The world’s words of the year pass judgement on a dark, surreal 2016


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Philip Seargeant, The Open University

Every December, lexicographers around the world choose their “words of the year”, and this year, perhaps more than ever, the stories these tell provide a fascinating insight into how we’ve experienced the drama and trauma of the last 12 months.

There was much potential in 2016. It was 500 years ago that Thomas More wrote his Utopia, and January saw the launch of a year’s celebrations under the slogan “A Year of Imagination and Possibility” – but as 2017 looms, this slogan rings hollow. Instead of utopian dreams, we’ve had a year of “post-truth” and “paranoia”, of “refugee” crises, “xenophobia” and a close shave with “fascism”.

Earlier in the year, a campaign was launched to have “Essex Girl” removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those behind the campaign were upset at the derogatory definition – a young woman “characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” – so wanted it to be expunged from the official record of the language.

The OED turned down the request, a spokeswoman explaining that since the OED is a historical dictionary, nothing is ever removed; its purpose, she said, is to describe the language as people use it, and to stand as a catalogue of the trends and preoccupations of the time.

The words of the year tradition began with the German Wort des Jahres in the 1970s. It has since spread to other languages, and become increasingly popular the world over. Those in charge of the choices are getting more innovative: in 2015, for the first time, Oxford Dictionaries chose a pictograph as their “word”: the emoji for “Face with Tears of Joy”.

In 2016, however, the verbal was very much back in fashion. The results speak volumes.

Dark days

In English, there are a range of competing words, with all the major dictionaries making their own choices. Having heralded a post-language era last year, Oxford Dictionaries decided on “post-truth” this time, defining it as the situation when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. In a year of evidence-light Brexit promises and Donald Trump’s persistent lies and obfuscations, this has a definite resonance. In the same dystopian vein, the Cambridge Dictionary chose “paranoid”, while Dictionary.com went for “xenophobia”.

Merriam-Webster valiantly tried to turn back the tide of pessimism. When “fascism” looked set to win its online poll, it tweeted its readers imploring them to get behind something – anything – else. The plea apparently worked, and in the end “surreal” won the day. Apt enough for a year in which events time and again almost defied belief.

The referendum that spawned a thousand words.
EPA/Andy Rain

Collins, meanwhile, chose “Brexit”, a term which its spokesperson suggested has become as flexible and influential in political discourse as “Watergate”.

Just as the latter spawned hundreds of portmanteau words whenever a political scandal broke, so Brexit begat “Bremain”, “Bremorse” and “Brexperts” – and will likely be adapted for other upcoming political rifts for many years to come. It nearly won out in Australia in fact, where “Ausexit” (severing ties with the British monarchy or the United Nations) was on the shortlist. Instead, the Australian National Dictionary went for “democracy sausage” – the tradition of eating a barbecued sausage on election day.

Around the world, a similar pattern of politics and apprehension emerges. In France, the mot de l’année was réfugiés (refugees); and in Germany postfaktisch, meaning much the same as “post-truth”. Swiss German speakers, meanwhile, went for Filterblase (filter bubble), the idea that social media is creating increasingly polarised political communities.

Switzerland’s Deaf Association, meanwhile, chose a Sign of the Year for the first time. Its choice was “Trump”, consisting of a gesture made by placing an open palm on the top of the head, mimicking the president-elect’s extravagant hairstyle.

2016’s golden boy, as far as Japan’s concerned.
Albert H. Teich

Trump’s hair also featured in Japan’s choice for this year. Rather than a word, Japan chooses a kanji (Chinese character); 2016’s choice is “金” (gold). This represented a number of different topical issues: Japan’s haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, fluctuating interest rates, the gold shirt worn by singer and YouTube sensation Piko Taro, and, inevitably, the colour of Trump’s hair.

And then there’s Austria, whose word is 51 letters long: Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. It means “the repeated postponement of the runoff vote for Federal President”. Referring to the seven months of votes, legal challenges and delays over the country’s presidential election, this again references an event that flirted with extreme nationalism and exposed the convoluted nature of democracy. As a new coinage, it also illustrates language’s endless ability to creatively grapple with unfolding events.

Which brings us, finally, to “unpresidented”, a neologism Donald Trump inadvertently created when trying to spell “unprecedented” in a tweet attacking the Chinese. At the moment, it’s a word in search of a meaning, but the possibilities it suggests seem to speak perfectly to the history of the present moment. And depending on what competitors 2017 throws up, it could well emerge as a future candidate.

The Conversation

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Slang shouldn’t be banned … it should be celebrated, innit


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Rob Drummond, Manchester Metropolitan University

Geezers and girls literally ain’t allowed to use slang words like “emosh” (emotional) anymore. The head teacher and staff of an academy in Essex, England appear to have taken great pleasure in banning the type of slang used in reality television series TOWIE, including many of the words in the above sentence, in a bid to improve the job prospects of their students.

Head teacher David Grant reportedly believes that by outlawing certain words and phrases and forcing students to use “proper English”, they will be in a better position to compete for jobs with non-native English speakers who may have a better command of the language. The way forward, he believes, is for young people to be using “the Queen’s English”, and not wasting time getting totes emosh about some bird or some bloke.

While nobody would doubt the good intentions behind such a scheme, it simply isn’t the way to go about achieving the desired aims. Of course, there’s always the possibility that this is all part of some clever plan to raise awareness and generate debate among the students about the language they use; in which case, great. Unfortunately, phrases such as “proper English”, “wrong usage” and “Queen’s English” suggest a very different and alarmingly narrow-minded approach to language.

Indeed, banning slang in schools is a short-sighted and inefficient way of trying to produce young people who are confident and adaptable communicators. What we should be doing is encouraging students to explore the fluidity, richness, and contextual appropriateness of an ever-changing language.

Slang: the real English.
Shutterstock

The fact is, there really is no such thing as “proper English”; there is simply English that is more or less appropriate in a given situation. Most of us would agree that “well jel” (very jealous) or “innit” have no place in most job interviews, but they do have a place elsewhere. Similarly, some people might get annoyed at what they see as the overuse of “like”, but it’s as much a part of young people’s language as “cool”, “yeah”, or “dude” might have been to their parents in their day.

This isn’t the first time a school has gone down this particular route in the quest to create more employable school leavers. In 2013, Harris Academy in south London produced a list of banned slang words and phrases including “bare” (alot), “innit” and “we woz” in a bid to improve their pupil’s chances. Fast forward to 2015 and the policy was hailed a success, with the “special measures” school now being rated “outstanding”. But are we really to believe that this turnaround was purely due to eager staff policing children’s use of a few slang words? Isn’t it perhaps more likely that the new leadership team brought with them rather more than a naughty words list?

Language in flux

What is always missed in these discussions is that English is in a constant state of change, and this change simply can’t be stopped. You can hang on to your belief that “literally” can only mean “in a literal manner” as much as you like, but you can’t change the fact that it has another, equally legitimate, meaning. You can disapprovingly count the number of times your teenage son or daughter says “like” in a single conversation, but you can’t stop its rise in English in general.

Which is why a ban is so pointless. All it can possibly achieve is to make young people self-conscious about the way they speak, thus stifling creativity and expression. Do we really want the shy 13-year-old who has finally plucked up the courage to speak in class to be immediately silenced when the first word he or she utters is “Like…”? Or would we rather the teacher listens to what they have to say, then explores how the use of language can change the message, depending on the context? In other words, celebrate language diversity rather than restrict it.

And this is precisely what English language teachers do every day in their classes. Learning about language variation, about accents, dialects, and slang is all part of the curriculum, especially as they head towards A level. I can only imagine how frustrated they must be when their senior staff then seek to publicly undo their good work by insisting on outdated, class-based, culturally-biased notions of correct and incorrect usage.

In an English language class, students are taught how the ways in which we use language are part of how we construct and perform our social identities. Unfortunately, their break-times are then patrolled by some kind of language police who are tasked with ensuring those identities aren’t expressed (unless, presumably, they happen to be performing an acceptably middle-class job applicant identity at the time).

Different language is appropriate for different contexts. Yes, using TOWIE slang is inappropriate in a job interview, but no more inappropriate than using the Queen’s English in the playground. Unless you’re the Queen, obvs.

The Conversation

Rob Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.