THE BREXICON – updated and translated

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My project to create a glossary of Brexitspeak and the toxic terminology of Trumpism and populism* has thankfully attracted media attention and contributions from many specialists, writers and members of the wider public. I am very grateful and absolutely delighted to reproduce here the lexicon compiled by students on the MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills Programme 2019-20 at the University of Bath and their teacher Teresa Lander

 

Image result for Brexit cartoons from abroad

 

Their glossary not only brings together some of the latest expressions thrown up by rancorous, divisive debate, but adds a multilingual element, including as it does Brexit-related slang from neighbouring languages…

Glossary of slang terms/insults regarding Brexit 

Brexecution

 

“The resulting conversational punishment received when disagreeing with a supporter of the [B]rexit movement”

 

Source: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=brexecution

 

Brexiteer

 

“A person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union” Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/brexiteer

French translation: Brexiteur/Brexiteuse

Source: https://en.bab.la/dictionary/english-french/brexiteer

 

Spanish translation: Partidario/Partidoria del brexit

Source: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-spanish/brexiteer

 

Brexiting

 

“Saying goodbye to everyone at a party and then proceeding to stick around” (Urban Dictionary)

 

Source: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Brexiting

 

German translation: Britischer Abgang (British farewell); this is a play on the older German term polnischer Abgang (Polish farewell), meaning to leave a party without saying goodbye.

Source: https://www.mundmische.de/bedeutung/43499-britischen_Abgang_machen

 

Russian translation: брексить (breksit) Source:

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/some-russians-think-britains-bungled-brexit-is-just- an-illusion/

 

Brexiety

 

“State of anxiety about Brexit experienced by opponents of Brexit”.

 

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-hard-soft-boris-johnson-theresa-may-article- 50-brexchosis-a8221566.html

 

Brexiter

 

“A person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union”.

 

Source: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/brexiter

 

Gammon

 

“A person who likely supports Brexit, and his habitual rantings about immigration and the scourge of political correctness have caused him to turn so red as to resemble a

pan-fried slab of ham (hence, a gammon)”

 

Source:

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/is-gammon-racist/560507/

 

Neverendum

“Holding multiple referenda to ‘force’ an unpopular decision” Source:

https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=90758cab-a7a2-46fb-bc0e-8cf615f230d0

 

Regrexit

 

“Regretting the decision to vote for Brexit. First used the day after the 2016 referendum”

 

Source:https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-hard-soft-boris-johnson-theresa-ma y-article-50-brexchosis-a8221566.html

 

Quitling

 

Someone, similar to a Brexiter, who is in favour of Britain leaving the European Union

 

Sources: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23quitling%20%23brexit&src=typed_query https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Quitling

 

Remoaner

 

“A person who is outraged and frustrated over the result of the European Union membership referendum in the United Kingdom which the vote took place on the 23rd of June of 2016 and relies on protests against the UK government and for the EU to prevent Brexit”.

 

Source: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Remoaner

 

Saboteur

 

“Unelected members of the House of Lords, and the 48% of the country who failed to vote for Brexit”

 

Source:

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/apr/19/crush-the-saboteurs-british-newspaper s-react-to-general-election

 

Spanish translation: saboteador

Source: https://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=saboteur

 

Strong and stable

 

“British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017 saying the UK needed a “strong and stable” government because of Brexit. It is an expression she would live to regret after she lost her majority and was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government”

Often used ironically Source:

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/brexit-an-idiot-s-guide-to-the-united-kingdom-le

aving-the-european-union-1.3781560

 

German insults regarding Brexit:

 

Kleinbritannien’ (small Britain rather than Great Britain) – referring to our loss of status due to Brexit.

Source:https://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/brexit-wie-sich-grossbritannien-verrannt-hat-k olumne-a-1258166.html

 

Nein-Sager’ (No-sayers) – referring to all of the rejected deals and compromises by the EU Source:

https://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/politik-ausland/evp-chef-weber-schimpft-auf-brexit-briten-nur- noch-nein-sager-60636350.bild.html

 

Russian slang regarding Brexit:

 

Dramaturgia’ (no translation) – “a carefully-choreographed spectacle of apparent haplessness and impending chaos intended as eleventh-hour and fifty-ninth-minute gamesmanship with Brussels”

Source:https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/some-russians-think-britains-bungled-brexit-is-just- an-illusion/

 

Ministropad’ (no translation) – “a cascade of ministerial resignations,” (Rosenburg, 2018). “The term literally translates as “ministerfall.” Styled after the Russian word for “waterfall” (vodopad), it swaps out “water” (voda) for “minister” (ministr)”.

Source: https://qz.com/1467198/russian-media-captured-brexit-chaos-in-one-perfect-word/

 

Spanish slang regarding Brexit:

 

Un brexit salvaje’/’un brexit a las bravas’/’un brexit por las malas’ (a wild Brexit/a Brexit by force/a crooked Brexit) – referring to a no-deal scenario, a contrast to the less positive spin than English terms such as a ‘clean break’ Brexit

Sources:

https://www.elperiodico.com/es/internacional/20190828/el-gobierno-britanico-pedira-a-isabel-ii-q ue-suspenda-el-parlamento-hasta-mediados-de-octubre-7609291 https://elpais.com/economia/2019/02/16/actualidad/1550332885_907808.html https://www.europapress.es/internacional/noticia-may-intenta-aplacar-partido-impedir-brexit-mal as-20190331142623.html

 

Una vacuna contra el euroescepticismo’ (a vaccine against euroscepticism) – referring to the difficulty and mishandling of the Brexit process, that has caused support for outright leaving the EU to sink according to opinion polls in other member states

Source:

https://laprensa.peru.com/actualidad/noticia-brexit-ha-sido-vacuna-contra-euroescepticismo-dic e-tusk-nnda-nnrt-88628

 

French terms/insults regarding Brexit:

 

‘Le Royaume-Désuni’ (divided kingdom) – a play on words of the French term ‘le Royaume-Uni’ (United Kingdom) – used in the context of Brexit to refer to the way in which it has severely divided the UK population and threatened the overall unity of the country, particularly in relation to Ireland and Scotland.

https://www.touteleurope.eu/actualite/brexit-quel-avenir-pour-le-royaume-desuni.html

 

‘brexit’ (common noun – lower case ‘b’) – a tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French journalist Bernard Pivot, resulting from the Brexit strife, that would be used to signify any row, debate, negotiation or meeting that proves insoluble and shambolic. (e.g. l’assemblée des copropriétaires s’est achevée en brexit.)

https://www.thelocal.fr/20190911/lets-add-brexit-to-french-language-to-mean-terrible-mess-says

-leading-intellectual https://twitter.com/bernardpivot1/status/1171651030444118016?lang=en

 

‘Quel brexit!’ (alternative to ‘quel bordel’ – ‘what a shambles/mess!’) – a very tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French natives in response to Bernard Pivot’s ‘brexit’. In this instance, ‘brexit’ would convey the same meaning as French term ‘bordel’, meaning ‘shambles’ or ‘mess’, and would be used in any shambolic situation.

https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-france-lexicon/french-literati-ponder-brexit-dictionary- entry-idUKKCN1VW1IZ

 

‘Le bateau ivre’ (term originating from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud relating to the drifting and sinking of a boat lost at sea) – used metaphorically in the context of Brexit to refer to its lack of direction and absence of satisfactory leadership.

“Les partisans du Brexit ont réduit le Royaume-Uni à l’état de bateau ivre, sans cap ni capitaine.”

https://www.nicolasbaverez.com/2018/07/05/a-bord-royaume-uni-bateau-ivre/

 

Image result for Brexit cartoons from abroad

 

* https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

 

 

DE-CODING SUPER SATURDAY’S BREXIT MOMENT

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.’

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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…

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/21639391

A slightly longer version of the script…

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.

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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…

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

**https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/05/15/gammon-up-against-the-wall/

 

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…NO WORD OF A LIE…?

Some new thoughts about the pervasive, destabilising, discomfiting Language of Lying in public life

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In 2015 Conservative politician Grant Shapps was forced to admit that he had ‘over-firmly denied’ having a second job under a pseudonym, selling a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme while sitting as an MP.

In 2008 Hillary Clinton admitted that she had ‘misspoken’ when she claimed to have come under sniper fire during a 1996 visit to Bosnia.

A slang phrase, borrowed from US street and hiphop parlance into so-called MLE, ‘multicultural London English’, and often used by teenagers in London today, is ‘no cap!’ an exclamation which is the modern equivalent of the adult ‘no word of a lie!’ when swearing that you can be trusted, are being sincere, are telling the truth.

Orwell famously exposed the doublespeak of totalitarianism and I wrote some years ago about politicians’ evasive and duplicitous ‘weasel-words’ (a version of the article is on this site). In the late 90s I presented a series for the BBC World Service in which we looked at the politics of ‘spin’ and the work of the spin-doctors employed first by Bill Clinton and later by Tony Blair to massage their messages and to take ownership of the media narratives of the moment. The half-truths and untruths perpetrated today are more frequent, more widespread, some are more flagrant, and all are helped in their trajectories by multiple new platforms and outlets and far more sophisticated mainstream and social media capabilities.

I have collected examples of the toxic terminology and ‘skunked’ terms employed by demagogues and charlatans and echoed by compliant journalists and commentators (my glossary is on this site).  In the media maelstrom we are presently living through, untruths, half-truths and fake news, too,  have featured prominently and repeatedly in the national conversations of the US and the UK. With this in mind the Open University has produced a two-part mini-documentary on the Language of Lying in which I was privileged to take part. We talk about the concepts of truth and falsehood and about their incarnations in the current context of populism, Trumpism and Brexit.

Part One of the documentary is here:

 

I’m very grateful to Dr Philip Seargeant of the OU for initiating this project and asking me to take part, grateful too to Hamlett Films for producing the programme.

Here is the second part:

 

And here are links to two more recent commentaries on lying:

Acting Dishonestly Impairs Our Ability To Read Other People’s Emotions

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/trump-lies-kavanaugh-khashoggi.html

 

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…PUNCTUATED BY RUDENESS

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Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.

The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.

And this  – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.

Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’

Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?

Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.

The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like –  were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.

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Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation,  emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).

The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49182824

…and the Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/full-stop-onwhatsapp-cutting-weapon-choice-use-wisely/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

…but the first article based on actual research to raise this issue actually dates back to 2015:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/dec/09/science-has-spoken-ending-a-text-with-a-full-stop-makes-you-a-monster?CMP=share_btn_tw

…and Binghampton University usefully summarised the topic in 2017:

https://phys.org/news/2017-11-punctuation-text-messages-cues-face-to-face.html

 

 

I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.

Finally, there was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:

…a subject nicely spoofed by the Daily Mash a year ago:

Man throwing semicolons around like confetti

CODESWITCHING, STYLESHIFTING – AND STEPPING OFF

Image result for alexandria ocasio-cortez

I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.

Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).

More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre

She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.

‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’

It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’

The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-defends-critics-say-used-fake-accent-step-right-off-223800949.html

Some members of the US public did voice their support

‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’

 ‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.

Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yJQorfAWa3Vpj379L8nyG-23yjyeWR2AGRaeoBKopQg/edit

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Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the  philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.

Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:

https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/07/whats-the-issue-with-style-switching-when-talking-to-black-people-9128962/?ito=article.desktop.share.top.twitter

Yesterday US linguist John McWhorter joined the debate in an influential piece:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-code-switches-black-english/586723/

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And Chandra Arthur reminded us of her TED talk on codeswitching as a strategy for underrepresented minorities in the tech industries:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo3hRq2RnNI

Finally, in search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz J told me…

‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.

If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’

On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference  former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008

 

*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.

 

KNIFE CRIME AND GANG SLANG

 

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How could an obscure, elderly linguist have anything relevant to contribute to the debate now – belatedly – taking place on knife crime in the UK? It is many many years since I hung out, ineffectually feigning menace, with a gang of suburban mods (in the days when ‘bovver boots’ were the only dangerous item of subcultural paraphernalia), many years since I taught in an inner city London school and watched as younger teens gradually became disaffected and detached from family life and adult society. Much later I investigated and wrote about the successive waves of tribal youth culture – hippies, neo-teddy boys, punks, new romantics, rave aficionados, hiphop enthusiasts and the rest – who occupied the space reserved for ‘folk devil’ in the periodic ‘moral panics’ that the grownup public, with the help of the media, has always indulged in.

I was always interested in the outward signs and symbols, the accessories and the poses that these groups used to design and to project their identities, simultaneously signalling their belonging and their rejection of outsiders. I was more than anything interested in the special language that they used, generally characterised as ‘slang’, to communicate with one another and to baffle and dismay their perceived enemies – parents, teachers, the forces of social conformity in general.

 

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It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of peer-groups, in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings. I have collected the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language such as business jargon, fashion and lifestyle buzzwords and the ‘weasel words’ of politicians.

 

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I wrote last year about the distressing, frightening language used by members of street gangs who identify with the Drill music genre, and on this site you can find my updated dictionary of the terms they and their followers and imitators use, terms which many other quite innocent and uninvolved young people will be familiar with, but which are alien and incomprehensible to most adults. There are links to news articles accompanying the Drill Dictionary, and other articles on youth slang and so-called MLE on this site too.

https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/

The phenomenon of Drill, to a lesser extent of Grime music and the gangs who use their style of rap and hiphop songwriting and recording, is so closely linked to the knife crime ‘epidemic’ that is being discussed as I write, that the connection can’t be downplayed or ignored. Today’s gangs, with their territorial disputes, drug-based economies and hypermasculine culture of bragging and ‘dissing’ differ from earlier incarnations in that they declare their allegiances and flaunt their activities semi-publicly online, using messaging, social media platforms and video recording.

 

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I’m not of course suggesting that all the disturbing messages being exchanged by the gangs are accurate or sincere, or that the knifings and shootings they boast about have all really taken place. But I would propose very forcefully that anybody who is trying to analyse or engage with their behaviour must analyse and engage with what they themselves are saying and the language they use.

My own take on this is not just that of an interested outsider. For the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them teenagers). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately appalled at what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, distressing language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, to stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

 

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There are now a number of experts on the ‘multiethnolects’, the new urban speech patterns prevalent among younger speakers that mix elements of native and minority languages. Professor Paul Kerswill and Professor Jenny Cheshire were the first to name the phenomenon as MLE – multicultural London English – and have written extensively on it. There are also expert forensic linguists, such as Professor Tim Grant of Aston University, who employ linguistic methods in the analysis of criminal language, enabling them for instance to identify authorship and authenticity of anonymous messages and online communications by paedophiles and others. My own claim to expertise is that I am one of very few who focuses on up-to-date slang and on items of criminal vocabulary (the deliberately secret languages known as ‘cryptolects’), rather than the scientific analysis of longer sequences of speech or text.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a burner is a handgun; dotty means shotgun, Rambo, ramsey, shank or nank is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify trap as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, plug as a drug source, dip as stab, op as enemy, duppy as kill, dasheen as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same mindset with its obsession with respect, its reverence for violence and indifference to suffering seems to apply everywhere.

 

 

Among the voices raised in the latest debate, Akala’s stands out as representing real experience of, and sympathy for the victims and perpetrators. I only feel that he underestimates the levels of violence tolerated and celebrated, the extent of the ill-gotten wealth and the technical sophistication of the gangs of today. Rappers routinely claim that their lyrics are a fictional reflection of an imagined street life, a poetic evocation of rage and intensity rather than a call to arms, but the words written by young knife-carriers that I have had to translate are exactly the same words used by the rappers. In some cases the rapper is the perpetrator – the killer himself. The young people living in the postcodes most affected by knife crime are of course dealing with the new reality every day, as explained here.

 

 

Beyond the gangs young people are speaking and writing and broadcasting about the pressures and oppressions of urban lifestyles. A good example is the short film on the inner city life, Drawn Out.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OEuq5szR7I

 

Knife crime is intimately bound up with gang slang and vice versa. To try to understand the killings and the woundings and their perpetrators and victims without understanding what they themselves are saying makes tackling the hugely complex problem much more difficult.

As a footnote, I have had a lot of very interesting and constructive feedback (suggestions, criticisms, donations of new terms) arising from this article and from my broadcast on the same subject on Voice of Islam radio. I also discussed all the issues involved with Rob Booth, Social Affairs Correspondent of the Guardian, who has published several insightful articles on innercity stress and street crime. His piece is here…

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/29/ching-wap-ox-slang-interpreters-decipher-texts-for-court-evidence

From October 2019, news of a case that I was not involved with…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7538633/Drug-gang-leader-jailed-police-use-rap-translator-prove-threatened-shoot-rivals.html

 

**Please do contact me if you can supply examples of street slang for my databases. Contact me too if you need to interpret street talk or criminal slang yourself, or if you would like me to contribute to projects in this area.**

Finally, as proof that Akala is right and that press stories on gangs are nothing new, this from 1958…

MOCKNEY, ESTUARY – AND THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH

In the last two days we have been treated to several (sadly superficial and unoriginal) press articles* revealing the efforts of posh persons to disguise their accents. The assuming of so-called mockney or Estuary English, and the seeming decline of so-called R.P is nothing new, and I wrote about it back in 2013…

 

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TEN WAYS WE DISPARAGE THE ACCENTS OF OTHERS…

 

* A nasal twang

* A thick brogue

* A supercilious drawl

* An incoherent babble

* A boring non-accent

* A provincial burr

* A Home Counties whine

* …what comes out is a kind of screeching

* Your phoney telephone voice!

* ‘…this fake ghetto-speak that seems to have swept across the country where rather than saying ‘like’ it’s ‘lac’, and ‘nine’ is pronounced ‘naan’. D’y’a know what I mean? Drives me so crazy I can’t listen to Radio 1 any more.’

 

The Greater London twang from a public school boy, the refined little ‘haitch’ from a Hyacinth Bouquet, the mysterious vowels of someone pretending not to be from Birmingham: these are all friendly little signs saying: I’m no threat to you, honestly; given half a chance I’d erase my entire self and start again.’

In 1966 Michael Aspel was carpeted by the BBC for selling records of elocution lessons featuring his voice and that of Jean Metcalfe, the ads for which implied, the corporation said, that broadcasting required a posh voice. For virtually the whole of the 20th century, and some would say still today, the English (and not the Scottish, Welsh and Irish) have been defined above all other markers (dress doesn’t count any more, the school they attended may remain a secret) by their accents. And not by simple regional variance as in other European cultures, but by nuances associated with social class. It was Alan Ross of Birmingham University who in 1954 coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ (later popularised by the writer Nancy Mitford) to differentiate the behaviour of the upper classes and the masses. Ross believed, though, that by the mid–fifties the upper class was truly distinguished ‘solely by its language’; its vocabulary and especially its intonation. It occurred to me that by this measure, looking at the rough statistics for public school and Oxbridge attendance, in the 1950s and 1960s, at least 94% of the population were speaking with the ‘wrong’ accents. Alone at the top of the linguistic hierarchy was what linguists rather unhelpfully termed ‘RP’ for ‘received pronunciation’, the non-regional high-status accent acquired from family or from one’s place of education and actively promoted by the BBC in particular. Some way below in terms of perceived respectability were the more neutral forms of south-eastern English and Morningside Scots (the lilting educated Edinburgh accent). Clustered at the bottom of the imaginary pyramid were all the regional accents of the UK, with surveys showing that some – Norfolk, Birmingham, Glasgow, Tyneside, for example – were perceived more negatively than others by the general population.

 

The late Malcolm Bradbury, novelist and critic, writing back in September 1994, asked rhetorically, ‘Is there today a standard English? Estuary English, sometimes called Milton Keynes English, seems to be bidding for the position.’ He was referring of course only to the English of England, not the multiple dialects and accents of the wider anglosphere. He went on to characterise this apparent novelty: ‘It seems to have been learnt in the back of London taxis, or from alternative comedians…it’s southern, urban, glottal, easygoing, offhand, vernacular…apparently classless, or at any rate a language for talking easily across classes.’ Interviewed in 2001 Shirley Jones, a 22 year-old student from Stockport affirmed, ‘Estuary English is nice to the ear…it’s 50/50 cockney and young southern professional… I prefer it to the northern accent but I resent it because of the stigma of not speaking it.’ The idea of a replacement ‘standard’ accent actually emerged in 1984 and was promoted by David Rosewarne of the University of Surrey (who chose the term since the accent he had identified straddled the Thames), later by Paul Kerswill and by the Linguistics and Phonetics department at UCL under the panjandrum of phonology Professor John Wells.

 

Estuary is only the most recent attempt to describe an accent, or rather a spectrum of similar accents, that have been heard across the Greater London area and in Essex, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex for a century or so. It has been linked to the exodus of true Cockneys from the East End since World War II, but my own grandmother, a teacher who lived in Woolwich in Southeast London, could distinguish precisely the regional nuances in a pre-war London-wide ‘lower-class’ accent. Something like what is now called Estuary was characterised by my father back in the early 1970s variously as the ‘home counties whine’, the ‘southern drawl’ and the ‘polytechnic accent’; sometimes simply as ‘adenoidal English’, as exemplified by David Frost when presenting TV satire programmes in the early 1960s. Before that ‘breakthrough’, broadcasting had permitted only RP (or the RADA English of trained actors) or the so-called mid-Atlantic accent of game-show hosts like Hughie Green. Certainly the broadcast media reversed its prejudices during the 1980s and 90s, actively welcoming regional and ‘ethnic’ accents as well as the deliberately classless ‘DJ-speak’ which had been evolving on commercial radio since its beginnings. It is now getting frustratingly hard even to find illustrative examples of RP on the airwaves.

Strictly speaking Estuary shouldn’t be confused with ‘mockney’ (mock-cockney) although it often is. The latter is the exaggerated or feigned working class London accent, typically employing glottal stops and ‘f’ in place of ‘th’, as used by violinist Nigel Kennedy, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and, in earlier times and with a camp inflection, by 60s icons Mick Jagger and David Bailey. ‘Mummerset’, the attempt, often by naturally posh-talking actors, at a non-specific West Country burr (made famous by the radio soap The Archers and parodied on the comedy radio shows Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne by the characters Arthur Fallowfield and Rambling Sid Rumpo), is very rarely encountered these days. It may also be significant that regional accents like Brummie, Geordie and Scouse haven’t been re-labelled in recent years. This isn’t to say that they haven’t evolved or been modified by contact with other styles of speaking. Linguists have demonstrated what they call ‘levelling’ of dialects and accents, whereby regional forms lose their most pronounced (sorry) features and incorporate elements from other sources. One phenomenon I have noticed, but which has not been commented upon in any depth is a tendency by younger speakers in most parts of the country towards an imitation of childish or ‘lazy’ pronunciations of individual sounds – again, ‘f’ or ‘v’ for ‘th’, ‘w’ for ‘r’ and glottal stops wherever possible, and of more rhythmic, drawled intonations probably unconsciously influenced by Australian and American speech patterns…

…Prestige comes from the places in which a particular form of speech is practised: the court, the universities, the capital city, the broadcasting authority. (BBC insiders used to tell each other that their ‘BBC English’ was superior because clear and simple, not because they were trusted opinion-formers: we may think otherwise). In a local setting the prestige pronunciation of family names is the one, however unexpected, favoured by the family itself; of place names it used to be that of the surveyor or the squire but now is that of a majority of local people. In the urban playground it isn’t the teacher’s English that is prestigious, but cool ‘yoof-speak’ – that multiethnic vernacular again.

So when horny-handed Uncle Gerald disses his niece’s ‘fancy’ pronunciation, or a Head Teacher despairs at her pupils’ ‘impenetrable dialect’, their criticisms could be idiosyncratic – a simple personal preference – or could stem from social prejudice, either regional or class-based. What they can’t possibly be is a reasoned, objective assessment of a cluster of English phonemes. It’s actually more complicated: Uncle Gerald doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that ‘posh-ish’, a modest, moderate form of the old RP seems to have made something of a comeback, thanks perhaps to the makeup of David Cameron’s government. At the same time, if that Head Teacher wants to get on the radio, or just hopes to do some paid podcasting for educational purposes, she would be well advised to play up any regional or ethnic inflections in her voice, any cues that will key into the diversity of the audience at large. (I’m still smarting myself at being turned down for the job of presenting a radio series on changing language on the grounds, according to the producer, that my voice ‘wasn’t working class or ethnic enough.’). These are the currents and cross-currents in the national conversation that reflect – or dictate – our reactions to the sounds we hear…

…If there is no scientific reason why one set of sounds is superior to another, why do both individual sounds and wider accents change over time, and why do those hurtful, discriminatory assumptions about them keep on coming? When the author Robert Graves returned to Oxford in October 1961 to take up the Professorship of Poetry, The Times reported him as saying, ‘Only the ordinary accent of the undergraduate has changed. In my day you very seldom heard anything but Oxford English; now there is a lot of North Country and so on. In 1920 it was prophesied that the Oxford accent would overcome all others. But the regional speech proved stronger. A good thing.’

“I speak Black Country. I speak History.”

– Dave, from Halesowen

In a 2012 survey British listeners said they found the dialect of the city of Birmingham, England to be ‘boring’, ‘wrong’, ‘irritating’, ‘grating’, ‘nasal’, and ‘whingey’; very interestingly, non-native listeners found it ‘nice’, ‘melodic’, ‘lilting’ and ‘musical’. Prejudice pops up even when the sounds in question sound exactly the same to outsiders. Black Countryman Steve, recorded for the BBC ‘Voices’ survey, opined:

The Birmingkham accent I don’t like. In the Midlands you’ve go’ the Black Coontray an’ Birmingkham an’ there’s a massive divoide there, bikos people in Birmingkham theyr’e called ‘Brummies’ or ‘0121-ers’ [from the phone prefix] an’ they ten’ not to mix too mooch wi’ the Black Coontray people, boot the Black Coontray – what you’ll foind is they’re the salt of the earth, they’re really noice people.’

The Black Country way of speaking is a marvellous example of the fact that regional English dialects – and American English, too, for that matter – have as much if not more claim to be the authentic voices of an English heritage, and not the Standard English of the southern educated classes, an essentially artificial variety with only a short history. The dialect of the Black Country area remains perhaps one of the last examples of early English still spoken today. The word endings with ‘en’ are still noticeable in conversation as in ‘gooen’ (going), ‘callen’ (calling) and the vowel ‘a’ is pronounced as ‘o’ as in sond (sand), ‘hond’ (hand) and ‘mon’ (man). Other pronunciations are ‘winder’ for window, ‘fer’ for far, and ‘loff’ for laugh – exactly as Chaucer’s English was spoken. Other features still detectable today resemble closely Shakespeare’s iconic version of our language in its Early Modern or Elizabethan incarnation.

 

THE TEN BEST-LIKED BRITISH ACCENTS

According to a 2013 survey by Roxy Palace online casino

1. Irish – 28 per cent
2. West Country – 19 per cent
3. Geordie – 17 per cent
4. Mancunian – 11 per cent
5. Glaswegian – 8 per cent
6. Scouse – 6 per cent
7. Yorkshire – 5 per cent
8. Welsh – 3 per cent
9. Brummie – 2 per cent
10. Essex – 1 per cent

(Do you think the order here would have been the same thirty years ago, and can you see what’s missing?*)

 

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* It’s RP, or Standard English!

To many people’s surprise long-lost recordings unearthed in 2010 revealed that Queen Victoria had an unmistakeably German accent. A century later Lady Diana and Prince Charles were always going to be incompatible, some said, since they spoke in different ways: his accent a clenched military/nursery style from long ago; hers, a plaintive attempt at classlessness. Surely, though, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s English is an icon of steadfastness, a model to aspire to? For most people nothing is more respectable than ‘the Queen’s English’. But according to Dame Helen Mirren even Her Majesty has, unconsciously or perhaps deliberately, let her accent slide. Speaking in 2012 the actress, who was reprising her Oscar winning role as the monarch, said that Her Majesty’s words have become more ‘estuary’ as she has got older. ‘Her voice has changed, and I can use that – she had a terribly posh voice when she was young,’ Dame Helen said. ‘But now even the Queen, while she isn’t quite dropping the ends of her lines – though her grandsons do! There’s a tiny bit of estuary creeping in there’.

This was not the first time that the Queen has been accused of dropping her vocal standards. A millennial study of the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcasts showed that her accent had gone from ‘clipped’ in the 1940s to one more in common with a BBC Radio 4 announcer by 2000. In 2006 another study claimed that she had gone from ‘cut glass URP’ (Upper Received Pronunciation) towards the more democratic Standard Received Pronunciation and its close relative, Standard Southern British English. Now listen to a 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth make her first radio address to the children of the Commonwealth on October 13 1940. Then Listen to the Queen’s ‘thank you’ message to the nation after the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June marking her 60 years on the throne.

Ten per cent of the population would apparently hesitate to employ her son Charles, because his voice is too ‘posh’, if a survey published in 2012 is to be believed. The Prince of Wales is unlikely to be losing sleep over this revelation, but his is an affliction that the rest of the family has quietly been working on. In the survey about employable voices, people disliked accents that were too ‘plummy’, but the Royal Family’s has never been plummy. Nor does it resemble the once dominant ‘lah-di-dah’ tones of the County Set or the snooty Oxbridge drawl. If the Queen has moderated her accent, it remains distinctly that of a remote elite. Her grandchildren William and Harry, in contrast, have moved towards the standard speech of their friends from school and Army. They sometimes come close to a new way of speaking adopted by the privileged younger generation known as ‘yatties’ or ‘ok-yahs’ which mixes glottal stops with a rising inflection (interspersed with gushing squeals, mainly though not exclusively by the females).

As Daily Telegraph pundit Christopher Howse noted, the current Cabinet is, of course, equally expensively educated and equally petrified of being taken for toffs. ‘The Conservatives have bought up a job lot of glottal stops that New Labour had stockpiled for deployment within 45 minutes of being summoned to the television studio. It is just as silly for David Cameron and George Osborne to prune their consonants’, he observes, ‘like mangled old yews around their country houses, as it was for Edinburgh-born Tony Blair, educated at Fettes, the Eton of North Britain to affect a classless mateyness.’

It may not actually be class prejudice that explains the reluctance by a quarter of the 300 ‘bosses’ polled in 2012 to give a job to football legend David Beckham. In the case of Beckham’s voice it’s more probably his unique nasal tones rather than his Chingford accent that are rather off-putting. Nor is it her Dagenham origins that undermine the employment prospects of reality TV star Stacey Solomon, whom 46 per cent of bosses could not picture as an executive. In her case, it’s what she says, not the way she says it. ‘I’m like, ‘Oh fanks, Mum!’’ she suddenly exclaims, the next minute yelling: ‘I don’t even like coffee. I fink it stinks!’ The Vicky Pollard delivery can be done in any number of different voices, but none would inspire business confidence.

And anyway, do the speech patterns of successful businessmen impress the rest of us? The bosses in the survey approved, for example, of the accent of Peter Jones from the TV series Dragon’s Den. But Jones and his ilk haven’t really got accents. That’s the point. When he gives his Golden Rules for Success the Dragon sounds, not like the meritocratic version of classless that my father could produce, but neutered, like a recorded safety message on an airliner: ‘Place the lifejacket over your head and secure the tapes at each side.’

 

* Those articles are here:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-6642231/CRAIG-BROWN-reveals-dumbing-posh-accents-going-years.html

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/us-posh-boys-partial-bit-mockney-never-bar-st-jamess-club/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

THE REAL WORDS OF THE YEAR – 2018

It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…

 

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AI

Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:

https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence/

Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525

To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.

 

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INTERSECTIONALITY

At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them.  The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.

A bad-tempered take on intersectionality as buzzword was provided last year by https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/intersectional-feminism-jargon

 

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CIVILITY

I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.

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Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:

https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/12/08/the-meaning-of-the-words-of-the-year

While US lexicographer Kory Stamper provides the inside story on the American choices:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/12/18/language-nerds-worked-really-hard-that-words-year-list/wJgdhIMAQK7xcBvlc2iHOL/story.html?s_camp=bostonglobe:social:sharetools:twitter

Lynne Murphy‘s annual US to UK export/import of the year:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-us-to-uk-word-of-year-mainstream.html

And her UK to US counterpart:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-uk-to-us-word-of-year-whilst.html

In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):

https://www.americandialect.org/tender-age-shelter-is-2018-american-dialect-society-word-of-the-year

And from the militantly millennial LinguaBishes, some excellent examples of millennial/Generation Z terms of 2018:

https://linguabishes.com/2018/12/27/2018-words-of-the-year/

 

In October 2019 David Shariatmadari in the Guardian gets his preferences in early:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/oct/14/cancelled-for-sadfishing-the-top-10-words-of-2019

 

…and, FWIW, I like to think that my own collection of cultural keywords, seeking to define the essence of Englishness back in 2011, is still relevant today:

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AT WAR WITH ‘ACRONYMS’ – TMI via TLA

 

Maria Hill: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?
Grant Ward: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.
Maria Hill: And what does that mean to you?
Grant Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.”

— Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode

 

 

Stuart Andrew  MP

 

Two days ago the UK press reported that the Minister for Defence Procurement, Welsh Conservative MP Stuart Andrew, had declared war. On acronyms. Confounded and irritated by the number of these abbreviations circulating in his office and beyond, he ordered staff to avoid them at all costs. ‘He got fed up with people coming into his office and reeling off a list of letters and assuming he knew what they were referring to,’ a source close to the minister said. ‘I thought DVD had something to do with movies!’ the hapless minister (who has never served in the armed forces) had quipped at a meeting four weeks earlier. DVD was the name of the event at which he was speaking. It stands for ‘defence vehicle dynamics’.

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The flustered politician may have a point – one of the first documents to cross his desk was the latest 402-page guidebook to terminology used in the MOD (Ministry of Defence)*, referencing such titles as AARADCOM – the Army Armament Research and Development Command, and explaining that the initials CCU, for instance, could refer to

Central Control Unit
Certificate of Clearance for Use (for software)
Cockpit Control Unit
Combat Control Unit
Common Control Unit
Communication Control Unit
Computer Crime Unit

In vain did an unnamed MOD spokesperson respond: ‘These terms are used between subject matter experts and not with the general public.’

 

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‘Acronym’ entered English in 1940, as a translation of German akronym, first attested in 1921. It is composed of acro- from Greek akron (tip or top) and the English combining form  -onym, from Greek onoma, name. It denotes a word made up of initials or parts of other words, and should be pronounced as a word in its own right. It is not the same as an ‘initialism’ such as BBC or VIP or PC, where the letters are pronounced separately (the minister’s DVD falls into this category), or an abbreviation such as etc. or  lb (pound) where the relationship between form and sound is not straightforward. So NATO, AWOL, laser (for ‘light amplification by simulated emission of radiation’, radar (‘radio detection and ranging’) are acronyms: ASAP (‘as soon as possible’) is an acronym if said like a word, BOGOF (‘buy one, get one free’) too, but not when said as separated letters.

Some more modern three-letter combinations are genuine acronyms – SIM (card) from ‘subscriber identity module’, GIF (‘ graphics interchange format’), however you pronounce it,  and PIN (‘personal information number’) among them – but those familiar items of business-speak, ROI, SEO, B2B, SME – and now AI – are not, and nor, ironically is the disapproving or jokey shorthand TLA, for ‘three-letter acronym’ itself.

Lighthearted coinages SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fouled up’) or BOHICA (the oppressed officeworker’s injunction to ‘bend over, here it comes again’) are acronyms, but only a few of the so-called acronyms used in messaging and on social media really qualify: BTW, IDK, IMHO, SMH, TL;DR and the rest are strictly speaking initialisms. YOLO, LOL and ROFL, providing they are uttered in full, are among the exceptions.

The reason for the proliferation of acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations, and the justification for their use are obvious. In an accelerated culture they save us from having to – literally – spell out what we have to say or write and at the same time impart an idea of novelty, urgency and dynamism. As my correspondent Graham Guest observed on Twitter in a spoof response to Stuart Andrew’s protestations: ‘Minister, my radio detection and ranging equipment has just picked up a group of sea, air, lands wearing self-contained underwater breathing apparatus diving gear.’

Acronyms are very often controversial, in the same way as jargon and slang, in that they mystify and intimidate those who aren’t familiar with them, and seem to confer prestige and privilege on those who know how to use them. They can reinforce an insider/outsider imbalance in power in the workplace, the seminar –  or the ministerial briefing. A very simple test, though, is to try and replace the offending acronym with its full translation or explanation and see if the resulting sequence of speech, or text, sounds or looks viable. If it’s necessary to introduce a new abbreviated form, it must be glossed  (translated into simple language) the first time it is used, and, as with all insider codes, should only be employed in a context where interlocutors, partners, stakeholders, clients or audiences will readily understand it.

In April 2019 the BBC tried to forestall mockery of the acronyms peppering the script of its Line of Duty series by posting this synopsis:

‘A UCO is embedded in an OCG who was deployed as a CHIS but is AWOL. The SIO, who loves a REG 15, and his DI and DS from AC-12 are investigating because of the ED905 HGV ambush which the OCG set up as an RTC. They’re hunting H. Let’s go.’

 

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You can hear me chatting about the latest acronym wars on BBC5Live radio (the sequence begins at 47 minutes 26 seconds):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/m0000pvp

 

As a footnote, my book of buzzwords and jargon, first published in 2007, contains examples of acronyms and abbreviations, many still in use, together with observations on the status conferred by mastering business-speak…

 

Shoot the Puppy

 

*An earlier version of it is here if you want to consult it:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/227048/acronyms_and_abbreviations_dec08.pdf

A GLOSSARY OF SKUNKED TERMS*, BREXITSPEAK and THE TOXIC TERMINOLOGY OF POPULISM

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I have been collecting new and controversial language generated by the rise of conservative populism in the US and the UK, by pro- and anti-Trump sentiment in the US and by the divisions resulting from the UK’s Brexit vote. This is a work in progress: the preliminary list of terms as it stands is below. Soon I plan to offer detailed definitions and comments (for example, the first word in the list is my own invention, intended to describe a statement, act or policy showing effrontery, and itself a deliberate affront to a section of the population) and a ‘lexical’ categorisation (into ‘jargon’, ‘slang, ‘catchphrase’, cliché, for instance).

**Please do contact me with new examples, with comments and with criticism, which will be gratefully acknowledged and credited.**

Affrontery

Airfix patriotism

Alpha

Alt-centre

Alt-right

Annexationist

Antifa

Anywheres

Astroturfing

Attitudinarian

Autohagiography

Backstop

Bad actors

Based

Beta

Birtherism

Bitterites

Black ops

Blowback

Bot

Both-sidesism

Breadcrumbs

Brectum

Bregressive

Bregret(s)

Bremain

Brengland

Brexiles

Brexit dividend

Brexiteer

Brexit means Brexit

Brexit ultras

Brexmageddon

Brexmas

Brexodus

Brexpats

Brexshit

Brextension

BRINO

Britain deserves better

Bubble

Butthurt

Cakeism

Calling out

Canada plus plus plus

Cancel culture

Centrist dad

Cherry-picking

Civics

Civility

Classist

Cliff-edge

Clown car

Clusterbùrach

Cosmopolitan

Corbynista

Corporatocracy

Coup

Crash out

Crybaby

Cuck

Culturalism

Cultural marxist

Dead cat strategy

Deepfake

Deep state

Delegitimizer

Deplorables

DEXEU

Disaster capitalism

Disinformation

Divorce bill

Dogpile

Dog-whistle

Double down

Doxxing

Drain the swamp

DREAMer

Dumpster fire

Echo-chamber

Elite

Empty chair

Enablers

Enemies of the people

Ergo decedo

Establishment

Ethnics

Ethnonationalist

Ethno-state

Factuality

Fake news

Fall off a cliff

False flag operation

Fashy

FBPE

Feminazi

Finger-sniffer

Firehosing

Flextension

Flooding the zone

Fractionate

Fratriarchy

Frit

FUD

Gammon

Gammonista

Get it done

Girly swot

Globalist

GNU

Guardianista

Hard Brexit

Hate goblin

Hatriot

Henry VIII powers

High-vis nazis

Hobbit

Homonationalism

Hopepunk

Hose it down

Hybrid threats

Identitarian

Illuminati

Incel

Indicative vote

Individual-1

Jambon jaunes

Jexodus

Kicking the can down the road

King baby

Kipper

Kipper moment

Kompromat

Leave means leave

Lentil-weaving

Lexit

Libertarian

Libtard

Limp-wristed

Little Englander

Londonistan

Low-energy

MAGA

Magic Grandpa

Magic money tree

Majoritarian

Mangina

Manosphere

Masculinist

Matrixed

Maybot

Meaningful vote

Mediaeval methods

Melt

Meninist

Metropolitan

Microaggression

Milkshake(d)

MSM

Nanny state

Nativist

Neglexit

Neon nazis

Neutrollization

No-deal

No-platforming

Normie

Optics

Palaeoconservative

Pearl-clutching

People’s vote

Pile on

Political correctness

Postmodern

Post-truth

Project Fear

Put/stick that on the side of a bus

QAnon

Quitlings

Rabble

Race to the bottom

Red lines

Red pill

Regrexit

Re-leaver

Remainiacs

Remain plus

Remoanathon

Remoaner

Replacement theory

Resistance

Revoker

Roll back

Rootless

Row back

Russian asset

Saboteur

Sadopopulism

Safe space

Shadow blocking

Shallowfake

Shire

Shitposting

Singapore-on-Thames

SJW social justice warrior

Skunked term

Snowflake

Soft border

Soft Brexit

Somewheres

Sovereignty

Soy-boy

Spartan phalanx

Sunlit uplands

SWERF

Taking back control

Tankie

Targeted individual

Tender-age shelter

Terf

Terminability

Throw under the bus

Tick tock

Tigger

Tofu-eating

Tone policing

Trexit

Tribal(ism)

Troll farm/factory

Truth-squadding

Tu quoque

Unicorns

Unspin

Urban

Values voter

Vassal state

Village idiot

Virtue-signalling

Walk back

War cabinet

Watch-list

Weaponised

Wedge strategy

Whataboutery

White supremacist

Will of the people

Wokescold

Woke-washing

Workington man

Yoghurt-knitting

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I’m grateful especially to the many contacts on Twitter who have already contributed to this modest project, particularly Duncan Reynolds @duncanr2, and will credit them all by name/handle when a final version is published.

I’m also very grateful to Rob Booth and the Guardian who, in October 2019, wrote about the glossary and its topicality in increasingly conflicted times:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/05/brexitspeak-brexit-vocabulary-growing-too-fast-public-keep-up

And to Carlos Fresneda for this piece in El Mundo:

https://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2019/10/17/5da765cf21efa0eb618b4680.html

Artist Simon Roberts has kindly shared with me his artworks based on his own lexicon of Brexit language:

Between the Acts – Part II, The Brexit Lexicon

For readers, students, and researchers interested in or working with this topic here are some of the other articles and sources to consider…

In February 2017 The New European published its own very useful lexicon, from which I have drawn, gratefully but without permission :

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/culture/the-new-lexicon-of-hate-a-disturbing-a-z-of-alt-right-language-1-4894833

And the BBC listed many of the technical – and some less technical – terms associated with Brexit earlier this year:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43470987

Last year Karl McDonald discussed the language used by Labour party leftists in the i newspaper:

https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/slugs-melts-inside-language-culture-corbynite-left/

And here’s Helen Lewis in the New Statesman on incivility in the UK:

https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/08/how-britain-political-conversation-turned-toxic

And Philip Seargeant on ‘fake news’:

https://infolit.org.uk/the-role-of-information-literacy-in-the-fight-against-fake-news/

In November 2018 The Guardian published a useful ‘jargon-buster’ guide to the terms being used at this late stage of (or impasse in, if you prefer) UK-EU negotiations:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/19/brexit-phrasebook-a-guide-to-the-talks-key-terms

Here Renee DiResta describes the ongoing ‘Information War(s)’ of which the manipulation of language is one component:

https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/

I have only just come across this perceptive essay from 2017, by Otto English on his Pinprick blog, in which he coins the terms Ladybird libertarian and Ronseal academic:

Ladybird Libertarians: Dan Hannan, Paddington and the pernicious impact of 1970s children’s literature on Brexit thinking

In January 2019 James Tapper contributed this very perceptive assessment of Brexit metaphors:

https://daily.jstor.org/many-metaphors-brexit/

And in March, more from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190314-how-brexit-changed-the-english-language

In July 2019 the FT ran an interesting review of Boris Johnson’s press articles as precursors of ‘fake news’:

https://www.ft.com/content/ad141e8a-976d-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36

And in October David Shariatmadari and Veronika Koller considered Brexit metaphors:

Brexit and the weaponisation of metaphor

*’Skunked terms’ are words or expressions undergoing a controversial change in meaning. Examples are ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ which have transitioned from referring to leftist, progressive or centrist positions to denote neo-conservative or alt-right affiliations.

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