One day in July

On Burnout, Decompression, Re-entry Syndrome – and Calling It a Day

Still mulling over the words of Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, who described plans by the UK Government for a general relaxation of COVID-protection policies in ten days time as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, I was invited to join a discussion on London’s Voice of Islam radio station about the notion of ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ and its implications.

The full discussion is here, with my contribution beginning at 44 minutes…

We can see then, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ can sometimes be a useful, neutral, technical designation, and this is how the WHO itself presented it in 2020…

We can become aware, too, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is a very conflicted term: although used by the WHO and by ‘ordinary’ people to describe their very real exhaustion, it has also been used, like ‘compliance fatigue’ by authorities to blame the public for disobeying…

https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/01/07

Despite being locked down myself, in exile for the moment, this was another busy day, with long, mainly heated and indignant discussions taking place on Twitter of what ‘indigenous’ might mean in the context of the UK, triggered by the assertion by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen that the ‘indigenous’ population of the UK will not tolerate immigration. The offending word is an ambiguous and context-dependent term currently. Recent examples have referred to Canada’s First Nations in the harrowing context of deaths in schools where indigenous children were confined. I don’t think it has been used by any reputable specialists in or about the UK, and its use at a time when an England football team of very mixed origins is being celebrated seems crass and provocative. (We don’t know who the ‘original’ inhabitants of the British Isles were, because there was no written record until 55 BCE, but they certainly immigrated, or invaded and colonised as did all the subsequent settler groups.)

On BBC Radio Bristol I once again answered listeners’ queries on the the etymology of popular expressions. This time, perhaps aptly in present circumstances, the phrase was ‘call it a day.’ First recorded in 1838 by US writer Joseph C Nolan in his Charcoal Sketches – A Study in the Humor of the Old Northeast, it was in the form ‘call it half a day’ and seems to have reflected the mixed feelings of weariness and resistance on the part of workers from the Philadelphia slums, deciding to knock off early or to award themselves a half-day holiday. By 1919, as the USA wearily emerged from war, the usage had mutated into ‘call it a day’: in 1938 ‘call it a night’ was first recorded.

Image

I called it a day myself, at nine o’clock on a warm evening, pleased to have been awarded nine out of ten in a facetious Twitter competition for a photo of my hand, and recalling the louche philosopher Gurdjieff’s realisation that he had progressed from drinking from glasses to drinking from “what are called ‘tumblers'”…

Image

ACRONYMS – ALL IN THE LINE OF DUTY

There are several articles on jargon elsewhere on this site, and in 2018 I wrote about the proliferation of acronyms and their effect on listeners and readers too (that article is here*). Now in 2021 the cult ‘appointment television’ crime series Line of Duty has reignited debate on the status of codes and abbreviations as a mainstay of officialese and the private, exclusive languages that both fascinate and intimidate the public. The long-running hit police drama The Bill is due to return to screens very soon, no doubt introducing civilians to some updated terminology and slang of its own.

In March I spoke to Amit Katwala, who was researching this topic for Wired magazine, and the resulting article is here, followed for any students, teachers – and fans of Line of Duty – by a list of links to sources of both real-life and fictional acronyms and discussion of them…

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/line-of-duty-police-jargon

ACTUAL (2019)

https://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/news/plymouth-news/guide-to-police-slang-codewords-2074442

OLD-FASHIONED (THE BILL)

https://thebill.fandom.com/wiki/Police_lingo

ANECDOTAL, FROM THE 90S

http://www.f.waseda.jp/buda/library/seabrook.html

LINE OF DUTY 2021

https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/drama/line-of-duty-acronyms-abbreviations-guide/

THE MET’S OFFICIAL JARGON GUIDE

https://www.met.police.uk/foi-ai/af/accessing-information/met/glossary/

CAMBRIDGESHIRE POLICE’S VERSION

https://www.cambs.police.uk/information-and-services/About-us/Jargon

While the Sun satirises them, the Guardian has perceptively gone beyond the linguistic challenges and plot contortions in Line of Duty and detected underlying references to current political realities…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/16/the-guardian-view-on-line-of-duty-more-about-our-politics-than-our-policing

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/10/15/at-war-with-acronyms-tmi-via-tla/

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES: CAN KIDS SAFELY LEARN…SLANG??

I have been trying to tell the world for a long time that slang is a rich, creative and complex feature of language, and one which has great social and cultural significance. I have argued (again and again) against those who want to ban or censor it and have advocated instead teaching young people about it so that they can judge for themselves its qualities and refine their own usage of it where necessary. What I have hesitated to do is to actually ‘teach slang’ to younger learners, knowing that it is still a controversial (linguists use terms like ‘stigmatised’ and ‘transgressive’) variety which makes many parents, teachers and authority figures uncomfortable. Connie Chang, writing for the National Geographic asked me whether it could ever be possible to teach slang to younger children without risk. In her published article, quoting experts in the field, she describes some interesting developments which suggest a positive answer.

Here is Connie’s article, followed by some further thoughts and some links which illustrate and explore the issues raised. I hope these, along with other articles on this site (put ‘slang‘, ‘MLE‘, ‘youth language‘ into the search box or check the tags at the foot of the page) will help students and teachers, and language-buffs, too, who are ready to explore the language ecosystem in which slang flourishes and operates…

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/family/article/dude-your-kids-slang-isnt-as-bad-as-you-think

Teen Slang: The Complete Parent's Guide + Infographic | by Netsanity

Experimenting with language and inventing new language begins naturally in children as soon as they move from making noises to uttering more complex sounds. The creation by babies of seemingly meaningful sound combinations and, soon after, approximations of words is known as jargoning. Toddlers will make up words, participate in babytalk and banter and soon join their older siblings and other family members in inventing nicknames for objects in the home – part of the private domestic language known as familect. As young people encounter new experiences in growing up – dating, grappling with parents and teachers, following fashions and admiring celebrities, and experiment with new behaviour – they often feel they need a new language to describe these things and to convey the novel and intense feelings they have. Adults don’t have a vocabulary for ‘jumping up and grabbing someone’s sweater from behind’, (‘glomping’) or ‘coolest boy in the class’, (‘peng-ting’) so kids need to create their own. Young people also don’t want adults to know what they are up to or what they are feeling, hence the online and messaging codes and abbreviations (‘POS’ for ‘parent over shoulder’, ‘FOMO’ for fear of missing out) and the new, exotic and, for parents and teachers, impenetrable language. In the UK and the US there have been many not-entirely-serious guides for parents to help them…

https://www.dove.com/uk/dove-self-esteem-project/help-for-parents/family-friends-and-relationships/a-guide-to-understanding-teenage-language.html

Slang’s power and resonance is that it’s an alternative, subversive language and that for people who don’t understand it, slang can make them uncomfortable and can feel like a violation of social norms. The 19th century US author Ambrose Bierce defined slang in his Devil’s Dictionary as follows: ‘The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.’  He may have been being ironic but this was certainly the view of many at that time, witness this report of a Victorian lecture…

Strong disapproval of slang continues in the 21st century. Some years ago I debated with Lindsey Johns, at that time campaigning publicly against those like me who he accused of promoting ‘ghetto grammar’ in the UK…

https://www.standard.co.uk/hp/front/ghetto-grammar-robs-the-young-of-a-proper-voice-6433284.html

In the US linguistic conservatism takes many forms…

https://www.eater.com/2014/11/11/7193179/chick-fil-a-manager-bans-unprofessional-teen-slang

Not all recent commentaries are condemnations: here, an interesting take on the significance of slang for young speakers with autism…

https://jtrebat.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/teaching-slang-and-idioms/

A DUCHESS SPEAKS …and endures trial by tabloid

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Open Up In Oprah Interview – Live – Deadline

It is sometimes hard to observe the impartiality required of someone who poses as an expert in one or other field. For me it has been particularly difficult to embrace – or to feign – objectivity in trying to record and analyse the language controversies of the last two years. Tracking the rancorous, divisive language of the campaign for Brexit, the gaslighting and firehosing indulged in by Donald Trump’s media supporters and, more recently still, the mixed messaging, pivoting and bamboozling (to use the kindest words I can think of ) accompanying the UK government’s managing of the pandemic, has sorely tested the fraying, threadbare notion of even-handedness (itself unsurprisingly mocked these days as ‘both-sidesism’ or ‘whataboutery’).

In fact, of course, anyone reading my posts (elsewhere on this site) on the toxic terminology of populism and the ‘coronaspeak’ generated by the virus will quickly see that I have fallen short, on many occasions allowing my impatience and disapproval to show through a veneer of scholarly restraint.

I did not even want to engage with the latest controversy to erupt into the UK’s national conversation. I am, at a considerable distance, not in favour of hereditary monarchies. I try never to read the press reports of the behaviour of royal family members, and, above all, never to be tempted to comment, however flagrant the untruths being traded by politicians or the unfairness of the campaigns mounted by the tabloids or the expressions of envy, spite and malice by ‘royal correspondents’ and the population at large.

Meghan Markle, 39, 'was not coached' for her bombshell Oprah Winfrey interview and instead 'spoke from the heart', a language expert has revealed

In any case, who am I to pronounce on such subjects? An obscure lexicographer and sometime teacher of languages, a very long way down the lines of succession and without a constituency or a following. Nevertheless, among the invariably hostile treatments of some of the younger royals, I could not help noticing some which seem to be based on linguistic discriminations, language-based prejudices and false assumptions about how language works. Thus it was (horrible expression, I apologise) that I agreed to talk to Bridie Pearson-Brown of the Daily Mail about this week’s ‘bombshell interview’ between Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, hoping I admit, not just to offer some objective comments, but perhaps to redress the balance of ‘analysis’ in the poor Duchess’s favour.

Here is the article in question, which appeared halfway down a front page containing several dozen articles focusing on the same celebrity, most of them – no, I think all of them – overtly or implicitly hostile.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9337603/Meghan-spoke-heart-words-werent-rehearsed.html?ito=social-twitter_mailonline

This wasn’t in fact the first time I had commented on Meghan Markle’s way of speaking. Last time, too, I tried to counter the xenophobic assumptions and the ‘misogynoir’ sneering, the framing of her coming to terms with her changing linguistic surroundings as something insincere or evidence of bad faith. That article, from May 2020, is here. Its precepts still stand…although predictably Prince Harry was yesterday accused of ‘sounding American’ (the expert ‘analysis’ of his intonation and word-choices was wrong: he simply softened a couple of British consonants in accommodating Oprah)…

Why Meghan sounds American again: Linguistic expert reveals Duchess of Sussex has her native accent back as she’s no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’

By Bridie Pearson-Jones for MailOnline 

Archie and Meghan reading the book in the video shared on Instagram

Meghan Markle’s accent has returned to her natural Californian as she is ‘relaxed’ and is no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’, an expert revealed. 

Speaking to Femail, Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College, London explained:  ‘There’s a thing called  linguistic accommodation where you change the way you talk to fit in with the people around you.

‘This is very very common even within the UK, if you’re speaking to a Geordie, someone from Liverpool or an Australian you begin to very slightly change your accent to become closer to them.’ 

During Meghan’s time in the UK, fans noted that her accent appeared to becoming more British as she spent more time in the country. 

Viewers said Meghan Markle sounded British in a 2018 ITV documentary, Queen of Her World, where she appeared to reunite with her wedding dress 

Tony continued: ‘For most people if they’re authentic and sincere they will keep their basic accent with slight changes. I’ve seen friends from London move to Newcastle – and you’ll start to hear bits of comments of the local accent.

‘It might take a normal person six months or a year for their accent to change, but when you’re a celebrity and have to be on show and are super self-conscious about image it will happen faster. I don’t think its surprising that it would be a more conscious choice for someone like Meghan, as she’s tries to project herself in a way that will fit in with environment.’

Tony, who knew Princess Diana ‘slightly’, added that he doesn’t imagine Prince Harry’s accent will become American despite the move to California – but the current generation of royals have eased their accents to sound more like a common Brit. 

‘The British ruling classes are very attached, so I can’t imagine Meghan’s husband sounding American,’ he said. That said, since Princess Diana joined the family, the royals have modified their natural accent to sound less posh. 

‘I was very conscious when she changed her accent, then William and Harry did too. They use the ‘non-posh’ glottal stop – so they pronounce words like ‘bottle’ as ‘bot-al’  to sounds less like the extreme British upper class. This is why the young royals sound very different to the Queen or Prince Philip. 

‘Now Meghan is back in California, she’s reverting to her natural accent. It maybe not the same as her parents or what she had as a young girl – but it’s a glamorous, educated, prestigious Californian accent which is, much more relaxed than a British accent or even an American east coast accent. 

‘Nobody can tell if she’s made a conscious decision to change her voice, but she’s very bright and aware and under intense scrutiny so I think  it would be understandable if she did.’ 

‘WOKE’ NOT WOKE

activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral

The Woke and the Un-Woke - Tablet Magazine

UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…

Image result for Citizens advice service' launches to help employees in woke

Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces

The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’

London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html

As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.

The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…

An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/21/how-woke-became-the-word-of-our-era

Why Any Literate Person Should Never Use the Word 'Woke' Ungrammatically -  Daily Squib

In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…

https://www.thesun.co.uk/tv/14311062/bbc-tim-davie-axes-nish-kumar-the-mash-report/

In April Clyde McGrady wrote in The Washington Post about the parallel history of ‘cancel’, conservative America’s scare-word of choice…

And in the Guardian Evan Smith suggested that the UK right’s ‘war on woke’ is nothing new…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/21/conservatives-war-on-woke-loony-left-political-correctness?CMP=fb_cif

Finally, in late April, I came across a Twitter thread by Joshua Adams which sets out perceptively and pithily the links between the word’s transitions and Black responses to it…

JOSHUA@JournoJoshua Hope folks realize that a part of the reason the Right pounced on “woke” and now use it as a meaningless catch-all pejorative is because folks on the Left stripped it from its context in the Black experience, and made it mean “excessive social awareness.” It didn’t mean that.

LAST WORDS (ON 2020)?

The annual end-of-year competition by publishers, lexicographers and linguists to nominate a Word Of The Year, thereby excite debate and, just perhaps, sell some dictionaries into an exhausted and impoverished marketplace took on a new poignancy, if that’s the right word, in 2020. The usual pontificators and publicists set out their selections from among the cloud of neologisms and repurposings generated by COVID, Brexit and BLM. Oxford Dictionaries broke with tradition, having listed their contenders, to announce that no single term could do justice to the year – a sentiment I very much agree with.

The same roundup of 2020’s language novelties was taking place in other places. Here’s my friend Licia Corbolante‘s Italian perspective…

word cloud 2020

Elsewhere on this site are my own successive reports on #coronaspeak as it has developed and mutated since February. Some of my examples (in fact rather a lot of my examples) were featured in a late piece in the Independent

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-glossary-covid-terms-dictionary-2020-b1766827.html

For francophone friends here is a French perspective on the unprecedented conjunction of Brexit and COVID facing the UK. In it my collaborator RTL/RF1 correspondent Marie Billon also comments on Word Of The Year with a momentary intervention by me…

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/accents-d-europe/20201216-brexit-les-entreprises-et-les-expatri%C3%A9s-inquiets-face-aux-incertitudes?ref=tw

Much as I appreciate Licia’s and the Independent’s wordclouds, in signing off I couldn’t do better than gratefully reproduce the Guardian’s version, featuring the terms chosen by its readers to epitomise this plague year…

Word of the year poll: Guardian readers describe 2020 as 'shit' | Australia  news | The Guardian

…oh, and by the way, my word of the year, for what it’s worth, is vaccine.

On the last day of the year (and, though few have noticed, of the decade) I was given, by Euronews TV‘s Good Morning Europe programme one more chance to pontificate on the subject…

https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/31/lockdown-social-distancing-quarantini-dissecting-the-2020-pandemic-lingo

(the video link in the article is hard to find. It’s here: https://www.euronews.com/video/2020/12/31/lockdown-social-distancing-quarantini-dissecting-the-2020-pandemic-lingo)

GANGS, SLANGS – AND DRILL

An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’

UK gang members | Gang member, Gang crime, Gang culture

Elsewhere on this site I have written about the ‘street slang‘ used by gang members and other young people in the UK, a variety of language also featuring in the lyrics of Drill and other rap music genres. In October 2020 I was invited by the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics to talk about my role in translating and commenting on this language in the context of criminal investigations and trials.

My contribution to this event, with those of other specialists, together with some answers to follow-up questions from the virtual audience can be accessed here…

https://www2.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/lss-research/forensic-linguistics/research-seminars/new-urban-varieties

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

The prosecution of actual or supposed gang members, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and are victims themselves of coercion, trafficking, even modern slavery, is hugely controversial, as are attempts by some law enforcers to criminalise Drill music, its performers and its enthusiasts and the language that it uses.*

Rap lyrics appear to be poetic or literary texts, and may be fictional, but many professional rappers and their amateur imitators routinely mix creative fiction conventions, metaphors and imagery with real-life facts, introducing real names and references to real places, incidents and actions for ‘authenticity’ and effect. They also frequently borrow or steal images, words and whole sequences from other rappers, and impersonate actors in the real world such as killers or drug dealers who they have learned about from media reports or by word of mouth on the street.

Even more confusingly, many young rap enthusiasts nowadays use the language of rap and its lyrical conventions when they are communicating in quite different contexts. I have encountered many examples of messages between friends, entries in journals or prison notebooks, editing an online persona for chatting in forums, etc. that use words, phrases and references familiar from lyrics as used in audio/video music performances.

There are now academics and activists seeking to question official attitudes to the policing of youth crime and to question the validity of presenting rap or rap-related lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing.* There are also currently many agencies, charities and other stakeholders working with young victims, young perpetrators and their families and friends in order to analyse, publicise and seek solutions for the social stresses that foster gang culture. For my small part, I’m concerned, though, that these efforts, even the well organised periodic campaigns by police to control and reduce ‘knife crime,’ are still piecemeal and only partially coordinated across the country.

Trapped in the Gangs Matrix | Amnesty International UK

In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…

May be an image of 1 person and hair

One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/newsbeat-55302854?__twitter_impression=true

*In May 2021 many of these issues were summarised in a post by Keir Monteith QC…

https://www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk/news/rap-and-the-states-double-whammy-lack-of-expert-challenge-to-racist-stereotyping

Finally, Krept and Konan’s 2019 commentary on the driller’s culture and attempts to ban drill lyrics. Essential reading/listening for anyone struggling to untangle the unresolved complexities of the issue…

https://beelyrics.net/music/12136-krept-konan/4628167-ban-drill-lyrics.html

WE CAN BE HEROES

Medieval Female Scribe - Archaeology Magazine

In 1821 the poet Shelley claimed that poets were – are – ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I would not for a moment dispute that, but would add others to the list of unsung heroes, essential to our cultural wellbeing but toiling in obscurity and anonymity. Lexicographers, despite Dr Johnson‘s dismissal of us as ‘harmless drudges’, translators, interpreters, editors all deserve the gratitude of everyone who reads, perhaps even deserve a metaphorical moment in the sun.

I was given another chance to venture into the late summer sunshine by translation specialist and editor Isabella Massardo who asked me about life as a drudge and about other topical issues...

I was also interviewed by Marie Billon, UK correspondent for RTL and RFI, about the latest British ‘portmanteau’ acronyms and jargon, now attempting to describe the co-occurrence of the pandemic and the final stages of the Brexit process (my contribution, partly in rusty French, is at 14 minutes in)…

https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/20200916-covid-19-comment-%C3%A9viter-la-deuxi%C3%A8me-vague

There are other hitherto little-known or unknown linguists – teachers, students, language enthusiasts among them – who also deserve our attention. One such, Sameer Merali, interviewed another such – Zobia, a real life user of youth slang – and me for his SLANGuage podcast series…

Mind your language: Here's how you can stop being basic and learn Gen Z  slang for a lit experience - art and culture - Hindustan Times

In October I took part in a debate on current language issues, hosted by Cumberland House. The discussion ranged across the language of ethnicity, diversity and inclusion, the language of youth and the notion of ‘political correctness’ and the policing of comedy and creativity…

https://www.cumberlandlodge.ac.uk/read-watch-listen/dialogue-debate-mind-your-language?fbclid=IwAR2A0_WH6AU3SVNvUjDqqhwZYs2ytYnUVvZ-vSG7yuwK6sLqLGRhg9Q6HFA

To return to the poor lexicographer’s standing, or lack of it, an eminent practitioner of the craft, Jeremy Butterfield, sent this resonant quote on the subject…

“Dictionary-making, while it obviously demands high scholarly qualifications, is commonly regarded as the graveyard of academic careers, and it is precisely those who have what it takes to whom we would be most loath to commend such an undertaking.” – Prof. W. Atkinson (1902-1992), Glasgow University 1961

The End of Summer in Locktown

FIRST REFLECTIONS ON CORONATIMES

7525CC9A-6E1E-4569-926F-CF9C6803D955_Tony Thorne

Ironically, the self-isolation I have been practising for the last seven months did not mean that I was without work. Periods of WFH alternated with forays into an empty city. Youth crime subsided at first but did not disappear during the pandemic: importantly for me the gathering and analysis of evidence and preparations for trials involving gang violence continued, and I continued to help defence teams and prosecutors to interpret the language used in messaging and Drill lyrics generated by suspects living in gang environments (as described in earlier posts on this site). In April I wrote an article for the Magistrates Association about the relationships between language, youth and crime*

During my time in quarantine I continued to record and comment on the language of the pandemic itself as well as the toxic terminology of populist politics and racism. At the beginning of September the team at Lexis Podcast gave me a fresh opportunity to talk about these topics (my comments are in the second half of the recording)…

I had time, too, to write a profile of the humble, enigmatic London outsider artist, known only as Albert, for Raw Vision magazine…

https://rawvision.com/articles/ideal-homes-imaginary-elevations

Image

* THE WORD ON THE STREET

‘Bad language’ and why you should really try to keep up

Studies have shown that the language of the court can be intimidating and perplexing for some of those who pass through it. We naturally hope that all of those involved in legal proceedings have sufficient command of a language in common to conduct their business successfully. There are times, however, when language barriers become apparent and it becomes necessary to interpret, to translate – foreign tongues used by other nationalities of course – but also new and unfamiliar language originating in our own communities.

Language is something that we tend to take for granted; it’s a facility that every human possesses and uses constantly. In the workplace we have to depend on a shared understanding of language, whether formal, legalistic or conversational. Professional linguists, however, see language differently and distinguish not only between informal, conversational speech and formal or technical language, but between a ‘dialect’ – the language of a region, a ‘sociolect’ – the language of a particular group such as a specific profession, ethnic group, age-group or social class, and even an ‘idiolect’, the words, phrases and turns of speech favoured by a single individual.

The closer we look at the language people are using, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. There is the problem of keeping abreast of rapid changes – of learning new terms, making sense of popular entertainment catchphrases and reality TV references, for example (‘Love Island’ springs to mind). Perhaps the problem is most acute when it’s the language of another generation. Parents, teachers, police officers, too, struggle to make sense of the latest playground slang, gamers’ terminology and the bizarre expressions uttered by music fans, fashionistas and YouTube stars. Abbreviations used in texting and on social media  – YOLO, FOMO, SMH (‘you only live once’, ‘fear of missing out’, ‘shaking my head’) can also be baffling for older observers – not surprisingly because this sort of language is not designed to be understood by outsiders. Insiders use slang as a badge of identity to show that they belong to a particular group, equally it is used to exclude the people they don’t want to associate with; the old, the boring, the unfashionable and the unglamorous. Many users of slang, though, are surprisingly sensitive to what linguists call ‘appropriacy’ – matching their choice of language to the social situation – and wouldn’t employ a highly informal style in a formal setting such as a court. Problems arise when evidence involves language recorded in very different contexts.

If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a ‘durkboi’ or a ‘wasteman’ (both mean useless male) and try to cadge some ‘p’s’, ‘gwop’ or ‘Lizzies’ (all slang for money), you are not alone. There is a shared slang vocabulary that has established itself throughout the UK, often replacing colourful older usages (such as rhyming slang: ‘once a week’, a synonym of ‘beak’ or magistrate has disappeared) or local dialect. Popular words include ‘piff’, ‘peng’, ‘dench’, ‘gully’, all used to express admiration, ‘bare’ meaning many (as in ‘bare feds’ or ‘bare jakes‘, lots of police), ‘bait’ meaning obvious, ‘bruv’ and ‘fam’ denoting one’s friends or group. ‘Chirpsin’, ‘linkin’ and ‘lipsin’ refer to flirting, dating and kissing respectively.

New terms are being coined all the time because novelty is what gives the words their edgy, progressive quality, but, contrary to what many people assume, slang doesn’t fall out of use for years, it just moves from an older to a younger cohort; as it’s abandoned by the most self-consciously ‘cool’ it is picked up by the latecomers. A few parents and some teachers have managed to learn some of these terms, but trying to use them will inevitably provoke ridicule. In a 2017 survey only 4% of parents were able to successfully translate messaging slang, while 65% tried but repeatedly failed or misunderstood.

Slang, whether used covertly or out in the open, is a feature of all societies and languages and of all age-groups, too. It’s well established that those engaged in criminal activity, lawlessness or antisocial behaviour develop their own secret languages in order to communicate privately and to prevent outsiders from understanding these communications. Teenagers and young adults likewise develop their own slangs and restricted terminologies and often include vocabulary coined by gang members and criminals because it seems glamorous and daring. In the US and the UK highly informal youth-based dialects have arisen and the terminology in question is also used in music lyrics and on social media. The language of US rap and hip-hop music and UK–based varieties such as Grime or Drill music mixes AfricanCaribbean influences, especially Jamaican ‘patois’, with local colloquial speech and will be familiar to many young people, even those who are not engaged in antisocial or criminal activity. This kind of language is very rarely picked up by mainstream media, is not normally recorded in standard dictionaries and is difficult for linguists to collect. I do so by monitoring online messaging and online discussions among slang enthusiasts or slang users, examining music lyrics and, most importantly, by interviewing slang users themselves (as slang is still more a spoken than written variety) and asking them to give or send me examples of language used by them and their peers. Slang is not deficient language; it performs its functions efficiently in conveying meaning. However, because it is an underground, alternative code it is not subject to rules and authorities. This can often result in the same slang term having multiple meanings (hood, for example can refer to a criminal ‘hoodlum’ or to the neighbourhood in which they operate) and in meanings varying to some extent between one group of users and another. It also means that (because they are based on speech and not on written sources) the spellings of slang terms may vary and may be used inconsistently.

I have been collecting 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. As a linguist I became fascinated by a kind of language that, although exotic, anti-social, irreverent and frequently offensive is technically as complex and as creative as poetry or literature. It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of teenage cliques, young-adult in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings.

For more than a decade, and increasingly over 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 still in their teens or early twenties). 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 distressed by what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, shocking 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, an expert who can stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a ‘burner’ or a ‘mash’ is a handgun; ‘dotty’ means shotgun, ‘Rambo’, ‘ramsay’, ‘cutter’, ‘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 gang culture with its obsession with status and respect, its territorial feuding and its violent tendencies seems to apply everywhere.

Nobody expects the average adult, even if an educated, articulate professional to be fluent either in the language of innocent teenagers or the criminal codes used by gang members. Where, then, can a legal professional or law enforcer go in order to get help with slang and street language? Standard published dictionaries do not offer much assistance, even dictionaries specialising in slang do not usually manage to keep up to date and to define and explain the latest terms. Magazine features purporting to explain what millennials and Generation Z are saying are invariably frivolous and inaccurate. One valuable resource is the online Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) a collection of language posted on the internet by real people. Its entries are up to date and usually authentic, but more than half of the expressions on the site originate in the USA and some of the posts are private jokes or local nicknames. There is a small dictionary of the language of rappers and gangsters on my own website (https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/), and I can answer general slang enquiries at The King’s College Archive if contacted at tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk.