The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


sausage

Kate Burridge, Monash University

Every year around this time, dictionaries across the English-speaking world announce their “Word of the Year”. These are expressions (some newly minted and some golden oldies too) that for some reason have shot into prominence during the year.

Earlier this month The Australian National Dictionary Centre declared its winner “democracy sausage” – the barbecued snag that on election day makes compulsory voting so much easier to swallow.

Dictionaries make their selections in different ways, but usually it involves a combination of suggestions from the public and the editorial team (who have been meticulously tracking these words throughout the year). The Macquarie Dictionary has two selections – the Committee’s Choice made by the Word of the Year Committee, and the People’s Choice made by the public (so make sure you have your say on January 24 for the People’s Choice winner 2016).

It’s probably not surprising that these words of note draw overwhelmingly from slang language, or “slanguage” – a fall-out of the increasing colloquialisation of English usage worldwide. In Australia this love affair with the vernacular goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers.

And now there’s the internet, especially social networking – a particularly fertile breeding ground for slang.

People enjoy playing with language, and when communicating electronically they have free rein. “Twitterholic”, “twaddiction”, “celebritweet/twit”, “twitterati” are just some of the “tweologisms” that Twitter has spawned of late. And with a reported average of 500 million tweets each day, Twitter has considerable capacity not only to create new expressions, but to spread them (as do Facebook, Instagram and other social networking platforms).

But what happens when slang terms like these make it into the dictionary? Early dictionaries give us a clue, particularly the entries that are stamped unfit for general use. Branded entries were certainly plentiful in Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work, and many are now wholly respectable: abominably “a word of low or familiar language”, nowadays “barbarous usage”, fun “a low cant word” (what would Johnson have thought of very fun and funner?).

Since the point of slang is to mark an in-group, to amuse and perhaps even to shock outsiders with novelty, most slang expressions are short-lived. Those that survive become part of the mainstream and mundane. Quite simply, time drains them of their vibrancy and energy. J.M. Wattie put it more poetically back in 1930:

Slang terms are the mayflies of language; by the time they get themselves recorded in a dictionary, they are already museum specimens.

But, then again, expressions occasionally do sneak through the net. Not only do they survive, they stay slangy – and sometimes over centuries. Judge for yourselves. Here are some entries from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812, this is the first dictionary compiled in Australia.

croak “to die”

grub “food”

kid “deceive”

mug “face”

nuts on “to have a strong inclination towards something or someone”

on the sly “secretly”

racket “particular kind of fraud”

snitch “to betray”

stink “an uproar”

spin a yarn “tell a tale of great adventure”

These were originally terms of flash – or, as Vaux put it, “the cant language used by the family”. In other words, they belonged to underworld slang. The term slang itself meant something similar at this time; it broadened to highly colloquial language in the 1800s.

Vaux went on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant.

True, the majority of the slang terms here have dropped by the wayside (barnacles “spectacles”; lush “to drink”), and the handful that survives are now quite standard (grab “to seize”; dollop “large quantity”). But there are a few that have not only lasted, they’ve remained remarkably contemporary-sounding – some still even a little “disgraceful” (as Vaux described them).

The shelf-life of slang is a bit of mystery. Certainly some areas fray faster than others. Vaux’s prime, plummy and rum (meaning “excellent”) have well and truly bitten the dust. Cool might have made a comeback (also from the 1800s), but intensifiers generally wear out.

Far out and ace have been replaced by awesome, and there are plenty of new “awesome” words lurking in the wings. Some of these are already appearing on lists for “Most Irritating Word of the Year” – it’s almost as if their success does them in. Amazeballs, awesomesauce and phat are among the walking dead.

But as long as sausage sizzles continue to support Australian voters on election day, democracy sausages will have a place – and if adopted elsewhere, might even entice the politically uninterested into polling booths.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

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

Adorbs new words will only really join the English language when we see them in print


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Gillian Rudd, University of Liverpool

Listicle: an article made up of lists. This may be regarded as
Bare lazy as it obviates the need for coherent paragraphs, or as
Douchebaggery, if it’s taken to be
Clickbait.

The temptation to create a listicle in response to the latest raft of words to win a place in the Oxford English Dictionary is great, but to be resisted. These latest additions do not simply show the love of creating words – this is something that has always happened in responses to changes in life and attitudes.

Instead, it demonstrates our current ability to promulgate such nonsense words, allowing them to gain sudden currency, perhaps through “trending”, to make use of another relative newcomer to the fold, or “retweeting”. (These are not to be confused with the newcomer “subtweets” which themselves perpetuate another long tradition in English – that of making snide remarks through indirect allusion in a public arena. Alexander Pope would have been a great subtweeter.)

Some of the newly accepted words make one of the main processes of linguistic evolution clear: that of creating a new word by analogy with one already in use. “Binge-watching” is the clearest example. This is the viewing of several episodes or indeed whole series of a televised drama in one sitting. This word is clearly created by analogy with “binge-drinking”, which came to replace the phrase “going on a binge” or “going on a bender” when referring to drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short space of time.

Yes, there’s a difference here – where the earlier two phrases indicated that the occurrence was infrequent, if not actually unusual, “binge-drinking” is habitual, normally taking place at weekends, much as “binge-watching” does for many. I’d like to think that “binge-browsing” might be next, with the specific meaning of spending hours browsing the OED site when one visited to look up just one word. But possibly this is not a habit to encourage, after all, ”YOLO“.

Such changes always provoke reaction. Reliably, this varies from outrage at the abuse of language and ignorance of etymological development that such words betray, to celebration of English as a language flexible enough to admit such vibrant new forms and accommodate the creativity of its users.

But what’s interesting to me, as someone whose most frequent uses of dictionaries are to correct spelling and check historical usage, is the way that great institution, the Oxford English Dictionary, is able to satisfy two roles at once. This is thanks to its dual format – in print and online. It’s the online version that will soon include “listicle” and the rest, with no guarantee that these words will make it into the next print version (assuming there is one, which is what the current distinction between print and online versions implies).

This allows for the OED to record passing uses and trends without compromising its role as final arbitrator on whether or not a word can be said to have entered the English language. This is, after all, a decision which to a large extent depends on proving that word not only gained currency but retained a decent, level of recorded usage over a period of time and, crucially, in print.

And so print retains its sense of permanence in the face of ephemeral but ubiquitous electronic media. Or apparently ephemeral. The recent ruling requiring Google in particular to “remove” records from the internet has reminded us that it is in fact all but impossible to delete anything committed to the electronic ether – however paradoxical that seems. It’s all still out there, it’s just no longer appearing in the search results.

Googling itself is a word now accepted by the online OED, and while at first its currency was an indicator of the success of the company, it’s interesting to speculate on the survival of the word should Google itself go under, or lose its predominant position. Would we then all revert to “web-searching” for background information, or would we google, just as we hoover, forgetful the fact that the common verb once indicated a specific, dominant company?

Only the print version of the OED will tell.

The Conversation

Gillian Rudd, Professor in English Literature, University of Liverpool

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

When Should I Use Capital Letters in English?


Writing in English can be confusing – particularly if you are writing formal business letters or emails. You want to get it right – the last thing you need is for a customer or boss to think your incapable of producing correctly written correspondence. Here are a few rules on when to use capital letters:

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With regular introductions of crazy new words in the Oxford Dictionary, here’s a list of old words that should never have left us in the first place!


Language changes over time; words and phrases come and go. In many cases, there is a good reason for words leaving our vocabulary. I am certainly grateful that modern sewer systems mean there is no longer a need for the term Gardyloo – a warning call before chamber pots were poured out of windows onto the streets below.

Other old English terms, however, still have perfectly valid meanings in our modern world and really need to be brought back, if only for the pleasure of saying them. Here are 24 words and slang terms from old and middle English (or thereabouts) that are fun to say, still useful, and should never have left us in the first place.

1. Bedward

Exactly as it sounds, bedward means heading for bed. Who doesn’t like heading bedward after a hard day?

2. Billingsgate

This one is a sneaky word; it sounds so very proper and yet it refers to abusive language and curse words.

3. Brabble

Do you ever brabble? To brabble is to argue loudly about matters of no importance.

4. Crapulous

A most appropriate sounding word for the condition of feeling ill as a result of too much eating/drinking.

5. Elflock

Such a sweet word to describe hair that is tangled, as if it has been matted by elves.

6. Erstwhile

This very British sounding word refers to things that are not current, that belong to a former time, rather like the word itself.

7. Expergefactor

Something that wakes you up is an expergefactor. For most of us it’s our alarm clocks, but it could be anything from a chirping bird to a noisy neighbor.

8. Fudgel

Fudgel is the act of giving the impression you are working, when really you are doing nothing.

9. Groke

This means to stare intently at someone who is eating, in the hope that they will give you some. Watch any dog for a demonstration.

10. Grubble

Grubble might sound like the name of a character from a fantasy novel but it does in fact mean to feel or grope around for something that you can’t see.

11. Hugger-mugger

What a fun way to describe secretive, or covert behavior.

12. Hum durgeon

An imaginary illness. Sounds more like an imaginary word. Have you ever suffered from hum durgeon?

13. Jargogle

This is a perfect word that should never have left our vocabulary, it means to confuse or jumble.

14. Lanspresado

It sounds like the name of a sparkling wine, but no, it means a person who arrives somewhere, having conveniently forgotten their wallet, or having some other complicated story to explain why they don’t have money with them.

15. Mumpsimus

Mumpsimums is an incorrect view on something that a person refuses to let go of.

16. Quagswag

To shake something backwards and forwards is to quagswag, who knew?

17. Rawgabbit

We all know a few rawgabbits. A rawgabbit is a person who likes to gossip confidentially about matters that they know nothing about.

18. Snollygoster

I think we can all agree this is a fantastic sounding word. It means a person who has intelligence but no principles; a dangerous combination. Watch out for the snollygosters, they live amongst us.

19. Snottor

This old english term has the unlikely meaning of “wise.” Really?

20. Trumpery

Things that look good but are basically worthless. I said THINGS, not people.

21. Uhtceare

This means lying awake worrying before dawn. We all do this, we just didn’t know there was a word for it. Say it now, like this: oot-key-are-a.

22. Ultracrepidarian

Similar to the rawgabbit, this person takes every opportunity to share their opinion about things they know nothing about. Social media is the perfect outlet for these people.

23. Zwodder

Being in a drowsy, fuzzy state, after a big night out perhaps?

And finally, I broke the alphabetical listing to save my favorite till last…

24. Cockalorum

A small man with a big opinion of himself.

What is the meaning of this word, please?


John Walsh gives his view on the meanings of English words…

Given the breakdown (or break-up) of the single dictionary definition as an authority, is it still possible to answer the question “What is the meaning of  (a word or phrase)”?  The role of the dictionary has been superseded by the new authority, usage, and by the time you have added in factors such as colloquial and idiomatic use, register, pragmatics, formal and informal, spoken or written, context, and a whole host of other influences, I feel the  task of answering the question is nigh on impossible. I write not from the view of a grumpy old grammarian but more as someone with feeling for those trying to learn our vibrant developing language where the linguistic goalposts are constantly moving.

John H Walsh

Managing Director

The Bournemouth English Book Centre Ltd (BEBC)