…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.

 

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.

 

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

**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…

ABSOLUTION? ABSOLUTELY! SHROVE TUESDAY NOW AND THEN

 

And on Shrove Tuesday when the bell does ring

we will go out at hens and cocks to fling

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Today is Shrove Tuesday. A propitious time for hanging laundry according to English tradition, which holds that whites will dry to yield an even brighter white on this day.  There are 46 days between tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and the Holy Saturday at Easter. If the abstinence required of the faithful is relaxed for each of the coming Sundays then Lent will last for 40 days. Today marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the three-day period of indulgence and revelry known since 1530 as Shrovetide, culminating in the tossing and sharing of pancakes, formerly a way of using up the sinfully fattening contents of the larder prior to fasting.

In old tradition believers were summoned by a bell rung at eleven in the morning to be ‘shriven’, that is given confession by a priest and forgiven for their sins. The verb to shrive, meaning impose a penance, was Middle English shriven, scrīfan in Old English, and is related to modern German schreiben, to write. Old Germanic borrowed the Latin verb scribere, to write, (itself descended from Proto-IndoEuropean *skribh -, to cut) in the form *skrībaną on the basis that, even for an illiterate community, religious proscriptions were written down. The confusion of penitence and indulgence resulted in the old phrase to ‘go a-shroving’ denoting not seeking confession but making merry and misbehaving.

By the 19th century the shriving bell had become the pancake bell, which in Toddington in Bedfordshire brought village children to Conger Hill to put ears to the ground and listen for the sizzling of the local witch’s pan. In Chester the wild communal street games played on Shrove Tuesday were said to have originated when the townsfolk decapitated a Viking prisoner and used his head as a football: in Derby in 1839 the army had to intervene to stop, once and for ever, the mayhem occasioned by this annual festivity. Other communities celebrated with bull-baiting and tugs-of-war, or as in Brighton played variations of ‘cock-in-the-pot’ or ‘cock-squailing’ whereby weighted sticks were thrown at a captive chicken (or in Somerset at a ‘Lenycock’ – not a bird but a daffodil). Cocks and chickens, though, had a hard day of it almost everywhere. In Scotland children could bribe their teachers with a ‘cock-penny’ to abandon lessons in favour of a cock fight – the dominie was allowed to claim and eat or sell any bird that fled from the ring.

The name of the coming period of penitence, Lent, is a shortening of Middle English lenten, from Old English lencten, coming from  *langatinaz,  a ProtoGermanic word for springtime using the prehistoric ancestor of ‘long’ and evoking the arrival of longer days.

 

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…at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily

-John Taylor c.1642

 

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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

‘POOR TOM’S A-COLD’

 English below freezing

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Writer Melissa Harrison was intrigued when I posted on Twitter last night that ‘It’s pretty nipply out there.’ I was referring in facetious fashion to this January’s latest cold front – ‘cold snap’ has described a cold spell or sudden sharp frost since the 1740s – but the more literal nipply has been substituted by wags for the colloquial nippy (used in this sense since the 19th century) only since the 1990s.

We are bombarded at this time of the year by journalese hyperbole –  the threat of thundersnow, the imminent arrival of The Beast from the East, the Siberian blast or even Snowmageddon, but the need for Brits to try and keep abreast of their capricious and wayward climate changes, coupled with our love of flippancy and understatement has thrown up a number of quaint and folksy expressions treating the notion of ‘bloody freezing’, some of which risk leaving foreigners at a loss.

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‘It’s a bit taters out there, I can tell you.’ Can still be heard, as I related in my Dictionary of Slang, in the ‘respectable jocular speech’ of older people, though it’s a shortening of the archaic Cockney rhyming slang ‘taters in the mould’ as rhyme for cold, originally describing a dish of potatoes, probably basted with dripping, in preparation for roasting. From a similar age-group and given the notoriously bad insulation of British buildings, you might still hear ‘There’s a terrible George Raft in here!’, the rhyme for draught borrowing the name of the Hollywood actor of the 1940s, famous for his stylish tough-guy roles on and off screen.

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More modern colloquialisms for ‘cold’ are arctic and Baltic, the latter sounding like a slightly rude double entendre. Common in Scotland, it might just reference the cold weather systems that sweep towards the UK from that region, but since the 1990s has been heard on US campuses too, and in Northern Irish slang where it means both freezing and fashionably ‘cool’ or ‘chilled.’ More obscure is brick as adjective for chilly, cold, freezing, heard in American English, where the better known cold as a witch’s tit and colder than a well-digger’s ass originated.

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On being met by a blast of freezing air the expression, or exclamation, brass monkeys is entirely appropriate. Baffled hearers will likely be told that this is a shortening of the vulgar expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ and, if their informer is better informed, that the brass monkeys in question were the racks of cannonballs stored on the decks of warships. This is, though, almost certainly a false, folk etymology. A more likely source is that novelty brass monkeys were sold in sets of three as desk or mantelpiece decorations from Victorian times. Each monkey’s hands were clasped to hide a part of the body and in some cases one was covering his – or her – genital area.

Another very British way of understating the intense, unbearable cold is ‘it’s rather parky isn’t it.’ The word has been used, particularly in middle-class speech since before the First World War, but its origin remains obscure. It might be a dialect pronunciation of ‘perky’ in the sense of sharp and fresh, or from the word ‘park’ as used by gamekeepers to mean ‘(the cold) outdoors’. Nowadays in lighthearted family conversation it’s sometimes elaborated to parquet-flooring or Parkinson – the name of a well-known elderly TV presenter. The more emphatic perishing used to be rendered by Peregrine Worsthorne, the name of a journalist cruelly nicknamed ‘Perishing Worthless’ by Private Eye magazine. @the TuesdayMan on Twitter tells us that it’s Perez de Cuellar in his household.

 

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Out in the frozen fields, away from the southern conurbations, another old dialect term still flourishes. Nesh can mean cold, or weak and susceptible to cold (hence also cowardly or contemptible) and still crops up in northern conversations. In Old English it was hnesce, weak or infirm and may derive ultimately from a Proto-IndoEuropean word for scrape or scratch. In the Potteries district  in Staffordshire they still use starvin’ to mean feeling cold, and my friend and colleague Jonathon Green reminds me that the English Dialect Dictionary also lists as synonyms for chilly airish, chillery, chilpy, coldrife, cuthrie, dead, lash, oorie, rear, snelly and urly.

If you’re familiar with any other slang, dialect or humorous, colourful terms for this season’s weather, please let me know. You will be gratefully credited.

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

Last, but very much not least, 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/

 

 

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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CHRISTMAS, ON THE CARDS

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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

 

The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.

 

 

Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.

 

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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)

 

 

The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…

 

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