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…

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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A FRESH START – the lingo of the local(e)

I helped with the preparation of a language guide designed for UK students starting out on their courses this week. Based on a survey and on contributions from across the country the lighthearted but comprehensive guide highlights the dialect differences and the local slang expressions that freshers may encounter when they move to a new area to begin their studies.

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With over 495,000 UK students set to depart for three years in a new university town, online learning platform, Quizlet (www.quizlet.com), has worked with local councils, poets, and language experts, to help students learn, understand, and use regional slang relevant to their new university town homes, through curated online study sets.

Working with institutions including the University of Bristol, This Is Edinburgh, Manchester Voices, and Liverpool City Council, Quizlet hopes to encourage students to learn the regional slang and dialect of their new home, in order to help build relationships between undergraduates and the local community, with a parallel survey of Quizlet’s student users revealing that 23% visit their university town only once before moving, and 11% never visit at all.

With essential phrases hand-picked by local experts, Quizlet is hosting regional slang study sets, covering the 20 biggest undergraduate populations as defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (www.hesa.ac.uk).

The study sets include over 160 dialectic words and phrases in total covering locations from Devon to Dundee, and Exeter to Edinburgh.

Example phrases include:

· ‘Antwacky’ means ‘Old-fashioned’ in Liverpool

Use in a sentence: “Your furniture is antwacky” / “Your furniture is old-fashioned”

Provided by Liverpool City Council

· ‘Gannin’ yem’ means ‘Going home’ in Newcastle

“I’m gannin’ yem on the train” / “I’m going home by train”

Lisa Matthews, Northern Poetry Library poet & author

· ‘It’s dark over Albert’s mother’s’ means ‘It’s getting cloudy’ in Manchester

“It’s dark over Albert’s Mother’s this afternoon!” / “It’s getting cloudy this afternoon”

Dr Erin Carrie, Project Manager of Manchester Voices

· ‘Half-soaked’ means ‘Slow-witted’ in Birmingham

“He’s a bit half-soaked he is” / “He’s not very clever”

Matt Windle, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2016-2018

· ‘Ginger’ means ‘A fizzy drink’ in Glasgow

“Gie’s a bottla ginger” / “hand me that bottle of pop”

Stuart Paterson, BBC Scotland Poet in Residence 2017-2018

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The full list of phrases and downloadable study sets can be found at:

http://www.quizlet.com/en-gb/content/british-slang

Richard Gregory, VP of International at Quizlet, comments: “Many of us will remember how nerve-wracking those initial university days are. Dozens of faces and names to remember, all in the backdrop of a new city. We created this resource to try and mitigate those university jitters: teaching students about their new surroundings through the important pillars of language and culture. The relationship between students and the local population can sometimes be a challenge, and that’s why all these language experts wanted to get on board to help us bridge linguistic divides.”

How connected do students feel to their university homes? To coincide with the regional language study sets, Quizlet polled over 1,030 students (aged 17-24) across the UK, to understand perceptions towards university towns:

A tenth of students ‘never’ visit their university town, before moving

44% of respondents said they had visited their new home ‘twice or three times’ before moving, while 23% admitted to having visited just ‘once’. Just 22% of students said they had visited ‘multiple’ times before moving, while 11% had ‘never’ visited their university location before making the move.

Nearly half of students don’t use or understand any local dialect words

Students can be reticent to use local dialect words in their new home, with 51% stating they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ use and understand local dialect or phrases, but the other 49% said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do.

Students believe locals generally perceive them positively

62% of students believe that local residents have a positive view of them, with students in Cambridge perceiving the most positive relationship (78%). However, 38% of students feel that local residents are ‘negative’ or ‘indifferent’ to them, with students in Durham expressing the worst relationship (65%).

…Although the majority ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ socialise with locals

28% of students asked stated they ‘rarely’ had social interactions with people outside of their university, while 16% stated they ‘never’ socialised with residents. This is in comparison with the 34% who said they ‘sometimes’ spoke and made friendships, while 22% would say they ‘often’ socialised with locals.

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I thought it might be interesting to compare the language listed in this new guide with the expressions I recorded at King’s College in London nearly two decades ago. For the curious my article from all those years ago is here…

Student slang as she is spoke – your passport to the in-crowd

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Tony Thorne 

Among all the guidance notes, union leaflets, maps and schedules that make up the Fresher’s welcome pack there is one aspect of student life that will almost certainly not be covered. No institution, however enlightened, is likely to provide you with that vital accessory, the key to unlocking the mysteries of undergraduate existence, the passport to instant social acceptance by your peers; a glossary of the very latest student slang.

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Like any other group leading a self-contained existence outside the social mainstream, students have evolved a private language through which they can label one another, celebrate their shared pleasures, and keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. For at least two centuries the argot of Oxbridge and the public schools enriched the English language (respectable words like ‘mob’ and ‘(omni)bus’ probably started out as student witticisms) Wodehousian

On North American campuses where life is more highly ritualised, with initiation ceremonies, sorority and fraternity-house customs, popularity contests and the rest, there is a vast and ever-changing vocabulary of status

It’s interesting to compare the way the two nationalities talk about the same staples of student existence; for instance ‘aardvark’ in Britain is hard work, while in the US ‘aardvarking’ is engaging in sexual fumbling; ‘we’d better leave’ is rendered as ‘Let’s bail’ or Let’s book’ in the US, ‘Let’s chip’ or ‘Let’s duss’ over here. Boring misfits -the butt of witticisms on both continents are known as ‘lorgs’ in the US, ‘nargs’ in the UK, while an attractive American male is is a ‘jordan’, his British equivalent a ‘smacker’. It used to be that we imported our more fashionable terms from the US – ‘groovy’, far-out’ and ‘fuzz’ in the Sixties, and ‘nerd’, ‘wimp’ and ‘geek’ a decade later, for instance, but a large proportion of today’s vocabulary comes from Black British and Caribbean speech; ‘mampy’ and ‘butters’ (ugly), ‘roasting’ (sexually frustrated) and ‘bruck’ (ruined) are among the best known.

Home-grown rhyming slang is also alive and well and new examples are being coined all the time.’Claire Rayners’ are trainers, often worn with a pair of Steve McQueens, If a piece of work is too easy it’s a ‘Glen’ (-Hoddle; a doddle)’, but perhaps in any case you don’t give a Kate Moss. If you want to borrow a ten-pound note to buy some ‘Richard’ (Gere-beer), it’s cooler to demand an Ayrton (Senna) or a Pavarotti (tenor – get it?), but promise to return it ‘Christian Slater’ and not too ‘Terry Waite’.

Some of the buzzwords and catchphrases used by British students are peculiar to just one university or college, others are invented and swapped among micro-groups made up of just a handful of friends, but there is another large core of expressions which are used and understood with minor variations right across the country. At King’s College London, students have been donating examples of their current argot for the last three years to a research project that will eventually yield a new dictionary of ‘youthspeak’

It’s often assumed that slang is something ephemeral, but it isn’t as simple as that:
words do come in and out of fashion, particularly the words that bestow approval, the successors to yesteryear’s ‘fab’, ‘ace’, ‘brill’ are ‘wick’, ‘dare’, and ‘dope’, but many are recycled and some oldies -‘cool’, ‘sorted’ and ‘shag’ are examples – seem to linger year after year. One remarkable feature is the number of words that mean the same thing: there are hundreds of words for drunk, including ‘gurning’, ‘wazzed’, ‘mashup’, ‘ratted’, ‘faced’, scores to denote idiots (‘chief’, ‘choad’, ‘hole’, ‘smurf’), and dozens of synonyms for exciting, such as ‘kicking’, ‘slamming’ ‘blamming’ and ‘storming’.

The picture of student life that emerges from the King’s survey is a happy disregard for work (almost no slang refers to books, lectures or libraries), and a very pronounced dedication to all things hedonistic.

To boost the confidence of the uninitiated, here is a shortlist of current expressions, culled from the study at King’s and donations from students at several other institutions in the Southeast. Understand them – but stop and think before you drop them into the conversation; there’s nothing more shame-making than a newcomer desperately trying to be hip. And the wrong word in the wrong place can result either in roars of derision or a hideous strained silence – as you mumble “I’ll get my coat.”

 A QUICK GUIDE FOR THE UNINITIATED

Arm candy…a fellow student borrowed as an escort for a social function

Catalogue man….an unfashionable, Alan Partridge-style male

Cheesy, grievous, rank…awful

Chirpsing…flirting or chatting up

Gazing…relaxing

Jawache, grab, snork…to kiss

Oof…a stunningly attractive female

Pants…disappointing or unlucky

Pukka, rated…excellent

Shtenkie…disgusting

Mullered, spannered, twatted…the worse for wear after drinking

Throw a bennie…become enraged or lose control

Tough, uggers…extremely unattractive

Trust, squids, bollers…money

Vamping, flexing…showing off

This article first appeared in the GUARDIAN newspaper in September 2000

 

 

READ MY LIPS – a Catchphrase is forever

Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords.

– Robert Louis Stevenson 

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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

 

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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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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’)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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’).

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So here are…

 THE NATION’S TOP 50 CATCHPHRASES – as of September 2019 

  1. I don’t believe it! – Victor Meldrew
  2. Simples – Compare the Market
  3. Don’t panic! – Lance-Corporal Jones/Dad’s Army
  4. Lovely jubbly – Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
  5. I had a cunning plan! – Tony Robinson / Blackadder
  6. To me, to you – Chuckle Brothers
  7. I’ll be back – Arnold Schwarzenegger / Terminator 2
  8. Nice to see you – to see you nice – Bruce Forsyth
  9. Only me! – Harry Enfield
  10. Rodney, you plonker! Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
  11. Cheeky Nando’s
  12. How YOU doin’? Joey from FRIENDS
  13. Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once – ‘Allo ‘Allo
  14. Computer says no – Little Britain
  15. Garlic bread! – Peter Kay
  16. Should’ve gone to Specsavers – Specsavers
  17. D’oh! – Homer Simpson
  18. Am I bovvered? Catherine Tate
  19. The name’s Bond… James Bond – James Bond
  20. Beam me up, Scotty – Star Trek
  21. It is what it is – Love Island
  22. Aha! – I’m Alan Partridge
  23. What’s occurring? – Gavin and Stacey
  24. I’ve started so I’ll finish – Mastermind presenter
  25. It’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from him – The Two Ronnies
  26. I’m free! – Mr Humphries/Are You Being Served
  27. Ooh Betty – Frank Spencer
  28. You dirty old man! – Steptoe and Son
  29. Lads lads lads – and everybody! – Ladbrokes
  30. Exterminate! – Dalek
  31. Live Long and Prosper – Star Trek
  32. We’re going out-out – Mickey Flanagan
  33. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse – The Godfather
  34. Have a break, have a Kit Kat – Kit Kat
  35. Scorchio! – The Fast Show
  36. Because I’m worth it – L’Oreal
  37. Bazinga! – The Big Bang Theory
  38. It’s good, but it’s not right – Roy Walker/Catchphrase
  39. Who loves ya, baby! – Kojak
  40. I ain’t getting’ on no plane! – Mr T/The A Team
  41. I’m Lovin’ It – McDonald’s
  42. Shut that door – Larry Grayson
  43. Smokin’! – Jim Carrey – The Mask
  44. On that bombshell… – Jeremy Clarkson / Top Gear
  45. You are the weakest link – goodbye! – Anne Robinson / The Weakest Link
  46. You’ll like this – not a lot – Paul Daniels
  47. …Which was nice – The Fast Show
  48. No likey, no lighty! – Take Me Out
  49. Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis? – Diff’rent Strokes
  50. Giggity – Quagmire / Family Guy

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And here is how the poll results were relayed to a waiting public…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7520653/I-dont-believe-Victor-Meldrews-catchphrase-voted-nations-favourite-time.html

 

 Grumpy Victor Meldrew's catchphrase topped the list

 

BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

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Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.

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With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.

While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’

 

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In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’

‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.

On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:

https://www.amazon.com/Nabob-Sob-Very-Johnnie-1951-57/dp/B01AXLWSBE …

Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.

I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.

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In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.

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*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’

…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

NATIVISATIONS, PEJORATIVES, INKHORNS AND MULTISYLLABICS

 

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It seems an apt moment to highlight some of my favourite words: adoptions from other languages that have subsequently become partly or wholly ‘nativised’ – that is, admitted into English usage despite their exotic origins and overtones.

As an unashamed poseur (‘one who puts on airs, affects an attitude or style, usually to impress others’, from French poser, to place or put, first attested in 1869) and a dilettante (‘one who casually cultivates or dabbles in arts and/or literatures, from Italian dilettare, to delight (in), first attested in 1733), I have been accused of being a flâneur to boot, but take this as a compliment, as it uses the French verb flâner, ‘to wander’ or ‘saunter’, to describe a sophisticated, idler, perusing at their leisure the novelties and curiosities of the urban cavalcade*. As you can tell, I have always been drawn to fanciful, colourful terms, particularly when they serve as critiques or slurs (some of them are traditionally gendered as male, but feminine counterparts are now permitted, even in the countries of origin). Here is a small selection of examples, with more to follow shortly…

 

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Mountebank

The word means a swindler, fraud or trickster and comes from the Italian invocation  monta in banco! ‘climb on the bench!’ supposedly directed to a seller of quack remedies, later known as a montambanco (the word which was anglicised in the 16th century), who mounts a platform in a fair or public place to peddle their wares to credulous onlookers.

Charlatan

Almost a synonym for mountebank, the charlatan was a seller of useless remedies, later generalised as a fraud, a fake, a dissembling hypocrite. The word is from Italian ciarlare, to babble, as in blustering, bamboozling sales-talk practised by a ciarlatano, which became French charlatan whence the early 17th-century English borrowing.

Parvenu

A snobbish term of condescension, contempt and dismissal, the French word literally denotes someone who has arrived, ultimately from the Latin verb pervenire, ‘to come to, reach’. Its sense in French and later in the English of the early 19th century is a social climber who has attained or claimed a social position that they do not deserve. It is a near-synonym for arriviste, also French, adopted in the early 1900s to sneer at someone who has recently acquired undeserved and unaccustomed status – but without managing to gain the esteem that would normally accompany such success.

 

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Poltroon

This derogatory description of some who is considered foolish, embarrassing, craven and pitiable, is said to come from the Italian poltro, ‘sluggard’ or ‘coward’ which became poltron in Middle French before being picked up by English speakers who were particularly fond of deploying it during the 18th century. The Italian ancestor possibly derives from Latin pullus, ‘a young chicken’, ultimate origin of the English pullet and poultry.

Rentier

Another more technical French categorisation (normally given its French pronunciation), adopted into English in 1798 and often employed as a pejorative, can refer to an individual or social class or cohort whose income derives from property, a form of capitalism which profits by monopolising access to property, or a state deriving national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources. Rente in French denotes dividend or income and rentier  (first recorded in 1650) referred to persons of ‘independent means’, typically landowners and landlords, thus could be applied to the ‘idle rich’. ‘Rentier capitalism’ describes the collecting of income from rents,  investment or dividends rather than from labour or productive activities and without reinvesting in socially worthwhile schemes.

The unattractive characters listed here are often instrumental in provoking disasters, catastrophes and confusions, for which, again, we have in the past raided our neighbours’ lexicons in search of more sonorous, memorable pejoratives…

 

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Debacle

This word, denoting an utter, often humiliating disaster, is the French débâcle, popularised in the troubles of 1848 and then meaning a collapse, a downfall, an unleashing of chaos. It derives from the verb débâcler, from earlier desbacler meaning to unbar in the sense of removing a river barrier and permitting a damaging outflow of ice and floodwater. The literal sense became a technical geological and engineering term in English in 1802, followed a little later by the figurative use.

Fiasco

The word, of Italian origin, again came to us via French, first attested in 1855 as theatrical slang for a botched performance or flop. By 1862 it was being used outside the theatre for an ignominious failure or embarrassing disaster. It comes via the French phrase faire fiasco ‘result in a failure’ from Italian far fiasco,  literally ‘make a bottle,’ (fiasco is Late Latin flasco, the origin of English flask). Nobody is certain whether the original idea evoked was the accidental or clumsy smashing of a bottle or the loser of a game of chance having to buy the winners a bottle of wine. I should perhaps add that my old friend, the musician F. Robert Lloyd, tells me from Paris that in the French of the 50s and 60s fiasco could refer, in polite speech, to a gentleman’s inability to ‘perform’ in an intimate, non-theatrical context.

 

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Farrago

Now in English denoting a confused mishmash or mess, a jumble of ridiculous notions or disorganised ideas, farrago began as a Latin term for cattle-fodder made up of different ingredients and was borrowed, via Italian, in the 1600s.

Rodomontade

This sonorous multisyllabic word could easily be dismissed as an ‘inkhorn term’, an obscure, little-known and archaic, not to say outrageously pretentious usage (first attested in 1543 – a word imported or used unnecessarily by scholars who dipped their pens in inkwells made of horn), but I like it and try to insert it into my conversations as often as possible. It means boastful, inflated talk and/or behaviour and was based on the name Rodomonte, a King of Algiers and a braggart, in the early 17th-century Italian epic poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso. In a similar vein fanfaronade is a nice description of arrogant, boastful talk. It may also denote a military fanfare and comes from fanfarrón, a word still used in Spanish to mean a show-off, blusterer or blowhard. Very rarely used, but surely very useful, and very timely is pasquinade which means a satire or lampoon, typically posted provocatively in a public place. It is inspired by the ‘Pasquino’ statue of a male torso displayed in Rome, on which the learned would attach verses and where wits would stick anonymous barbs and mocking diatribes.

Imbroglio

A confused, chaotic and embarrassing entanglement. The term was adopted into English in the mid 18th century, first in the sense of ‘jumble’, then more specifically in reference to diplomatic or political misunderstandings. The word is Italian for a tangle or muddle from broglio, confusion, intrigue, snarl-up and the derived verb imbrogliare.

Brouhaha

Meaning an agitated hubbub, a confused uproar, an overexcited reaction – especially in cases when a minor incident is exaggerated – the word was borrowed in the late 19th century from 15th century French. It may be imitative of the noise of public clamour, and is thought to have been the sound of the devil laughing as performed in morality plays. Some authorities derive it from a mangling of the Hebrew barukh habba – ‘blessed be the one who comes.’

You may well find my lucubrations (‘archaic – a learned or pedantic piece of writing’) rocambolesque –  far-fetched, fantastic, grotesquely inappropriate, from Ponson du Terrail’s character Rocambole** – and you may detect a hint of persiflage (light irreverent bantering) – but surely you’ll admit they are topical. There are other such expressions in my files which deserve to feature in this list and I will add them shortly – but please feel free, as Twitter acquaintances have already, to donate your own examples, for which I will thank and credit you, as long as you don’t mean them personally…

 

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*cavalcade, by the way, is yet again from Italian, this time from cavalcata, a procession, passing show, from cavalcare ‘to ride’, based on Latin caballus ‘horse’.

** from Spanish ‘carambola’, from Malaysian for Starfruit, meaning also bumping and trickery. Rocambole denotes several types of leek and garlic – and a ‘Brazilian Swiss Roll’ apparently. In today’s French it means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘over-the-top.’

I ventured to Love Island…as you do

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Many TV shows have promoted and propagated catchphrases and slang: ‘Luvly jubbly’ from Only Fools and Horses, ‘Cowabunga’ from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example,  but probably the first reality TV series to lodge words and phrases in the British consciousness was T.O.W.I.E – ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ – source of ‘wel jel’, ‘reem’ and more. Love Island, now in its second series, also features a similar demographic – young adult, not necessarily highly educated, extrovert, fit (in both senses) and narcissistic.

As a linguist studying slang, I’m used to having to listen to and interact with criminals, social deviants and other ‘unsavoury’ characters, but one of the most painful experiences of all for me is the obligation to watch reality television. This is not mere linguistic snobbery – though that is certainly a factor – but, if I am honest, because I would never even in my youth have been selected to take part in these beauty contests cum dating games on account of my physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have been dutifully tuning in to Love Island recently and trying to come to terms with examples of what linguists call a ‘restricted code’, that is a limited vocabulary and limited grammatical repertoire of made up of simple structures and colloquialisms. This can reflect the limitations of speakers’ communication skills and literacy-levels, but does of course result from the very restricted environment in which participants are placed and the simple, repetitive actions and interactions they have to perform.

You might say, uncharitably perhaps, that the contestants on Love Island are also infantilised by being coerced into playing out simple and repetitive relationship games for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The words and phrases which result, and even the intonation and tone of voice that emerges is a weird mix in which the young ‘stars’ alternate attempts at complex formulations when describing psychological pressures with frivolous slang when flirting or teasing, all delivered in the rushed and breathless accents of toddlers.

Psychologists talk about the act of ‘mirroring’ whereby people imitate subconsciously the speech, gestures, mannerisms of others, either to ‘honour ‘ them (if they are seen as high-status or admirable) or to show solidarity and empathy. There is a neuron in the brain that triggers this mimicry in sharing emotion, reinforcing relationships and bonding. Mirroring is contagious like yawning and, again, inside a closed and comparatively claustrophobic environment, its effects are intensified.

The slang used on Love Island may be part of what linguists call a ‘stigmatised’ variety of language – i.e comprising linguistic features that are disapproved of and usually considered substandard in normal society,  but slang is at the same time what linguists call a ‘prestige variety’ within the in-groups or subcultures where it originates and where it is exchanged, in other words it confers status on the user and excludes the outsiders who aren’t cool enough to understand it and deploy it convincingly. So for the island community slang helps to reinforce identity and for their fans provides an opportunity to identify with them and emulate them.

The Radio Times has supplied a helpful glossary of the words and phrases in question:

https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-06-06/love-island-glossary-slang-words-meaning/

Despite all my misgivings I agreed to speak to journalist Ralph Blackburn about the programme. Ralph had been intrigued by the way the contestants increasingly adopted one another’s language mannerisms just as their vocabularies seemed to reduce as the series progressed. His article appeared today in the Daily Mail:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7112087/Why-Love-Islanders-forced-copy-language.html

 

Love Island villa

 

The Sunday Times has also investigated language use on the show, and reactions from some schools to it:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/like-it-or-not-they-cant-stop-saying-it-on-love-island-zc8dtpkfs

Finally, for a different perspective, on Love Island as a media and pop culture phenomenon, here is Charlotte Rogers‘ article in Marketing Week:

Charlotte Rogers: Love Island may be a ratings hit, but it’s a brand risk

 

CODESWITCHING, STYLESHIFTING – AND STEPPING OFF

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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…