This week, the internet has been in meltdown about the internet being in meltdown. And it’s been the creation of a new word which has done it.
Chinese social media almost exploded with the appearance of the word ‘Duang’, according to reports. Heard initially in a shampoo commercial by film star Jackie Chan in 2004, it re-emerged recently in a remix of the ad. Shortly afterwards the word went viral to such an extent that there were reports shortly afterwards about the word which broke the internet in China.
The facts about all of this seem curiously hard to pin down. What does duang mean? Nobody knows. One of its virtues seems to be that it has no meaning. The Chinese internet has supposedly melted because people have been putting into random statements and contexts indiscriminately, with everybody making sure they have been part of the neologistic craze, without, it seems, knowing why.
And why it has taken off is the other question I can’t really find an answer to. Some reports suggest it is timed to coincide with a new session of a legislative board which advises China’s government and of which Chan is a member. The word therefore either satirises him or pays homage to him. Who knows!
What is clear is that it remains a Chinese phenomenon. While it is now surfacing with reasonable frequency on Twitter, most of those links seem to be to articles about its usage, rather than using the term in the way in which it initially appeared, or at least that is true of the citations in English. In Chinese social media of course it is completely different, and that is where the major growth has been. So I don’t think this is an internationally born word which will make a crossover into English.
But what it does demonstrate is the way that new words can explode across our new forms of communication with almost bacterial speed, and that sometimes, they don’t even need to have a tangible meaning in order to exist. Sometimes, usage of word is enough to show you belong to something, and that is why people have been using it in their droves, to ensure they are part of the trend. And I’m Duang sure I’m right about that about that.
Even though 2015 has only just started, I think that we might already have the word of the year. Following the horrifying events in Paris, the hashtag #jesuischarlie has taken off globally. And I am left wondering if there will be a more powerful new term coined during the remainder of 2015.
Use of #jesuischarlie is fascinating in a number of ways. Initially it showed solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who were gunned down on January 7.
But for me it has now become so much more. To put #jesuischarlie in a Twitter post or other article, to put it on a T-shirt or just into your normal conversation, is to associate yourself with a global statement about freedom of speech, is to say that people will not be silenced just because somebody thought it reasonable to take a gun to those who would disagree with them. It is now a badge of belonging, of showing that we will all fight back against terror and not be afraid to say what we think. And its meaning will now stick as the marker of any statement of freedom of speech.
From a linguistic point of view, it demonstrates how language evolution is changing across all cultures. The fact that jesuischarlie is French is irrelevant, it is already an internationally understood term, good in any language. It is already capable of evolution, with #jesuisahmed appearing quickly on Twitter in tribute to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who also died in the attack. And it is not fanciful to imagine #jesuis emerging as a permanent prefix, capable of taking countless other endings to make anti-terror statements.
This also shows how hashtags are becoming words in their own right. To emphasise the point, the American Dialect Society this week chose #blacklivesmatter as the word of 2014, referencing emotive protests across North America. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: “While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”
We can only hope that events in Paris will not be the precursor to a year of atrocities and that freedom of speech will not be threatened again in this way. But it is moving to see the way that millions have stood up to have their voices heard, and have found a new word to rally behind.