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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Culturomics: The Challenge for Wordability

I have been thinking a lot about Culturomics recently. Frankly, it has given me a headache. But it has also reminded me that if Wordability were to be up to date with ever single new word that enters the English Language, I would be glued to my keyboard the whole time and would neither eat nor sleep.

Culturomics has existed as a word and a discipline for two years. It is a very exciting linguistic development, and one that is only possible because of advances in technology. With millions of books now existing in digital format, courtesy of Google, scientists are able to analyse this vast amount of data to derive conclusions about the English language that have never previously been possible.

The first paper, published at the end of 2010 in the journal Science (free log-in needed to view the link), analysed 4% of all published material and used this to give an indication of the number of words in the English language. The estimate came out at more than a million, far more than recorded by dictionaries.

This year, a new paper by Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin and H. Eugene Stanley has given Wordability something to think about. Rejoicing in the catchy title Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death, the paper applies science to the life of words and comes up with rules to explain the birth and death of words and the evolutionary processes that govern their existence.

Leaving aside the many complex equations and use of Greek letters, the writers come to some interesting conclusions. More than 8,000 words entered the English language last year, so you can understand why Wordability will only track those that really start to hit the headlines. It also says that there is a change in the rate at which words are born and die, with more words dying off and fewer words coming in, though it says that those that do arrive have greater staying power because they describe completely new things, such as in the field of technology.

What is particularly interesting is the way that evolutionary theory can be applied to words. As the authors say, “words are competing actors in a system of finite resources”. Factors such as being favoured by modern spell checkers can given a word “reproductive fitness” and allow it to survive against other words of a similar semantic bent.

I have thought about this paper quite a lot, and find myself wondering if it will actually end up marking a point in time and that the evolutionary rules are about to change. Is the technology which allows Culturomics to flourish and these observations to be made now going to be the agent which changes that evolutionary process?

The authors say that it takes around 30-50 years for a word to be fully accepted and to either make it into a dictionary or disappear into linguistic obscurity. I wonder whether this will now change, and a new pattern will start to emerge. I have bemoaned in the past how long it sometimes takes dictionary makers to recognise words which have gained significant currency. In our interconnected world, where ideas and words can fly across the globe and become accepted almost instantly, the evolutionary pattern identified by the authors may start to change. I suspect it may become quicker for words to become accepted, and that the survival characteristics that will govern this will also change. Words that are slightly silly, that have the capacity to be shared on social networks, that describe an action people can participate in, will be the ones that evolve rapidly and see off the other competing words around them.

It is a fascinating concept that words fight the same survival battles as species on earth. In the 21st century, it will be interesting to see what factors allow them to survive.

All Together Now: It’s Singalongability

An academic has published a study about what makes us join in with certain pieces of music – what gives them, to use her brand-new term, singalongability.

Now Wordability loves the fact that English allows us to put -ability at the end of another word and create something intelligible. Frankly without this, Wordability wouldn’t be, well, it wouldn’t be Wordability. It is the English language’s great wordability which allows it.

So Wordability salutes Dr Alisun Pawley of York University, who worked with Dr Daniel Musselsiefen of Goldsmith’s University, to decide what makes a song singalongable.

They identified four key factors: longer phrases, a greater number of pitches in the chorus hook, male vocalists and higher male voices with a noticeable vocal effort. Their research put Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ top of the singalongability list.

But what makes singalongability such a great word is that it has an almost onomatopoeic quality. Its multi-syllable nature, and jaunty rhythm when you say it, make it the kind of word you could actually join in with.

Don’t believe me? Well then, I give you the type of music which is surely the most singalongable in the world – nursery rhymes. So easy to sing along with, even a two-year-old can do it.

Now, try replacing the words of Pop Goes the Weasel, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Humpty Dumpty with just one word – singalongability.

Go on, try it. You’ll soon get what I mean.

Text Neck and a Bowl of Guacamole

Wordability always enjoys seeing a new term sweeping across the internet. However, this is tempered when that term is, frankly, a bit silly.

Yes, technological advances have inevitably produced new ways of behaving and the possibility of new medical conditions. Yes, it is probably true that hunching over a mobile phone while texting can cause problems for your neck.

But Text Neck? This is the new name for this condition and it has received mass coverage in the last couple of days. American doctor Dean Fishman, who dreamed up the term and the definition, has even renamed his entire practice and website after it.

But Wordability’s problem is that the name trivialises a condition which is clearly worth thinking about, because it sounds glib. Frankly, it feels like something dreamed up to get headlines and to give people something to joke about, and means they will remember the name but not really think seriously about what it means.

And my personal problem with it? Every time I hear it, I think of Tex Mex. And then fajitas. And then burritos. And then I wonder whether you can get any chiropractic problems from leaning over a bowl of tortilla chips. Guacamole Neck anyone?

An Indian Summer for Older Ladies

One of the positives of the recent unseasonal heatwave to hit Britain has been the lack of ‘phew what a scorcher’ headlines.

However, the sight of bright blue skies and sandals in October has had Wordability wondering about the phrase Indian Summer.

Technically, this has not been an Indian summer as it has not been preceded by frost, which is apparently the appropriate precursor. Mind you, it has also not been preceded by American Indian raiding parties, which is suggested as one of the many etymologies of the term.

But given that we are now part of Europe, Wordability thinks it may be time to abandon the colonial term and instead adopt the description used by many of our eastern neighbours. In Russia, an autumnal period of heat is a Grandmother’s Summer, and various other translations and arrangements of old ladies and summer dominate many other countries.

Or maybe we should accept that China is the emerging power, and refer to it as “a tiger in the autumn”.

There is another approach. If our weather patterns are really changing, and summer is now coming in April and September, maybe it is time to come up with a new term. Perhaps we could call it summer. And then May to August could just be called the wet and cloudy bit in the middle.

Or failing all of that, what would be a suitable new phrase? Wordability invites you to decide.

A Feast of Lexicography

It’s been a fertile few weeks for lovers of new words. The Oxford English Dictionary has just issued its quarterly update, with details of its newest entries. This follows hot on the heels of new editions of two concise dictionaries, both of which achieved media coverage for their particular choice of trendy new word.

The OED has highlighed a number of the new words in its update. These include ambo, a member of an ambulance crew; kewl, an exagerrated version of cool; and Britcom, a British situation comedy.

What is interesting is how long it has taken for some words to actually be included in the OED. Wordability will always be interested in new word updates from dictionary publishers. But this blog will primarily be looking to pick up on new words and usages before they are finally legitimised by lexicographers, especially given how long this appears to take.

For example, the OED is now including stitch-up, which is of course the framing of an individual. It is, I’m sure, a word that most of us are familiar with. The OED even cites the first usage as 1980, making its 30-year wait hugely surprising. Zaatar, a middle eastern spice mix, has waited even longer and was first cited in 1917. A Zaatar stitch-up perhaps?

Also interesting are some of the words in the full list of newbies which are not highlighted by the editors. These include afterfeather, framboidal, house conventicle, picocell and take-no-shit. This week’s homework from Wordability is to find out the meaning of the above words and then put them into a coherent sentence. I expect many of you will find a suitable usage for the last word on this list in response.

Other dictionaries have recently put new words on bookshelves. Back in August, The Concise Oxford Dictionary celebrated its 100th anniversary with offerings such as mankini, jeggings, sexting and cyberbullying.

A week or so later, the new edition of Chambers Dictionary appeared, with words such as crowdsourcing, paywall and staycation, though interestingly, sexting did not pass the Chambers test, pointing to an interesting difference in criteria between rival dictionary editors.

But almost more eye-opening was the outpouring of nostalgia for words being removed from dictionaries. Oxford’s decision to discard cassette tape led to much online breast-beating as people pointed out that they were still using cassette tapes, and that despite CDs, MP3s and others, cassettes were still a valid way to listen to music.

But even more bizarre was the reaction to an announcement from Collins. Collins has not even released its new dictionary but did take the opportunity of the flurry of dictionary news to announce that some words would not be making the cut for its next edition later this year.

There seemed to be particular sadness over the loss of charabanc, a mode of horse-drawn transport which is clearly outdated but seemed to affect people disproportionately by its departure.

I don’t think this reaction was anything to do with a group of disenfranchised charabanc drivers fighting back. It seemed instead to point to a wistfulness for a golden age and an acknowledgement that former, more innocent times have long since passed.

Having said that, any declaration that a word is going out of date is clearly a challenge for hacks everywhere. Within days, the Sun, writing about Arsenal, said: “The night they lived to fight another day when, at one time, the whole out-of-control charabanc seemed to be heading for the rocks below.”

Charabanc may yet be saddling up for a reprieve.

What is Wordability?

There is no such word as Wordability. But then again, there is. Because I’ve just used it. So let’s start again.

Wordability is the ability of a language to create and assimilate new words. English is particularly adept in this regard. English has great wordability. And that is the subject of this blog.

Of course, I made that definition up. But when I was toying with blog titles, Wordability emerged as a currently non-existent word which nonetheless sounded like it should exist. Moreover, it felt like it aptly summarised what I was trying to get across. And that is that we should celebrate the English language’s remarkable ability to create new words. It skilfully adds prefixes and suffixes to existing words, it borrows with reckless abandon from other languages, and it brutally ascribes new shades of meaning to old words. And myriad other things as well.

In some ways, I am an unlikely champion of the ever-changing nature of language. I am linguistically pedantic by nature, and can rant with the best of them over an error or usage which I find aurally offensive. But as a post-graduate linguist, I learned to acknowledge that language is defined by its users, not by books, and that it changes all the time according to what speakers are doing. I am both a pedant and a non-pedant by turns. If only there were a word for someone who can straddle both states simultaneously. Bi-pedant? Schizopedant? Pedant-on-the-Fence? All suggestions welcome.

If you search for wordability, you won’t find it in any official dictionary, so it can’t currently be added to the more than one million words in English that have been identified by the Global Language Monitor. It does appear in the online Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “being able to create a new word and having the skill to place it in casual conversation, without anyone else noticing that it’s not really a word.”

When I found that definition, I almost ruled out Wordability as my title. But The Urban Dictionary is not an official arbiter. It is an admittedly wonderful collection of words and usages contributed by online users around the world. But it has no actual jurisdiction if I wanted to choose a different meaning. So that’s what I did.

I did briefly toy with alternatives. Wordalicious? Too much like a description of cake. Wordaging? Too much like a definition of some depraved sexual activity. New Words in the English Language? Too much like something that would simply make you go to sleep. So Wordability it was.

What did surprise me was finding a punchy web address to support it. Wordability.com was gone, snapped up by a Canadian transciption service. Wordability.co.uk was registered to a yet to be revealed online presence. Wordability.ltd.uk, which hadn’t occurred to me anyway, was taken by an online game called Wordability, which appears to be a variant on Scrabble, its main innovation seeming to be that it cares little which direction your word runs in, so long as it runs.

But wordability.net was available, and is now starting its quest for some of the odder and more entertaining new words and usages entering the English language. Let the journey begin.