t repeat here for readers of a delicate disposition but can be found here, is still the top item which comes out when you search for ‘Santorum’ on Google.

It’s certain that Mr Santorum would not have wanted this in people’s minds when he plotted his assault on the presidency, and frankly, it would have been the kind of thing that could have been dismissed as old trivia. Until Mr Santorum contacted Google in September 2011 and asked them to remove the offending website from their indexes. And Google, predictably, said no. Well done Mr Santorum, that certainly helped people to forget about the issue.

Wordability finds this tale interesting on two counts. Firstly, it is unusual to actually solicit a new meaning for a word – these things tend to evolve naturally, so the competition aspect of this quest is refreshingly different.

The second reason is more to do with politics, and specifically American election politics. Wordability will be following the US election year with great interest to see which words emerge as the dominant ones. Politicians everywhere, but especially in the United States, are masters at changing the nuances of a particular word and repeatedly using it during a campaign to subtly influence the mindset of voters.

The Republican party are regarded as formidable masters of this skill. For example, before 2004, you might have been forgiven for thinking that a flip-flop was not much more than some fairly flimsy footwear that you would wear to the beach. But the Republicans noticed how Democrat candidate John Kerry had a habit of changing his mind on key issues, and the notion of Kerry and the flip-flop was born. The potency of that one word was a key part of the ultimately successful campaign against him, and received widespread coverage.

You might also think that the word ‘liberal’ is not necessarily a bad one and simply suggests an even-minded and tolerant approach to the issues. Yet in the United States, it has become a term that means quite left wing and prone to overspending Government money, and Republican politicians use it as a word with which to savage their Democrat adversaries.

But with the Democrats dominating the 2008 election, it was no surprise that a word from that campaign not only helped the Barack Obama victory campaign but was also the most significant word of the year. That word was ‘change’.

The subtle shift in meaning that the Obama campaign achieved was actually quite stunning. Of course, any politician campaigning to unseat a rival party is going to be preaching a message of change. ‘Vote for me, I’m exactly the same as the other guy’ is a surefire way of making sure that other guy wins.

But what the now-president did was to make ‘change’ something so much more than just ‘something different’. It became a potent word meaning not only a break from the current situation but also a golden and more rosy future, that the change that was coming was a better life, a greater life, a life to which we all aspire. No matter that he did not have to define how this change would be achieved, no problem that offering change is quite clearly the most obvious thing that any politician should do. No, all he had to do was keep on offering this mystical ‘change’ to all who were listening, and the quite hypnotic effect it had on voters propelled him to victory.

One caucus in, we are a long way off knowing who will be taking on the incumbent later this year and of course we have no idea who will be inaugurated in January 2013. But we can say that lovers of political language change will certainly be winners, as we wait to see what linguistic dexterity the next 10 months will bring. Let the battle commence.

Shovels at the ready

In an effort to get Britain moving again, the Coalition Government has announced a new series of building projects. And to show just how imminent they really are, the press has been describing six as ‘shovel-ready’.

From what I can see, this is the first time that this particular phrase has crossed the Atlantic. Shovel-ready, basically meaning that building can start immediately, seems to have emerged at the end of 2008 in a Barack Obama interview. So it’s a phrase you can believe in.

Now I am no building expert, but given the enormity of modern building projects, a shovel seems quite the least of it. Breeze block-ready, concrete mixer-reader, giant crane-ready – these would have carried the same meaning and also been more evocative of what was actually going to happen.

To give the Government its due, it doesn’t seem that Nick Clegg, who was promoting the policy, has actually used the phrase ‘shovel-ready’ in speeches or interviews. It’s probably a good job. If he had, some of his opponents might have wanted to know what he was shovelling.