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)…
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…
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…
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
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 LexisPodcast 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…
‘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 email@example.com.
– Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine
The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.
After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**
The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.
With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:
We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. It not working We’ll set up a service to do that You haven’t
We’ll set up a world beating…
It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****
– Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan
In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…
As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.
*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…
A perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft. In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.
On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…
Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mailjournalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’
Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…
…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…
Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter…
From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”
From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”
From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”
The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…
In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…
Also in January 2021 theGuardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…
In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…
In February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.
Many specialists and members of the public, too, were aghast at the government’s rhetoric around the notion of ‘Freedom Day’, a more or less complete, and overnight relaxation of protective restrictions proposed for July 19. The consistency of the chosen keywords characteristically began to unravel, as Professor Alice Roberts noted on July 11, ‘What does this actually mean? Is vigilant this year’s “alert”? How does vigilance help protect against an airborne virus when a government is not recommending and supporting effective mitigations…’ and Guardian journalist Sirin Kale commented two days later (quoted with her permission), ‘I see the government is trying to row back their Freedom Day messaging at the 11th hour just 2 weeks after senior ministers briefed they wouldn’t be wearing masks indoors any more. You’d think they’d have learned the dangers of conflicting messages after the Xmas fiasco but nope’
In September 2021, following revelations by government aide Dominic Cummings of his employers’ vacillation and incompetence, a second ousted advisor, Lee Cain, broke silence to excoriate the teams working on communications during the pandemic:
In the autumn of 2021 the public became aware of a ‘Plan B’, supposedly to be implemented in the event of a new surge (which was already, some said, happening). The exact details of this plan were not specified in any official communications and the press and public were left to speculate. A few new restrictions were introduced in late November, perhaps prompted by concern at still rising infection rates in schools and elsewhere, though ventilation in schools was not among them, then in the second week of December, as the Omicron variant spread to general alarm, Plans ‘C’ and ‘D’ implying successively stricter moves towards a lockdown were mooted. On 12 December emergency measures (presumed to be a version of Plan B) focusing on encouraging the takeup of booster shots were announced. On Twitter the next morning Russ Jones commented, ‘Plan B was drawn up 5 months ago. That’s how long they’ve had to plan for it. They gave the NHS 4 hours warning that they’d need to do 1 million tests a day, the booking website crashed cos nobody thought to upgrade it, and we ran out of lateral flow tests within 3 hours.’
The second part of my Lockdown Lexicon, Covidictionary, Glossary of Coronacoinages
In trying to make sense of our new circumstances, under lockdown, in social isolation or distancing, we must come to terms with an array of new language, some of it unfamiliar and difficult to process, some pre-existing but deployed in new ways. Many of us, though, are empowering ourselves by inventing and exchanging our own expressions, some of which have already escaped the confines of the family or the virtual work group.
I listed in my last post some of the scientific and technical terms which have moved into everyday usage. Those can seem intimidating – for good reasons – but most have been readily understood.
This time I’m looking at the language that homeworkers and locked-down friends, families and individuals, in some cases journalists too, in English-speaking areas have coined to fill the gaps in the official narratives and to find ways of expressing concepts that simply didn’t apply a few weeks ago. This includes nicknames, jargon, slang, abbreviations, puns and recent catchphrases and clichés.
I have tried to categorise the terms: again, some have become familiar by now while others may remain mysterious to many. For the moment this is a work in progress – an ongoing project to track the language of the crisis and to operate a linguistic ‘rapid response’ in gathering data.
Although it is a first draft, I thought it important to publish the list now (you can find more on many of these expressions, which won’t appear in standard dictionaries for some time, simply by Googling) and to appeal for anyone reading it to send me new terms, either to this website or to Twitter @tonythorne007. As the list grows I will thank and credit as many contributors as I can.
These are the new expressions, in no particular order, but divided roughly according to theme or topic (there are some terms – isocosm, meaning the contracted reality we are now living in – is one, which could fit under several headings)…
Describing the new realities
Anthropause – the hiatus in human activities occasioned by the pandemic, seen in terms of its effects on nature, wildlife, etc.
Coronaverse (Guardian) – the now prevailing socio-economic order
Quarantimes – a hashtag or label for the prevailing circumstances under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic
#Coronatimes – a hashtag on Instagram and Twitter: the period we are presently living through
BCV, B.C – (the period) before corona(virus)
Common invisible enemy (NATO) – virus as a sinister threat to the collectivity
Coronapocalypse – the effects of coronavirus framed as catastrophe
Radical uncertainty – doubts and uncertainty around decision-making in an unknowable future (title of a work by John Kay and Mervyn King)
Viral anxiety (New Statesman) – fear and uncertainty, sometimes excessive, due to the COVID-19 outbreak and its ramifications
Disinformation pandemic – the spread of fake news and false theories
Infodemic – the accelerated spread of disinformation
The coronopticon (Economist) – the notion of a national or global system of surveillance and control
Biosurveillance – monitoring the occurrence of contagion in a population
Security hygiene – methods intended to counter online scams, frauds and misuse of AI
Digital vigilance – raising awareness of and guarding against cybercrime and fraudulent claims
#coronanoia – paranoia induced by conditions obtaining in the pandemic
Caremongering(Canada and India) – organised acts of kindness and propagation of good news by volunteers
Armchair virologist – an unqualified self-styled expert on viral spread dispensing explanations and/or advice
Coronasplaining – purporting to explain aspects of the coronavirus-induced crisis, particularly to those who understand it better than the explainer
Coronaspiracy theories – conspiracy theories circulating as a result of the spread of COVID-19
Pancession – a pandemic-associated widespread economic recession
Disaster capitalism – profiting, profiteering and exploitation in conditions of local and global crisis
Disaster altruism – acts of benevolence in response to local and global crisis
#lockdowners – individuals coping with life in conditions of isolation
Wobble room – a safe physical space designated for the use of those experiencing psychological distress
Corona warriors (India) – frontline professionals, also known as covid-19 warriors, working to control the pandemic
Covexit – an exit strategy permitting relaxing of confinement and economic recovery following coronavirus-related restrictions
Second wave – a resurgence in the number of cases of infection following the relaxation of initial containment procedures
Corona crunch – the dramatic impact of the pandemic on e.g university income, investment returns
Post-normal science – instances where crucial socioeconomic decisions must be made despite uncertainty as to the relevant scientific facts
Contagion chivalry (New York Times) – an act or acts of selflessness during confinement
Coronacoaster – successive feelings of elation and despair experienced under conditions of confinement
#coronaclickbait – marketing messages or invitations to read information playing on COVID-19 fears
Loxit – the process of exiting from lockdown impositions
Loxino – lockdown exit in name only: an only apparent or partial transition
Circuit-breakers – halting an exit from lockdown by closing re-opened venues or ceasing re-started activities
#unlockdown – the process of relaxing or ending social and physical restrictions, or the period following their ending; equivalent to, or translation of the French déconfinement
Coronaphobia (Daily Mail) – fear experienced by the public at the prospect of having to return to work, send children back to school, use public transport, etc.
Bubble – a social group, a small number of family members and/or friends or teachers and students permitted to interact while wider social constraints continue, also a geographical zone within which travel and trade is permitted
Coronawashing – corporations or individuals taking advantage of the pandemic to promote their altruism, philanthropy and achievements
Cleanliness theatre/er – conspicuously thorough cleaning of hotels, restaurants, etc., intended to reassure customers: if in hospitals and public places it is known as hygiene theatre/er
Vaccine nationalism – competing to discover and produce an antivirus vaccine (benefitting from prestige thus acquired) and potentially then restricting availability to one’s own citizens
Air bridge – a travel corridor between two or more states allowing passage without quarantine. In July 2020, amid confusion, official messaging began to substitute the phrase ‘international travel corridors’
Scarring – long term negative effects resulting from initial harm suffered during social and/or economic upheaval
Security theater (American) – measures that make individuals feel safer without necessarily actually protecting them: public temperature measuring and airport security procedures are examples
Lockstalgia (Times) – the notion that we may look back fondly upon the period of confinement
Clandestine barbers – hairdressers operating illicitly before being allowed to reopen after lockdown
Decompression – the release of inhibitions and surge in misbehaviour expected following the opening of UK pubs and restaurants on 4 July 2020
Safecation – a holiday in a destination thought to be safe while the pandemic continues elsewhere
Wet pubs (Irish) – pubs selling only drinks and not food, so the last to be allowed to open after lockdown
#casedemic – the suggestion that governments are misleadingly using case numbers rather than more meaningful indices in order to implement unnecessary restrictions in what is actually a waning pandemic
Tech-celeration – during 2020 the pandemic accelerated the adoption of many technological behaviours, from video-conferencing and online shopping to remote working and distance learning
Parklet – an extension of a city pavement to provide additional outdoor seating or leisure space when social distancing is enforced and indoor spaces are subject to restrictions
Risk normalisation – a relaxing of vigilance and compliance with regulations by a public now becoming used to pandemic conditions, observed in November 2020 in the UK
Vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance to take, or fear of the consequences of taking the coronavirus vaccine once available (e.g in the UK from December 2020)
Corona-compromised – (of an event) called off, postponed or abandoned due to the ongoing threat of the virus
Twindemic – a posited scenario in which an epidemic, such as COVID, is accompanied by an outbreak of a second infectious disease, such as human or non-human influenza
Pandemicide – gross negligence or deliberate strategy leading to widespread loss of life during the pandemic, a charge levelled at Donald Trump in a September 2020 publication
Coronasomnia (Washington Post) – sleeplessness as a result of anxiety related to the coronavirus pandemic
Coronaversary – the anniversary, in mid-March 2021, of the first tangible reactions to, and realisation of the impact of COVID-19 infections
Vaccine bounce (New Statesman) – the upswing in approval ratings for the UK government following public perceptions of a successful vaccination programme
Re-entry syndrome – the stresses accompanying adjusting to emergence from lockdown
Scariant – a virus mutation or variant which is promoted as being alarming without adequate evidence
Jab-fest – a frantic launch of a large-scale vaccination programme as in India in April 2021
Surge-jabbing – an intensification of a vaccination programme to deal with a highly contagious new variant, as in the UK in May 20121
Variant of concern – a new and more dangerous virus strain
Exit wave – a resurgence in COVID infections predicted to follow an ending of restrictions, of the kind planned for July 19 2021 in the UK
Immunity debt – the phenomenon whereby cases of other infectious diseases, such as norovirus, increase more than usual once protective measures against COVID are removed.
Breakthrough infections – cases in which individuals become infected despite having been vaccinated
Fauxvid – symptoms of malaise mistaken for COVID
NOVID – a common cold whose symptoms mimic those of COVID
PPSD – ‘post-pandemic stress disorder’, a condition promoted by psychotherapist Owen O’Kane in the summer of 2021
Flurona – a rare combined infection of influenza and COVID, recorded in Israel in December 2021
Long social distancing – the phenomenon whereby anti-pandemic precautions continue to be practised by some after the pandemic seems to have subsided
Rona, Lady Rona, Miss Rona, roni, rone – the coronavirus personified/familiarised
The rona – the coronavirus
The pandy – the global pandemic, (by Autumn 2020 sometimes in the form panny-D)
The pando (Australian) – the coronavirus pandemic
nCoV – the coronavirus in technical designation or shorthand
Boomer remover – the coronavirus viewed as a phenomenon resulting in the decimation of the babyboomer demographic
Nightingales – first used as a nickname for those singing or performing morale-boosting music from balconies, in gardens, later abandoned when the Nightingale emergency hospitals were opened (or rather, announced but not opened) across the UK
Long-haulers – recovered victims of the virus who suffer long-term after-effects
Locky D – lockdown familiarised
Rat-lickers – those refusing to wear a mask (from the idea that potential victims of the bubonic plague licked rats to ward off infection)
Vaccine-hunters(CNN) – desperate individuals who, rather than wait for invitation to be vaccinated, stalk a pharmacy, hospital or other vaccination site in the hope of obtaining a leftover dose
Innoculati – the fortunate individuals who have already been vaccinated
Halfcinated – having received the first of two vaccine doses
Strollout (Australia) – the rollout of anti-virus vaccination, perceived as being too slow
Nosers – mask wearers who negate its effect by leaving their nose uncovered
Miley Cyrus (UK rhyming slang) – coronavirus
Covidiot – a person behaving irresponsibly in conditions of containment
Morona – a person behaving stupidly because of or during the coronavirus outbreak
Coronalusional – suffering from disordered thinking as a result of or during the COVID-19 crisis
Sanny (Australian) – hand sanitiser
Iso (Australian) – (self-) isolation
Isobar (Australian) – a home bar stocked, displayed and/or depleted in confinement
Isodesk (Australian) – a workplace improvised or used in confinement
Coronacation – cessation of study or work due to the pandemic, viewed as a holiday
Corona break – a period of confinement envisaged as a short holiday
Drivecation – a holiday, typically in a motorhome, in one’s own driveway
Hamsterkaufing – stockpiling and/or hoarding (adapted from German)
Coronaspeck – extra girth resulting from overeating in confinement
The COVID 19(lbs) (American) – extra body weight accrued during quarantine
Coroanacuts – haircuts carried out at home, especially when less than successful
De-roning – attempting to remove traces of coronavirus by cleaning/disinfecting items that have recently entered the home
Zumped –‘dumped’ by a partner via videolink or otherwise online
Ronavation – renovation or refurbishment during lockdown, an Instragram hashtag
Coronacranky – short-tempered as a result of enduring lockdown
Flu bro (American) – a male coronavirus denier, from their assertion ‘It’s just the flu, bro.’
Quarandating (Canadian) – using cellular dating apps to meet people and go on virtual dates through platforms such as FaceTime
Zoombie – someone incapacitated by too much screen time, or a malicious disruptor of a videoconference
Quarantanning – sun bathing or using tanning equipment during confinement
Quaran-stream – binge-watch TV series, movies while enduring lockdown
Smizing – smiling with the eyes, as when wearing a facemask (a term coined by US celebrity Tyra Banks in 2009)
Spendemic – a dramatic increase in online shopping by those confined during the coronavirus crisis
Coronasshole – first applied in March 2020 to US panic buyers, then in June to US citizens refusing to wear masks. In July the synonym #maskhole began to trend on social media
Spreadneck (American) – an ignorant and/or stubborn anti-vaxxer
Maskulinity – a macho refusal to wear a face covering
Furlough Merlot – a red wine assuaging the anxiety of lockdown and WFH
Lockdown locks – long and /or unruly hair following months without cutting or styling
Blursday – an undifferentiated day or date due to uncertainty after long confinement and isolation
Airgasm – the intense pleasurable feeling experienced when able to remove a mask and breathe freely again
Vaxinista – someone who flaunts the fact that they have been vaccinated as if a fashion statement
Vaccine sommelier – a person delaying vaccination until they can choose their preferred brand of vaccine
Pinged – advised by the NHS phone app to self-isolate
Pandemic pants(Australian) – track-suit bottoms worn while locked down or WFH
Nerd immunity – the notion, based on studies reported in February 2021, that those wearing glasses are less susceptible to COVID infection
Corona classic – the original strain of infection rather than a later variant
Partygate – the scandal surrounding allegations that those in authority flouted their own restrictions by holding illicit celebrations and gatherings
Homeworking and teleconferencing
WFH, wfh – working from home
Productivity ninja – a stress-free, purposeful and high-achieving worker (title of work by Graham Allcott)
Covidpreneurs (Irish Times) – individuals or businesses succeeding in thriving and innovating in a pandemic environment
Zoombombing – hijacking and/or interrupting videoconferencing on the Zoom platform
Slackers – remote workers using the Slack groupworking application(s)
Virtual backgrounding** – adjusting one’s visible décor for videoconferencing
Videofurbishing** – enhancing one’s décor prior to videoconferencing
Zoom room – part of one’s home kept clean and inviting for use as videocalling background
Quarantini – a martini mixed and consumed in conditions of confinement
Locktail hour – a time allotted to consumption of cocktails while isolating
Upperwear – clothing selected for display above the waist only
Telecommutercore (Guardian) – casual clothing selected for use when videoconferencing and/or home-based working
Infits – outfits worn in conditions of confinement
Quaransheen** – a shiny nose and/or forehead visible while engaged in videoconferencing
Zoomlift** – the cosmetic surgery supposedly required as soon as obligatory online interaction ends
Coronaviva – an oral examination or thesis defence taken online during lockdown
Quaranteams – groups forming and performing – music or competing in quizzes for example – together virtually during lockdown
Quaranqueens – a woman excelling during lockdown, particularly one excessively cleaning and tidying
Quarantrolls – individuals sending malicious online messages in conditions of and/or referring to quarantine
Quarantunes – music produced and/or performed under lockdown
Quaranzine – a magazine produced under lockdown
Coronalit – literature produced during/inspired by the pandemic
Corona-fi – fiction or science-fiction produced during/inspired by the pandemic
Zoom mullet – a hairstyle developed in lockdown which is ‘camera-ready’ (presentable to a webcam) at front and sides and dishevelled at the rear
#isobaking – home-baking in confinement and/or exchanging recipes: a hashtag on TikTok and Instagram
Zoomitzvah (Jewish Chronicle) – a bar mitzvah celebrated via video app in confinement
Homeference – a virtual conference that participants can attend remotely
Zoomed out – exhausted and/or disoriented after spending too much time in videoconferences
Zoom fatigue – a draining of energy resulting from the unusual stresses involved in interactions in virtual meetings
The wipe-away – the high-visibility handwaving that indicates the person is leaving a virtual meeting
Toxic productivity – the unfair expectation that professionals, creatives and others should be able to stay productive, even achieve more during adverse situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic
Uberise – to emulate Uber in moving to a system whereby employees decide which hours of the day they will plug in under the work from home model during the pandemic
The elephant in the Zoom – an unmentioned presence or unacknowledged issue in an online meeting, or an elephant themed background or video
Desk disco – defined by translator and copywriter Ian Winick as ‘taking a few minutes out to boogie on down at your desk’
Hate-wear (New York Times) – clothing items, usually unfashionable, possibly also uncomfortable, worn in confinement for their utility rather than their style
Sadwear (Esquire) – ‘clothes that make us feel better when we’re sad, specifically born out of the existential ennui of lockdown’
Apocalypse beard (Guardian) – uncontrolled facial hair that can double as a face-warmer
Hybrid working – a combination of working remotely and on-site
WFA – working from anywhere. ‘It also used to be called telecommuting – that’s an example of how language changes over time, says Tracey Fritcher, principal strategist of employee experience at ServiceNow.’ Their useful glossary, published by the Guardian, is here****
Pandemic posture – ‘slouching, slumping and hunching’, the unhealthy effects of 18 months of working at home or in unstructured environments
Legacy hand – a hand raised to ask a question in a virtual discussion and the hand is not subsequently lowered, leading to confusion
Coronials – The generation born after December 2020 as a result of the enforced quarantining of their parents due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Gen(eration) C – in 2018 designated young ‘connected consumers’, now may refer to young people coming of age since the onset of the coronavirus crisis
Quaranteens – the generation who will become teenagers in 2033 -4
Elbump – an elbow contact in place of handshaking or other physical greeting
Coronadodge – swerving to avoid passers-by to comply with distance restrictions
Couple-spreading – couples permitted under regulations to walk together taking up excessive space in public places
Covid waltz – manoeuvring to avoid close contact with passers-by while distance restrictions are in place
Loopholing (South African) – exploiting imprecisions or allowances in distancing restrictions in order to travel
Overreaching – enforcing crisis-related regulations too zealously
Yob-dobbing – reporting someone’s antisocial behaviour to authorities
Ronadobbing (Australian) – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Coronasnitching ** – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Covidobbing** – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Coronagrass** – a person who informs on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Curtain-twitching – peering at and/or spying on neighbours
Corona-shaming (New York Times) – publicly criticising those, particularly celebrities, who have infringed public health regulations
Masklessness – wearing no face-covering, in US often as a gesture of defiance and/or disbelief in standard pandemic narratives and official advice
Whack-a-mole – a piecemeal response to a major problem, such as ad hoc local lockdowns in the context of a second wave of infection
Cohorting – imposed grouping of health care workers and others, for example teachers and students working together or prisoners and guards, who are potentially susceptible to viral infection
Covid marshals – officials sent to public locations to enforce new UK social distancing rules from September 2020
Lockdown light – used in Germany and elsewhere in October 2020 to describe a set of restrictions on movement and behaviour that falls short of a full lockdown
Tier 4 – an upgrading of the UK’s three-tier pandemic management system of graduated local lockdowns to a national lockdown, envisaged from November 2020
Mockdown – a term trending in November 2020 and again in January 2021 indicating a lockdown that is insufficiently enforced and/or widely disregarded
‘You know how Gen Z are using ‘cornteen’ as a playful misspelling of ‘quarantine’? This is now reflected in the emoji spelling teen.’
In Spain and Italy the combination 👑🦠 is used, as ‘corona’ is their word for crown
Recently trending terms
The new normal
Behind the curve
The Before Time(s)
*Quote: “When some idiot second guesses a specialist, e.g. when a cartoonist pronounces on epidemiology lessons: to stay in your lane you must know your lane”
**These are terms which have been proposed in online discussions but which may not yet have embedded themselves in the national conversation
*** From forensic linguist Professor Tim Grant; “following the science” There’s no such thing as “the science”. Scientific conclusions are often subtle and slippery. This phrase is being used to avoid responsibility by those taking political decisions. It’s the job of scientists to question, to disagree, to propose alternative explanations, alternative conclusions, to bring to the fore additional evidence that hasn’t been noticed. It’s the job of politicians to weigh this mess of conflictual evidence and make decisions. This decision making is hard and requires taking responsibility. Using “following the science” as cover, is spin doctoring of the worst kind. It’s cowardly, distancing, its-not-my-fault playing politics with this appalling crisis. It’s a failure of political leadership.
In July 2020 the New Yorker published its own guide to coronaspeak. While the content is amusing, I will not be adding these terms to my glossary until I’m sure they are in circulation among users other than journalists…
My project to create a glossary of Brexitspeak and the toxic terminology of Trumpism and populism* has thankfully attracted media attention and contributions from many specialists, writers and members of the wider public. I am very grateful and absolutely delighted to reproduce here the lexicon compiled by students on the MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills Programme 2019-20 at the University of Bath and their teacher Teresa Lander…
Their glossary not only brings together some of the latest expressions thrown up by rancorous, divisive debate, but adds a multilingual element, including as it does Brexit-related slang from neighbouring languages…
Glossary of slang terms/insults regarding Brexit
“The resulting conversational punishment received when disagreeing with a supporter of the [B]rexit movement”
“A person who is outraged and frustrated over the result of the European Union membership referendum in the United Kingdom which the vote took place on the 23rd of June of 2016 and relies on protests against the UK government and for the EU to prevent Brexit”.
“British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017 saying the UK needed a “strong and stable” government because of Brexit. It is an expression she would live to regret after she lost her majority and was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government”
‘Ministropad’ (no translation) – “a cascade of ministerial resignations,” (Rosenburg, 2018). “The term literally translates as “ministerfall.” Styled after the Russian word for “waterfall” (vodopad), it swaps out “water” (voda) for “minister” (ministr)”.
‘Un brexit salvaje’/’un brexit a las bravas’/’un brexit por las malas’ (a wild Brexit/a Brexit by force/a crooked Brexit) – referring to a no-deal scenario, a contrast to the less positive spin than English terms such as a ‘clean break’ Brexit
‘Una vacuna contra el euroescepticismo’ (a vaccine against euroscepticism) – referring to the difficulty and mishandling of the Brexit process, that has caused support for outright leaving the EU to sink according to opinion polls in other member states
‘Le Royaume-Désuni’ (divided kingdom) – a play on words of the French term ‘le Royaume-Uni’ (United Kingdom) – used in the context of Brexit to refer to the way in which it has severely divided the UK population and threatened the overall unity of the country, particularly in relation to Ireland and Scotland.
‘brexit’ (common noun – lower case ‘b’) – a tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French journalist Bernard Pivot, resulting from the Brexit strife, that would be used to signify any row, debate, negotiation or meeting that proves insoluble and shambolic. (e.g. l’assemblée des copropriétaires s’est achevée en brexit.)
‘Quel brexit!’ (alternative to ‘quel bordel’ – ‘what a shambles/mess!’) – a very tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French natives in response to Bernard Pivot’s ‘brexit’. In this instance, ‘brexit’ would convey the same meaning as French term ‘bordel’, meaning ‘shambles’ or ‘mess’, and would be used in any shambolic situation.
‘Le bateau ivre’ (term originating from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud relating to the drifting and sinking of a boat lost at sea) – used metaphorically in the context of Brexit to refer to its lack of direction and absence of satisfactory leadership.
“Les partisans du Brexit ont réduit le Royaume-Uni à l’état de bateau ivre, sans cap ni capitaine.”
Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…
In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.
I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.
I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.
George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.
Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.
In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.
There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.
The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…
There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.
Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.
Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…
Some new thoughts about the pervasive, destabilising, discomfiting Language of Lying in public life
In 2015 Conservative politician Grant Shapps was forced to admit that he had ‘over-firmly denied’ having a second job under a pseudonym, selling a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme while sitting as an MP.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton admitted that she had ‘misspoken’ when she claimed to have come under sniper fire during a 1996 visit to Bosnia.
A slang phrase, borrowed from US street and hiphop parlance into so-called MLE, ‘multicultural London English’, and often used by teenagers in London today, is ‘no cap!’ an exclamation which is the modern equivalent of the adult ‘no word of a lie!’ when swearing that you can be trusted, are being sincere, are telling the truth.
Orwell famously exposed the doublespeak of totalitarianism and I wrote some years ago about politicians’ evasive and duplicitous ‘weasel-words’ (a version of the article is on this site). In the late 90s I presented a series for the BBC World Service in which we looked at the politics of ‘spin’ and the work of the spin-doctors employed first by Bill Clinton and later by Tony Blair to massage their messages and to take ownership of the media narratives of the moment. The half-truths and untruths perpetrated today are more frequent, more widespread, some are more flagrant, and all are helped in their trajectories by multiple new platforms and outlets and far more sophisticated mainstream and social media capabilities.
I have collected examples of the toxic terminology and ‘skunked’ terms employed by demagogues and charlatans and echoed by compliant journalists and commentators (my glossary is on this site). In the media maelstrom we are presently living through, untruths, half-truths and fake news, too, have featured prominently and repeatedly in the national conversations of the US and the UK. With this in mind the Open University has produced a two-part mini-documentary on the Language of Lying in which I was privileged to take part. We talk about the concepts of truth and falsehood and about their incarnations in the current context of populism, Trumpism and Brexit.
Part One of the documentary is here:
I’m very grateful to Dr Philip Seargeant of the OU for initiating this project and asking me to take part, grateful too to Hamlett Films for producing the programme.
Here is the second part:
And here are links to two more recent commentaries on lying:
By way of an update, in May 2021 Conservative MP Rory Stewart delivered this assessment of Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
Then, in June…
In August 2021 the UK government deployed a comms strategy that commentators referred to variously as ‘spin’, ‘stretching the truth’, ‘newspeak’… and ‘institutional lying’…
In January 2022, as Boris Johnson faced a tide of indignation following revelations of lockdown breaches (the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal), Journalist Peter Oborne published a list of what he charitably termed ‘misleading statements’ made by the Prime Minister and still uncorrected in official records…
Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.
With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.
While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’
In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’
‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.
On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:
Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.
I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.
In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.
*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’
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)…
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:
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.
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.
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.
Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:
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):
I have been collecting new and controversial languagegenerated by the rise of conservative populism in the US and the UK, by pro- and anti-Trump sentiment in the US and by the divisions resulting from the UK’s Brexit vote. This is a work in progress: the preliminary list of terms as it stands is below. Soon I plan to offer detailed definitions and comments (for example, the second word in the list is my own invention, intended to describe a statement, act or policy showing effrontery, and itself a deliberate affront to a section of the population) and a ‘lexical’ categorisation (into ‘jargon’, ‘slang, ‘catchphrase’, cliché, for instance).
***Please do contact me with new examples, with comments and with criticism, which will be gratefully acknowledged and credited.***
Brexit means Brexit
Britain deserves better
Canada plus plus plus
Dead cat strategy
Drain the swamp
Enemies of the people
Fall off a cliff
False flag operation
Flooding the zone
Get it done
Getting the barnacles off the boat
Henry VIII powers
Hose it down
Kicking the can down the road
Leave means leave
Magic money tree
Operation Red Meat
Operation Save Big Dog
Put/stick that on the side of a bus
Race to the bottom
SJW social justice warrior
Taking back control
Throw under the bus
#tfg, ‘the former guy’
Will of the people
I’m grateful especially to the many contacts on Twitterwho have already contributed to this modest project, particularly Duncan Reynolds @duncanr2, and will credit them all by name/handle when a final version is published.
I’m also very grateful to Rob Booth and the Guardian who, in October 2019, wrote about the glossary and its topicality in increasingly conflicted times:
**’Skunked terms’ are words or expressions undergoing a controversial change in meaning. Examples are ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ which have transitioned from referring to leftist, progressive or centrist positions to denote neo-conservative or alt-right affiliations. Nearly two years on from my original post the useful designation ‘anglosphere’, describing English-speaking nations with shared cultural features, has been co-opted by far-right nativists in the UK to promote a supremacist ideology.
As a further footnote, this from Twitter in November 2020 (thanks to Alan Pulverness), a reminder that weaponised words may also be frivolous – even puerile:
And finally, from 2016, a prescient tweet by Gary Kasparov: