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…
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…
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…
activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.
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…
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…
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…
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…
…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…
An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’
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…
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.
In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…
One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…
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…
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.
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
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
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
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
‘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.
It was gratifying in mid-April to see my studies referenced – very informally – in two of the UK’s highest circulation newspapers…
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…
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…
I helped with the preparation of a language guide designed for UK students starting out on their courses this week. Based on a survey and on contributions from across the country the lighthearted but comprehensive guide highlights the dialect differences and the local slang expressions that freshers may encounter when they move to a new area to begin their studies.
With over 495,000 UK students set to depart for three years in a new university town, online learning platform, Quizlet (www.quizlet.com), has worked with local councils, poets, and language experts, to help students learn, understand, and use regional slang relevant to their new university town homes, through curated online study sets.
Working with institutions including the University of Bristol, This Is Edinburgh, Manchester Voices, and Liverpool City Council, Quizlet hopes to encourage students to learn the regional slang and dialect of their new home, in order to help build relationships between undergraduates and the local community, with a parallel survey of Quizlet’s student users revealing that 23% visit their university town only once before moving, and 11% never visit at all.
With essential phrases hand-picked by local experts, Quizlet is hosting regional slang study sets, covering the 20 biggest undergraduate populations as defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (www.hesa.ac.uk).
The study sets include over 160 dialectic words and phrases in total covering locations from Devon to Dundee, and Exeter to Edinburgh.
Example phrases include:
· ‘Antwacky’ means ‘Old-fashioned’ in Liverpool
Use in a sentence: “Your furniture is antwacky” / “Your furniture is old-fashioned”
Provided by Liverpool City Council
· ‘Gannin’ yem’ means ‘Going home’ in Newcastle
“I’m gannin’ yem on the train” / “I’m going home by train”
Lisa Matthews, Northern Poetry Library poet & author
· ‘It’s dark over Albert’s mother’s’ means ‘It’s getting cloudy’ in Manchester
“It’s dark over Albert’s Mother’s this afternoon!” / “It’s getting cloudy this afternoon”
Dr Erin Carrie, Project Manager of Manchester Voices
· ‘Half-soaked’ means ‘Slow-witted’ in Birmingham
“He’s a bit half-soaked he is” / “He’s not very clever”
Matt Windle, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2016-2018
· ‘Ginger’ means ‘A fizzy drink’ in Glasgow
“Gie’s a bottla ginger” / “hand me that bottle of pop”
Stuart Paterson, BBC Scotland Poet in Residence 2017-2018
The full list of phrases and downloadable study sets can be found at:
Richard Gregory, VP of International at Quizlet, comments: “Many of us will remember how nerve-wracking those initial university days are. Dozens of faces and names to remember, all in the backdrop of a new city. We created this resource to try and mitigate those university jitters: teaching students about their new surroundings through the important pillars of language and culture. The relationship between students and the local population can sometimes be a challenge, and that’s why all these language experts wanted to get on board to help us bridge linguistic divides.”
How connected do students feel to their university homes? To coincide with the regional language study sets, Quizlet polled over 1,030 students (aged 17-24) across the UK, to understand perceptions towards university towns:
A tenth of students ‘never’ visit their university town, before moving
44% of respondents said they had visited their new home ‘twice or three times’ before moving, while 23% admitted to having visited just ‘once’. Just 22% of students said they had visited ‘multiple’ times before moving, while 11% had ‘never’ visited their university location before making the move.
Nearly half of students don’t use or understand any local dialect words
Students can be reticent to use local dialect words in their new home, with 51% stating they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ use and understand local dialect or phrases, but the other 49% said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do.
Students believe locals generally perceive them positively
62% of students believe that local residents have a positive view of them, with students in Cambridge perceiving the most positive relationship (78%). However, 38% of students feel that local residents are ‘negative’ or ‘indifferent’ to them, with students in Durham expressing the worst relationship (65%).
…Although the majority ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ socialise with locals
28% of students asked stated they ‘rarely’ had social interactions with people outside of their university, while 16% stated they ‘never’ socialised with residents. This is in comparison with the 34% who said they ‘sometimes’ spoke and made friendships, while 22% would say they ‘often’ socialised with locals.
I thought it might be interesting to compare the language listed in this new guide with the expressions I recorded at King’s College in London nearly two decades ago. For the curious my article from all those years ago is here…
Student slang as she is spoke – your passport to the in-crowd
Among all the guidance notes, union leaflets, maps and schedules that make up the Fresher’s welcome pack there is one aspect of student life that will almost certainly not be covered. No institution, however enlightened, is likely to provide you with that vital accessory, the key to unlocking the mysteries of undergraduate existence, the passport to instant social acceptance by your peers; a glossary of the very latest student slang.
Like any other group leading a self-contained existence outside the social mainstream, students have evolved a private language through which they can label one another, celebrate their shared pleasures, and keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. For at least two centuries the argot of Oxbridge and the public schools enriched the English language (respectable words like ‘mob’ and ‘(omni)bus’ probably started out as student witticisms) Wodehousian
On North American campuses where life is more highly ritualised, with initiation ceremonies, sorority and fraternity-house customs, popularity contests and the rest, there is a vast and ever-changing vocabulary of status
It’s interesting to compare the way the two nationalities talk about the same staples of student existence; for instance ‘aardvark’ in Britain is hard work, while in the US ‘aardvarking’ is engaging in sexual fumbling; ‘we’d better leave’ is rendered as ‘Let’s bail’ or Let’s book’ in the US, ‘Let’s chip’ or ‘Let’s duss’ over here. Boring misfits -the butt of witticisms on both continents are known as ‘lorgs’ in the US, ‘nargs’ in the UK, while an attractive American male is is a ‘jordan’, his British equivalent a ‘smacker’. It used to be that we imported our more fashionable terms from the US – ‘groovy’, far-out’ and ‘fuzz’ in the Sixties, and ‘nerd’, ‘wimp’ and ‘geek’ a decade later, for instance, but a large proportion of today’s vocabulary comes from Black British and Caribbean speech; ‘mampy’ and ‘butters’ (ugly), ‘roasting’ (sexually frustrated) and ‘bruck’ (ruined) are among the best known.
Home-grown rhyming slang is also alive and well and new examples are being coined all the time.’Claire Rayners’ are trainers, often worn with a pair of Steve McQueens, If a piece of work is too easy it’s a ‘Glen’ (-Hoddle; a doddle)’, but perhaps in any case you don’t give a Kate Moss. If you want to borrow a ten-pound note to buy some ‘Richard’ (Gere-beer), it’s cooler to demand an Ayrton (Senna) or a Pavarotti (tenor – get it?), but promise to return it ‘Christian Slater’ and not too ‘Terry Waite’.
Some of the buzzwords and catchphrases used by British students are peculiar to just one university or college, others are invented and swapped among micro-groups made up of just a handful of friends, but there is another large core of expressions which are used and understood with minor variations right across the country. At King’s College London, students have been donating examples of their current argot for the last three years to a research project that will eventually yield a new dictionary of ‘youthspeak’
It’s often assumed that slang is something ephemeral, but it isn’t as simple as that:
words do come in and out of fashion, particularly the words that bestow approval, the successors to yesteryear’s ‘fab’, ‘ace’, ‘brill’ are ‘wick’, ‘dare’, and ‘dope’, but many are recycled and some oldies -‘cool’, ‘sorted’ and ‘shag’ are examples – seem to linger year after year. One remarkable feature is the number of words that mean the same thing: there are hundreds of words for drunk, including ‘gurning’, ‘wazzed’, ‘mashup’, ‘ratted’, ‘faced’, scores to denote idiots (‘chief’, ‘choad’, ‘hole’, ‘smurf’), and dozens of synonyms for exciting, such as ‘kicking’, ‘slamming’ ‘blamming’ and ‘storming’.
The picture of student life that emerges from the King’s survey is a happy disregard for work (almost no slang refers to books, lectures or libraries), and a very pronounced dedication to all things hedonistic.
To boost the confidence of the uninitiated, here is a shortlist of current expressions, culled from the study at King’s and donations from students at several other institutions in the Southeast. Understand them – but stop and think before you drop them into the conversation; there’s nothing more shame-making than a newcomer desperately trying to be hip. And the wrong word in the wrong place can result either in roars of derision or a hideous strained silence – as you mumble “I’ll get my coat.”
A QUICK GUIDE FOR THE UNINITIATED
Arm candy…a fellow student borrowed as an escort for a social function
Catalogue man….an unfashionable, Alan Partridge-style male
Cheesy, grievous, rank…awful
Chirpsing…flirting or chatting up
Jawache, grab, snork…to kiss
Oof…a stunningly attractive female
Pants…disappointing or unlucky
Mullered, spannered, twatted…the worse for wear after drinking
Throw a bennie…become enraged or lose control
Tough, uggers…extremely unattractive
Trust, squids, bollers…money
Vamping, flexing…showing off
This article first appeared in the GUARDIAN newspaper in September 2000
Many TV shows have promoted and propagated catchphrases and slang: ‘Luvly jubbly’ from Only Fools and Horses, ‘Cowabunga’ from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example, but probably the first reality TV series to lodge words and phrases in the British consciousness was T.O.W.I.E – ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ – source of ‘wel jel’, ‘reem’ and more. Love Island, now in its second series, also features a similar demographic – young adult, not necessarily highly educated, extrovert, fit (in both senses) and narcissistic.
As a linguist studying slang, I’m used to having to listen to and interact with criminals, social deviants and other ‘unsavoury’ characters, but one of the most painful experiences of all for me is the obligation to watch reality television. This is not mere linguistic snobbery – though that is certainly a factor – but, if I am honest, because I would never even in my youth have been selected to take part in these beauty contests cum dating games on account of my physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have been dutifully tuning in to Love Island recently and trying to come to terms with examples of what linguists call a ‘restricted code’, that is a limited vocabulary and limited grammatical repertoire of made up of simple structures and colloquialisms. This can reflect the limitations of speakers’ communication skills and literacy-levels, but does of course result from the very restricted environment in which participants are placed and the simple, repetitive actions and interactions they have to perform.
You might say, uncharitably perhaps, that the contestants on Love Island are also infantilised by being coerced into playing out simple and repetitive relationship games for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The words and phrases which result, and even the intonation and tone of voice that emerges is a weird mix in which the young ‘stars’ alternate attempts at complex formulations when describing psychological pressures with frivolous slang when flirting or teasing, all delivered in the rushed and breathless accents of toddlers.
Psychologists talk about the act of ‘mirroring’ whereby people imitate subconsciously the speech, gestures, mannerisms of others, either to ‘honour ‘ them (if they are seen as high-status or admirable) or to show solidarity and empathy. There is a neuron in the brain that triggers this mimicry in sharing emotion, reinforcing relationships and bonding. Mirroring is contagious like yawning and, again, inside a closed and comparatively claustrophobic environment, its effects are intensified.
The slang used on Love Island may be part of what linguists call a ‘stigmatised’ variety of language – i.e comprising linguistic features that are disapproved of and usually considered substandard in normal society, but slang is at the same time what linguists call a ‘prestige variety’ within the in-groups or subcultures where it originates and where it is exchanged, in other words it confers status on the user and excludes the outsiders who aren’t cool enough to understand it and deploy it convincingly. So for the island community slang helps to reinforce identity and for their fans provides an opportunity to identify with them and emulate them.
The Radio Times has supplied a helpful glossary of the words and phrases in question:
Despite all my misgivings I agreed to speak to journalist Ralph Blackburn about the programme. Ralph had been intrigued by the way the contestants increasingly adopted one another’s language mannerisms just as their vocabularies seemed to reduce as the series progressed. His article appeared today in the Daily Mail: