Earlier in May I talked to Dillon Thompson of Yahoo News about slang and its online incarnations. Dillon was exploring the ways in which slang and new language both affect the way we interact in an accelerated digital age, and the way in which digital environments such as TikTok and Instagram and Twitter and the internet-based rituals, gestures and poses embraced by Generation Z in turn might influence the sort of language we – or some of us – are creating, adopting and using.
Dillon’s article, with new insights and with contributions by me and from US linguists Sunn m’Cheaux and Daniel Hieber is here…
In 2016 I wrote about so-called familect, the ‘microdialect’ originating in the home*. Also known as ‘family slang’ and ‘kitchen table lingo’, this is one of those underappreciated, under-researched varieties of ‘in-group’ language which, like slang and jargon, make use of the same techniques (metaphor, irony, analogy – alliteration, rhyme, assonance, reduplication) as poetry and literature and at the same time offer a window into the private worlds of ordinary people: their preoccupations, pleasures and ways of bonding. Familect can also be a sharing ritual within the household whereby humour and creativity and inventiveness are enjoyed across generations. Kids are adept in creating new words from an early age and at playing with existing language to create new and colourful expressions, while older family members have their own ways of coining expressions and recycling or reworking the language of their youth, so the home is also a laboratory in which to cultivate new literacies.
Just recently the cApStAn Translation Team reviewed the topic and provided a useful link-fest and bibliography…
Today another article, by my friend Connie Chang, featuring interviews with specialists in the field, was published in the National Geographic…
Familect can provide a useful subject for research and field work as part of exploring word creation and language innovation for school or college projects. Its users can be encouraged to look more carefully at the words and phrases they have invented themselves or shared or just heard, and asked to consider…
Why was the expression invented? (usually because the object, idea or feeling described is precious or important or super-familiar. Sometimes because there isn’t an existing word or a memorable word to describe it in standard English)
What is it that makes these words funny, understandable, memorable? Is it that they sound like something else, remind you of something already familiar? Or is it the spelling and sound of them itself that makes them amusing?
In fact the school itself may be a source of similar novelties, as Tabitha McIntosh wrote in the TES this summer…
On Burnout, Decompression, Re-entry Syndrome– and Calling It a Day
Still mulling over the words of Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, who described plans by the UK Government for a general relaxation of COVID-protection policies in ten days time as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, I was invited to join a discussion on London’s Voice of Islam radio station about the notion of ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ and its implications.
The full discussion is here, with my contribution beginning at 44 minutes…
We can see then, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ can sometimes be a useful, neutral, technical designation, and this is how the WHO itself presented it in 2020…
We can become aware, too, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is a very conflicted term: although used by the WHO and by ‘ordinary’ people to describe their very real exhaustion, it has also been used, like ‘compliance fatigue’ by authorities to blame the public for disobeying…
Despite being locked down myself, in exile for the moment, this was another busy day, with long, mainly heated and indignant discussions taking place on Twitter of what ‘indigenous’ might mean in the context of the UK, triggered by the assertion by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen that the ‘indigenous’ population of the UK will not tolerate immigration. The offending word is an ambiguous and context-dependent term currently. Recent examples have referred to Canada’s First Nations in the harrowing context of deaths in schools where indigenous children were confined. I don’t think it has been used by any reputable specialists in or about the UK, and its use at a time when an England football team of very mixed origins is being celebrated seems crass and provocative. (We don’t know who the ‘original’ inhabitants of the British Isles were, because there was no written record until 55 BCE, but they certainly immigrated, or invaded and colonised as did all the subsequent settler groups.)
On BBC Radio Bristol I once again answered listeners’ queries on the the etymology of popular expressions. This time, perhaps aptly in present circumstances, the phrase was ‘call it a day.’ First recorded in 1838 by US writer Joseph C Nolan in hisCharcoal Sketches – A Study in the Humor of the Old Northeast, it was in the form ‘call it half a day’ and seems to have reflected the mixed feelings of weariness and resistance on the part of workers from the Philadelphia slums, deciding to knock off early or to award themselves a half-day holiday. By 1919, as the USA wearily emerged from war, the usage had mutated into ‘call it a day’: in 1938 ‘call it a night’ was first recorded.
I called it a day myself, at nine o’clock on a warm evening, pleased to have been awarded nine out of ten in a facetious Twitter competition for a photo of my hand, and recalling the louche philosopher Gurdjieff’s realisation that he had progressed from drinking from glasses to drinking from “what are called ‘tumblers'”…
– Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine
The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.
After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**
The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.
With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:
We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. It not working We’ll set up a service to do that You haven’t
We’ll set up a world beating…
It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****
– Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan
In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…
As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.
*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…
A perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft. In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.
On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…
Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mailjournalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’
Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…
…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…
Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter…
From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”
From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”
From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”
The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…
In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…
Also in January 2021 theGuardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…
In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…
In February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.
Many specialists and members of the public, too, were aghast at the government’s rhetoric around the notion of ‘Freedom Day’, a more or less complete, and overnight relaxation of protective restrictions proposed for July 19. The consistency of the chosen keywords characteristically began to unravel, as Professor Alice Roberts noted on July 11, ‘What does this actually mean? Is vigilant this year’s “alert”? How does vigilance help protect against an airborne virus when a government is not recommending and supporting effective mitigations…’ and Guardian journalist Sirin Kale commented two days later (quoted with her permission), ‘I see the government is trying to row back their Freedom Day messaging at the 11th hour just 2 weeks after senior ministers briefed they wouldn’t be wearing masks indoors any more. You’d think they’d have learned the dangers of conflicting messages after the Xmas fiasco but nope’
In September 2021, following revelations by government aide Dominic Cummings of his employers’ vacillation and incompetence, a second ousted advisor, Lee Cain, broke silence to excoriate the teams working on communications during the pandemic:
In the autumn of 2021 the public became aware of a ‘Plan B’, supposedly to be implemented in the event of a new surge (which was already, some said, happening). The exact details of this plan were not specified in any official communications and the press and public were left to speculate. A few new restrictions were introduced in late November, perhaps prompted by concern at still rising infection rates in schools and elsewhere, though ventilation in schools was not among them, then in the second week of December, as the Omicron variant spread to general alarm, Plans ‘C’ and ‘D’ implying successively stricter moves towards a lockdown were mooted. On 12 December emergency measures (presumed to be a version of Plan B) focusing on encouraging the takeup of booster shots were announced. On Twitter the next morning Russ Jones commented, ‘Plan B was drawn up 5 months ago. That’s how long they’ve had to plan for it. They gave the NHS 4 hours warning that they’d need to do 1 million tests a day, the booking website crashed cos nobody thought to upgrade it, and we ran out of lateral flow tests within 3 hours.’
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)…
I passed the author of those words in the street the other day. Babyboomer Pete Townshend (of the Who rock group, for younger readers) was looking characteristically mournful. I, only a few years younger than Pete, am feeling characteristically feisty as I mount a one-man fightback against the latest slurs directed at us both. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the current dismissive catchphrase ‘OK Boomer’, imported from the USA along with a barrage of boomer-baiting in social media and in the press*. I fully understand that this is in part a fully understandable backlash by younger people against the relentless criticism and condescension directed at them by their elders for years – vitriolic in the USA, slightly more measured in the UK, where the focus has been more narrowly concentrated on trying to market to ‘youth’, whoever they may be.**
We boomers have to own the appalling voting record of many of our number, and we have to overcome our passive-aggressive bumptiousness. US humorist P J O’Rourke pioneered the uneasy self-deprecation that for a long time characterised our embarrassment about characterisation: ‘Once the Baby Boom had gone through all of its rudimentary phases of ideological development, from revolutionary pimples to Reaganite hip replacement, the true politics of our generation would be revealed. In America the reasonably well-off and moderately comfortable are the angry masses. It has to do with borrowing Mom’s car.’
Our age demographic has nonetheless been unfairly maligned for far too long. It’s time now to forget the clichés and facile recriminations, move beyond intergenerational strife based on slogans and soundbites and to revisit some of the beliefs that we held to, and the ideas that we explored. I’ll be looking at how this might be achieved in my next post.
I have never really been comfortable with the labels adopted for categorising generations, age-groups and consumer cohorts. But I’ve been guilty of promoting them myself. I only heard today of the sub-division of the babyboom demographic, known in the US as ‘Generation Jones‘***, but back in 2014 I described another, then newly discovered tribe, one that emerged from the consumerist jungle before slipping back into obscurity…
‘Trend forecasters The Future Laboratory have promoted the term superboomers to define a new wave of consumers, key players in lifestyle markets. Now forming 24% of the UK population, rising to 33% by 2030, controlling 75% of the nation’s wealth, (with another £3 billion coming soon from pension cash-ins) the over-55 demographic is rebooting, redefining former notions of aging and retirement. Their enthusiasm for digital media, starting up new businesses (as encore entrepreneurs in the jargon), fitness and self-improvement – and later-life dating, too – sets them apart from the pre-babyboomer generations. Enriched by runaway house prices they are juggling their property portfolios in ways that agents struggle to keep up with. In fact, the message for the entire commercial sector is catch on and catch up, since, according to a 2014 survey by High50.com, only 11% of superboomers think brands are interested in them, while 95% are certain that advertising is ignoring them altogether.’
I had been one of the first to record the arrival, belatedly in the UK, of the millennial label. In 2007 I tried to define this new phenomenon for the readers of Business Life magazine…
‘Millennials are the latest generation of young professionals. We’ve witnessed the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (alternatively Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999 and their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators are detailing how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes and describing how to manage them in the workplace. What is provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, as well as the most digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as work-shy, semi-literate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud the millennials’ ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure as well as their supposed respect for elders and leaders, trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.’
By December 2015 the MTV channel was declaring that Millennial, the term, and Millennials themselves were out of date. It had some novel proposals for the naming of the coming generation…
‘For those millennials looking forward to the day the baby boomers finally give up the ghost and hand over the keys to the world, MTV has some bad news. Millennials, with their social media narcissism and difficulty getting on to the career ladder, are yesterday’s news. The future, it seems, belongs to the next generation, one MTV has hereby decreed shall be dubbed The Founders, a name that, despite being a real word, is somehow very creepy, like the title of a supposed self-actualization men’s group your father would join in an attempt to get over your mother leaving, who before long would mysteriously have power of attorney over him. We can do better than that. Here are 10 better titles for the demographic cohort of tomorrow.
According to experts – and by experts, I mean marketing executives assuming expertise based on a desperate need to feel sure about anything in a rapidly evolving culture – post-millennials are driven to rebuild and redefine a society built around broken or corrupt systems of governance, hence (sort of) the name Founders. Unfortunately, these kids have also been plugged into social media since the moment they were born, which means for many of them effecting real and lasting change means posting their complaints in capital letters and retweeting with wild abandon.
MTV Presents: The Currently Desirable Demographic
This nickname doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it does get right to the point – namely, that giving each generation a handle is increasingly a cynical attempt to corral young people with disposable income into a singular, easily defined mass for marketing purposes, and in the case of MTV taking it upon themselves to name this crowd also a sad swing at retaining some fading cultural currency. Maybe we’ll shorten it to The MTVCDD?
Let’s admit that within 10 years the chief connotation of the word “viral” will have nothing to do with biology and will primarily stand for what is steadily becoming the pinnacle of human achievement and state of being that is every post-millennial’s greatest desire.
Adele sold almost 4m albums in the last few weeks, so it might be nice to name the next generation in her honor to mark what might be the last occasion that so many people agreed on anything.
This name depends on whether literally any one of the current Republican presidential candidates manage to pull out a win next November and become what will surely be the last leader of the free world.
And this one depends on how the climate change conference currently under way in Paris turns out.
This one depends on whether Apple ever works out the kinks in those crummy wristwatches and moves on to what I suspect must be the next stage in their ultimate plan for us all.
The Duck and Cover Kids
Unless someone with political power ever gets it together and does something about the ease with which a deluded maniac can buy a gun and transition into a domestic terrorist.
For those not in the know, a “Netflix and chill” session means getting together to enjoy some streaming content prior to fornication. Many post-millennials may well be part of the first generation spawned through such a practice.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an old sailor is forced to bear the burden of an albatross he killed at sea by wearing it around his neck. As the Baby Boomers continue to die off, leaving irreversible environmental damage, systematic racism, endless war in the Middle East, and various financial disasters in their wake, post-millennials might want to adopt the slogan that every one of their grandparents deserves to have carved into their tombstone – Hold My Albatross – as a rallying cry. This one is unlikely, but you Baby Boomers … was embracing the Eagles and the Grateful Dead not enough? You couldn’t just ruin music, you had to take the whole world down, too?’
Like superboomers and many others, whether frivolous and facetious, or coined with deadly serious intent (I’ll be listing some in my next post), these labels instantly and ignominiously faded from the radar.
*The OKBoomer media storm is summarised in an article from November 2019. What interests me especially is how, when zoomers, millennials, centennials and generation z rounded upon the hapless boomers, the cohort which is still dominant – generation x -once again escaped censure…
Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…
In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.
I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.
I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.
George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.
Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.
In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.
There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.
The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…
There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.
Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.
Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…
Manis a creature wholives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
In the end, Mr. Trump’s simple promise to ‘Make America Great Again,’ a catchphrase Mrs. Clinton dismissed as a vow to return to a racist past already long disappeared, would draw enough white Americans to the polls to make up for his low minority support.
– Amy Chozick, New York Times, November 9, 2016
A poll of 2000 representative adult citizens has just revealed, according to surrounding publicity, the British public’s fifty favourite catchphrases. I was asked to comment on the survey and its findings and have expanded on those first thoughts here…
Linguists describe the catchphrase as a ‘pre-formed lexical unit’, a component of the lexical repertoire shared by individual speakers and wider social groups. A catchphrase is ‘disseminated’ – spread – by repeated media usage and by word of mouth repetition.
A catchphrase is typically a sequence of several words which works in memory and in conversation as a single unit. It triggers recognition because it is used repeatedly across society and this recognition in turn triggers the pleasure of sharing a cultural allusion with other people.
Catchphrases, like proverbs, slogans or clichés (not to mention adages, maxims, platitudes, sayings and mottos), work because they encode ideas that are wise or funny or inspiring – sometimes all three at once. They also work well in interactions because they are information shortcuts or emotional prompts that can be slipped into conversations instead of having to explain interesting or complex ideas at length. In the digital and visual sphere hashtags and memes share many of the catchphrase’s attributes.
A catchphrase such as ‘I don’t believe it!’ expresses a mix of exasperation, world-weary resignation and fatalistic humour that will be familiar from many people’s personal experience. ‘Don’t panic!’ is a piece of urgent advice that fits almost all of the traumas that life inflicts upon us. (The same words were memorably used in the cult TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’)
The psychology of using a catchphrase is similar to that of telling a joke or repeating a famous quote: it not only conveys an opinion or information but forms a social bond of intimacy between the user and whoever they are talking to.
Many catchphrases are associated with a particular performer, celebrity or public figure and so have a double impact in evoking that person’s trademark persona and attributes as well as the ideas they originally expressed. Catchphrases from much-loved shows lodge in the listener’s mind and stay with them as pleasurable memories to replay over and over again.
Some catchphrases – ‘it is what it is’, for example, mimic a philosopher or sage expressing universal truths in simple language. The repetition used drives home the idea and its finality is effective in closing down a discussion – but at the same time this kind of catchphrase (like its abrupt synonym ‘end of’) can irritate the hearer if it is thought to be meaningless or stating the obvious or falsely affecting profundity. ‘Simples’, on the other hand is inoffensive and works especially well because it is itself as simple as it can be, as well as teasingly funny and associated with a lovable, if fictionalised and Russian-accented creature.
Catchphrases derive their power from compressing quite complex ideas into short sequences and reinforce their power by employing unexpected juxtapositions and by using striking or clever combinations of sound (‘phonaesthetics’ or ‘sound symbolism’) that work just as in poetry or literature to arouse feelings in the listener. A very short expression such as ‘beermunch’ (the product name associated with the poll promotion in question) brings two already very familiar words together for the first time and combines two short, sharp contrasting sounds, sounds that for many will evoke the act of imbibing a stimulating liquid and the act of ‘chomping’ on delicious snack food.
Catchphrases are a key component of popular culture as they connect the world of entertainment and consumption with the everyday concerns of real people – their feelings and experiences, their shared pleasures and their struggles and frustrations, and especially their triumphs over adversity.
Some catchphrases (like buzzwords, linguists call these ‘vogue terms) quickly fall out of use or soon begin to sound dated and embarrassing. What is notable in the latest list, however, is how many of the expressions chosen are decades old and still in favour. It seems that certain phrases reverberate across generations, becoming part of the shared vocabulary of family members and neighbours (more technically ‘familect’).
So here are…
THE NATION’S TOP 50 CATCHPHRASES – as of September 2019
I don’t believe it! – Victor Meldrew
Simples – Compare the Market
Don’t panic! – Lance-Corporal Jones/Dad’s Army
Lovely jubbly – Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
I had a cunning plan! – Tony Robinson / Blackadder
To me, to you – Chuckle Brothers
I’ll be back – Arnold Schwarzenegger / Terminator 2
Nice to see you – to see you nice – Bruce Forsyth
Only me! – Harry Enfield
Rodney, you plonker! Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
How YOU doin’? Joey from FRIENDS
Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once – ‘Allo ‘Allo
Computer says no – Little Britain
Garlic bread! – Peter Kay
Should’ve gone to Specsavers – Specsavers
D’oh! – Homer Simpson
Am I bovvered? Catherine Tate
The name’s Bond… James Bond – James Bond
Beam me up, Scotty – Star Trek
It is what it is – Love Island
Aha! – I’m Alan Partridge
What’s occurring? – Gavin and Stacey
I’ve started so I’ll finish – Mastermind presenter
It’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from him – The Two Ronnies
I’m free! – Mr Humphries/Are You Being Served
Ooh Betty – Frank Spencer
You dirty old man! – Steptoe and Son
Lads lads lads – and everybody! – Ladbrokes
Exterminate! – Dalek
Live Long and Prosper – Star Trek
We’re going out-out – Mickey Flanagan
I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse – The Godfather
Have a break, have a Kit Kat – Kit Kat
Scorchio! – The Fast Show
Because I’m worth it – L’Oreal
Bazinga! – The Big Bang Theory
It’s good, but it’s not right – Roy Walker/Catchphrase
Who loves ya, baby! – Kojak
I ain’t getting’ on no plane! – Mr T/The A Team
I’m Lovin’ It – McDonald’s
Shut that door – Larry Grayson
Smokin’! – Jim Carrey – The Mask
On that bombshell… – Jeremy Clarkson / Top Gear
You are the weakest link – goodbye! – Anne Robinson / The Weakest Link