Language’s Greatest Era

As Wordability celebrates its 200th posting, it’s time to pause for a moment and take stock of the state of language today.

When I started the Wordability blog, I knew that the constant stream of new words and phrases which flood into the English language would ensure that there would always be a steady flow of things to write about. Added to that, the reaction that such stories often engender in the media confirmed that there would also be an audience who would find such musings interesting.

But what has become increasingly apparent is that much of that interest stems from people who want to moan and complain about the way that language changes, and protest that terms that become recognised as words simply aren’t words at all and should be sent back to where they came from.

This has been particularly apparent in the last few weeks, when a couple of high-profile organisations announced additions to their corpus. The Scrabble dictionary updated to use many new terms, which allowed headline writers everywhere to condemn this ‘Ridic’ development as ‘Obvs’ not ‘Dench’. Then US dictionary Merriam-Webster revealed its latest additions, with WTF lending itself most obviously to people who wanted to criticise the move. And even the French got in on the act, with their much-proclaimed ban on English words seemingly being relaxed in some volumes and Selfie finding a place in their listings.

So what does all this mean? Well to a blogger like myself, it means I will never be short of anything to write about. For as long as new words keep appearing and people continue to react to them, I will continue to have a blog worth maintaining.

However, it means a great deal more than that. Because I think this is the most exciting era for language development that there has ever been. The digital era in which we now reside has changed everything in ways that we don’t recognise ourselves yet, and will only recognise perhaps when we have a little more hindsight and perspective on the radical times in which we live. It is undeniable that the pace of life has changed and the global nature of our community has changed. And all of this has meant that language evolution has sped up to such a degree that we almost can’t keep track of it.

It’s not just the new words which appear, it is the challenges to the structure of language itself. It is these things which make this the most exciting era of language evolution there has ever been, not only because of the changes but also because of the footprint of change which digital technology provides, meaning we can track and understand those changes better than ever. We have a record of what is going on. As parts of speech change, new parts of speech emerge, and even new languages appear with extraordinary rapidity, this is a period to be heralded as amazingly exciting and not one to be condemned by those who believe that language is set in stone. It isn’t.

So what do I expect to write about in my next 200 postings? Will the English language look the same in 200 postings’ time? Well there will certainly be abundant new words, but many of those will disappear after their brief flowering and never come back again. For every selfie there are 10 Bleisures. People will continue to use -gate as a suffix with stupefying monotony. Hashtags will continue to evolve and become ever more powerful as means of communication. Technology and the internet will remain the greatest drivers of change. English will also continue to invade other languages, as the lingua franca of mass communication continues to define itself.

And throughout it all, vast swathes of people will continue to complain that English is being ruined and violated by the changes that are unavoidable. I look forward to reading the stories, writing about the developments, and ensuring that Wordability keeps abreast of all of the key new terms that our enriching our magnificent language.

Brelfies The Latest Craze

I vowed to myself that I would never again write about a Selfie derivative. And yet…

So another craze is now exploding across the Internet. Brelfies, breastfeeding selfies, are the latest phenonemon, as breastfeeding mothers post photographs of themselves feeding their tiny offspring.

I am not going to get into a debate about the pros and cons of the images themselves – others are probably far better placed. Instead, I want to draw attention to it in the annals of Wordability as one of the many Selfie crazes which seems to have gained some traction, and probably more than some of the other ones I have covered such as Felfies, Usies and Belfies.

But there is more than just recognising its existence. What is interesting is the way that Selfie is evolving as a word. The ‘elfie’ suffix can take almost anything at the beginning to denote a particular type of photo, but it has already undergone a semantic evolution. Selfies are very specifically photos that people take of themselves. Brelfies on the other hand are not taken by their subject, they are photographs of individuals but are taken by other people.

So the idea of a photographic portrait is being overtaken by the Selfie, whose linguistic derivatives are rapidly growing to encapsulate all kinds of photos of individuals. I wonder if it is possible that individual images of people will all come to be referred to in Selfie terms in the future, and the portrait photo will become a thing of the past. I wouldn’t rule it out.

Selfies Evolve Into Usies

Selfies have become inescapable over the last few months, and with their ubiquity has come variations concerning among others farmers and bottoms.

Now, the recent trend for selfies involving groups of people has spawned its own word. Usies (pronounced uss-ees) has been coined for the images which have been becoming increasingly prevalent since the famous Ellen DeGeneres shot of Hollywood royalty at the Oscars earlier this year.

Ellen DeGeners' famous Oscar photo
Ellen DeGeneres’ famous Oscar photo

The word was first used last year but is only now coming into consciousness and wasn’t really known when the Oscars took place. However the growing number of shared selfies now means that the need for the word is greater, hence its eventual emergence into more regular usage.

“Usies are a growing trend that I think have far more social value than selfies,” said Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

I actually think Professor Strahilevitz has a point. When I was writing about selfie being named word of the year last year, I was slightly despondent as I felt it described a slightly fractured and narcisstic society, obsessed with self at the cost of community.

While self-promotion is still at the heart of the usie, it is more about the people you are pictured with, the group rather than the individual. Is society moving towards greater unity and community again, rather than an obsession with self? The emergence of a new word is clearly flimsy evidence on which to base such an assertion, but if society does feel more cohesive and joined up in a couple of years’ time, it might be interesting to look back and see whether this linguistic trend really did mark a turning point.

Scrabbling To Find a New Word

The official Scrabble dictionary has not been updated since 2005. But of course much has changed since then, so with a new update on the way shortly, the process of adding to the official word list has also evolved.

And so Facebook comes in. Scrabble manufacturers Hasbro have launched a competition via the social network for people to nominate their suggested words. These will then be whittled down to a shortlist and from there, one will be chosen to be fast tracked into the dictionary.

In some ways, the coverage has been fairly predictable, with Selfie and Twerking emerging as the most likely words to win the vote, according to the papers at any rate, and they are included in the nearly 3,000 comments currently sitting on the page.

Personally I think that it is important to target words with large scores, preferably those containing the expensive letters. Having gone back through the annals of Wordability to find suitably high-scoring options, I come back with Grexit, while KALQ would also score well. Phubbing has a number of high scoring components, while also giving users a chance to get rid of all of their letters.

But I find myself agreeing with many of the people who have posted on the official page with suggestions. Step forward Bart Simpson, who famously invented the word Kwyjibo and scored over 100 points into the bargain. What a wonderful winner that would be, only slightly undermined by the fact it isn’t actually a real word.

Of course, life will not imitate art in this respect, and Kwyjibo will not be the winner of this contest. But I just hope that it is not something entirely obvious, and we are not treated to another round of Selfie and Twerking headlines before too long.

Selfies Hit Rock Bottom With Belfies

I had hoped never to write about selfies again. They already feel so last year, notwithstanding the emergence of their farming offspring felfie. But there is an increasing trend for one more type of selfie, so I felt duty bound to record it in the annals of Wordability.

Basically, celebrities have been taking photos of their bottoms and posting them on social media. Belfies, as they have become known, first appeared at the end of 2013, but are being written about now in increasing numbers, with luminaries such as Ireland Baldwin, Pascal Craymer and Lucy Watson (no, I’ve never heard of any of them either) eager to get in on the act.

The derivation of Belfie is pretty straightforward – Bum and Selfie combined into a hilarious whole. But without wishing to be pedantic (not true), this formation is inaccurate. A Selfie is a photo taken of yourself, by yourself. Having looked at some Belfies, for research purposes only you understand, it seems to be anatomically impossible for most of these bottoms to have been photographed by the people to whom they belong. The only person I can think of with arms long enough to actually take a proper Belfie is Mr Tickle, and given the absence of orange blobs appearing in the Belfie annals, it seems he hasn’t succumbed yet.

So while Belfie might be around for some time to come, spend a moment realising that the word itself should not be defined as a photo taken by yourself of your own bottom. All that you could really photograph with normal arms might be encapsulated with a much more graphic word, which coincidentally ends up being a very useful term for describing people who put these images out on social media.

Felfies – The New Breed on the Farm

The linguistic flexibility of the word Selfie seemingly knows no bounds. Not content with being a word of the year, Selfie is now showing itself as flexible and changeable, with multiple variations being coined to describe the seemingly infinite variations of self-portrait that are now emerging.

The first alternatives focused on different parts of the body being pictured, with Legsie being mooted as one specific example which was taking off. The latest evolution is derived from those taking the pictures themselves, and the one that has attracted significant attention is self-portraits taken by farmers, otherwise known as Felfies.

The home for Felfies is the Farmingselfies website, set up by farmer William Wilson as a way of putting a face to the many farmers whose hard and isolated lives feed so many people round the world. It’s unlikely he envisioned the attention that his move would bring. But social media loves a picture of an animal, and as farmers started to submit their snaps of them together with the other inhabitants of their farms, so the concept and the term Felfie itself began to grow and trend.

From a linguistic point of view, I have to wonder whether the never-ending spread of selfies means an increasing number of variants for the English-language to contend with. If other professions jump on the bandwagon, will they spawn their own versions? Will bakers be taking Belfies and shelf-stackers snapping Shelfies before too long? And pity the poor sailors, who cannot claim Selfies as their own.

Selfie recently topped the Lake Superior State University annual list of banished words. It is fair to see that if these alternative versions continue to emerge, a whole gamut of Selfie progeny could be topping the list in 12 months’ time.

Because Language Changes

Even though it is now 2014, the final embers of 2013 are still upon us. Primary among this is the decision of the American Dialect Society to name Because as its word of the year.

Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said that a change in its grammatical usage in informal online settings was behind the victory. He said: “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’”

That’s why I think this is such a fascinating victory. Much of the language change which is ascribed to new forms of digital communication revolves around neologisms, new words being coined and taking off quickly, abbreviations exploding as words in their own right. But the idea that online messaging can actually change the grammatical properties of a previously existing word is a fascinating one, and that such a well entrenched word as Because can gain a whole new lease of life because of a switch in usage really emphasises that the English language is in a state of flux and that its evolution is gathering pace.

I was also interested to see Slash taking second place. Used as a coordinating conjunction to mean “and/or” (e.g., “come and visit slash stay”), it is an example almost of a new type of word or grammatical formulation. I read a fascinating piece last year by Professor Anne Curzan from the University of Michigan about how slash is evolving as a new kind of conjunction, exactly the usage in fact which the American Dialect Society has cited.

So while Wordability‘s focus will remain on new words as they evolve, this blog itself may find itself evolving to look at new parts of speech and how the fundamental rules of English may now be starting to change because of the influence of digital communication. One of the questions for 2014 may well be whether we are at the start of what will prove to be a fundamental change to the language we grew up with.

It is a fascinating time to be looking at the English language.

Bitcoins Prove Their Worth

The words of the year choices keep on coming, and Australian lexicographers have fixed on a suitable candidate to take their accolade.

Bitcoin is undoubtedly a word which has found its place in the lexicon this year, despite having been created five years ago. This digital currency has seen its usage in both financial and linguistic senses explode this year, and so the Australian National Dictionary Centre has named it as its word of the year.

It’s undoubtedly a good choice. It is a word which has been significant in public consciousness this year in a way that it wasn’t previously, while measurable usage itself has shot up 1,000%, according to the Australian experts.

Bitcoin is probably not quite as popular as Selfie, which simply confirmed its Oxford Dictionaries choice this week by becoming the centre of Barack Obama’s world. I suspect Australian experts couldn’t choose Selfie as well once Oxford had given it the nod, though it included it in its shortlist for the year, along with Twerk, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), Captain’s Pick and Microparty.

Sadly Phubbing did not make the shortlist, a shame considering it is a word of Australian origin. But when you consider that words like Bitcoin and Selfie are now being heralded as the words of the year, it means we may look back on 2013 as a year when we were self- and money-obsessed, which is not necessarily the most flattering reflection of ourselves.

The Scientific Approach

There are many ways to choose a word of the year. Merriam-Webster, the leading dictionary in the United States, opts for a scientific approach. It sees which word word has increased its look-ups in its online dictionary the most over the year, and simply gives it to that one. Ironically, this approach has yielded the word it deserves this year. The scientific methodology means that its word of the year is Science.

Its true that science has been in the news more this year than many others, with fresh space exploration on Mars, spectacular meteors and comets and the search for the Higgs Boson particle all issues which entertained the public and the media during 2013. “It is a word that is connected to broad cultural dichotomies: observation and intuition, evidence and tradition,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster.

For me, the problem with taking this approach to choosing a word of the year is that it ignores the gut instinct part, the human analysis that says while a word may be getting people’s attention more than it has in recent years, that doesn’t make it the word that sums up the year. Look-ups of science rose 176% this year to win it the prize. If the word Mugwump had been looked up 50 times last year and 200 times this year, it would have had a greater increase but would certainly not have been a suitable candidate for this accolade.

Writers around the world have had fun comparing the choice of Science with the Oxford Dictionary choice of Selfie, But Selfie says something about 2013 in a way that I don’t think Science really does. We will look back on this year as one where science came more the forefront of people’s minds than previously, but it wasn’t the subject that defined the year. All of which means that you need more than a scientific approach when it comes to deciding on the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Choosing a word of the year for 2013 has been tough. When August started, there was absolutely nothing obvious. But that situation was just about to change.

When it comes to making the decision, words which are heavily searched for will always feature highly in my thinking, because that demonstrates an interest and usage by people in the English-speaking word.

But for me, a word of the year also has to say something about the year, be a commentary on the way society has been over the last 12 months. Last year I chose a range of words, with Eastwooding, Mother Flame and Ineptocracy providing a commentary on politics, the Olympics and the modern flowering of new terms.

I’m not sure that when historians look back on 2013, there will be an easy way to encapsulate it. Austerity and political strife have continued, but much the same as before. The major scandals, well they were really carried over from last year. Big sporting events, not really. I think Oxford Dictionaries had a similar issue when they chose their word of the year. Selfie was a good choice, because as well as its increasing usage in 2013, it also suggests a fracturing of society, that actually the thing that binds people together this year and describes the year is an obsession with self, and making sure everybody then knows about me, me, me. Social media binds us together, but is perhaps making us more isolated and individualistic.

And that is also behind my choice of Word of the Year. Phubbing first came to my attention in August. Reported as the brainchild of an Australian student, Phubbing suddenly started appearing everywhere. The word, a blend of Phone and Snubbing, describes the act of engaging with your mobile device rather than the person you are standing next to, real, physical social interaction replaced by virtual interaction with someone or something that isn’t really there. It struck me at the time as a brilliant word, fulfilling a semantic need and speaking accurately of a truly modern mode of behaviour. It summed up much of what defines 2013.

The truth behind the creation of Phubbing simply sealed the deal for me. It turned out that this was not a student initiative, it was actually a carefully crafted guerrilla marketing by a Melbourne agency, designed to sell dictionaries. They even released a video showing how a group of language experts had come together in 2012 to create the word and then try and seed it online to get it to take off. For me, this tale confirms everything I have always said about how the nature of language evolution has changed. Forget the fact it was created and consciously marketed – if the word hadn’t been any good and hadn’t been necessary, it couldn’t have taken off. But the way that it did, the fact that it is consistently searched for and read about on Wordability, the way it has just slipped into normal vocabulary, especially in my household, simply affirms that it is the word of the year.

Phubbing All Over The World

Phubbing also provides the backdrop to this year’s book of words. Following the publication of Eastwooding With the Mother Flame last year, I am delighted to announce the arrival of Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013, which is available now as both an e-book and a paperback from Amazon.