NAMED AND SHAMED

When proper names become slurs – and Karen, Ben and Chad can rest assured, it’s nothing new

I spoke last week to Ellie Muir of the Independent about the way in which certain given names have recently been appropriated in popular culture and the media for use as labels, catch-all stereotypes – or slurs. One focus of Ellie’s piece is the use of the name Karen on social media and as a meme to evoke an over-assertive, unreasonably demanding or hypercritical white woman (memorably epitomised as ‘an antivaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair’). Karen is a Danish version of Katherine dating from the Middle Ages and adopted by English speakers from the 1940s. Originally a Black US nickname for a stereotypical white woman perceived as overbearing and entitled, Karen was most popular as a baby name in 1965 in the US, so would typically denote a Generation X female, it went viral in 2017.

Ellie’s article is here…

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/ben-stage-karen-meme-b2284528.html

In the USA in the early 80s Valley Girls and college students used to refer to their sporty, macho ‘jock’ contemporaries as biftads, inspired by the fact that many of them were nicknamed ‘Biff’ or ‘Tad’. Much more recently the online incel community of frustrated, embittered, uncharismatic males has used Chad to denote a successful alpha male who is popular with women (his black counterpart would be Tyrone).

In the UK names like Sharon, Tracy and Mandy were earlier employed to evoke stereotypical working class, vulgar females or chavs (notably in the sitcom Birds of a Feather and in Viz comic), while from the 70s through to the early 90s, Rupert, Tarquin and Nigel were used to mock supposed toffs or ‘posho’ males and are sometimes still heard today. Kevins or Kevs were uncouth, uncultured young British males from the end of the 70s until the end of the 90s, causing much amusement when the same name became cool and fashionable in the US and France in the 80s. Wayne was used in the same way. Around the same time London youths looking for dates referred to girls as Becks (this was pre ‘Posh and Becks’ as nicknames of a Spice Girl and her footballer escort by the way) because so many North London Jewish girls were called Rebecca or Becky. In the mid-2000s teenage girls thought to be too earnest, awkward or just unpopular were dismissed as Megs, the name possibly inspired by the daughter of the same name in the TV animated comedy Family Guy. Some older London males nicknamed middle-aged females, especially if deemed to be frumpish or charmless, Noras or Dorises.

DOCTORS OF SPIN

The New Language of New Britain – 25 Years On

I thought it might be interesting, even informative, to look back from our post-Brexit, post-COVID vantage point in early 2023 to a time before a culture of impunity had become embedded, a time when there still seemed to be a consensus across political persuasions that competence was a first requirement of whoever was elected to govern Britain, (but a time, too, in which there was a feeling among many that profound changes were overdue). In 1997 I made a series of programmes for BBC World Service Radio, looking at how emerging words and phrases seemed to embody novel attitudes on the part of the British. The broadcasts were aimed at listeners outside the UK, although at that time also accessible inside the territory.

The first in a series of short programmes looked at the language of New Labour, at perceptions of a closer relationship between its politicians and what is now called the mainstream media and at the role of the spin doctors (one of the very new formulations heard in those days) responsible for what is now called comms and messaging and for negotiating that rapprochement.

I was fortunate to be able to draw upon insights from Derek Draper, at that time one of New Labour’s highest placed political advisors and lobbyists, journalist and columnist Julia Hobsbawm and writer and critic Peter Bradshaw. Our conclusions were at that time revealing, I think, even if now the notions and the behaviour we were looking at and the terminology that accompanied them have become commonplace.

These recordings were lost for many years, and I am very grateful, both to my then-producer Colin Babb for recovering some of them, and to Urban Mrak who has managed to restore and re-record a small selection of the damaged tapes. The first of them can be accessed here, although the first few seconds during which we listened in the studio to reiterations of the ‘New Labour, New Britain’ mantra are missing…

https://www.podbean.com/player-v2/?i=wph5j-139127f-pb&from=pb6admin&share=1&download=1&rtl=0&fonts=Arial&skin=1&font-color=auto&logo_link=episode_page&btn-skin=7

In the following days I will add two more of these short recordings, dealing, respectively, with the idea that late-90s Britain was experiencing an upsurge in aggressive, selfish behaviour, typified by the new concept of ‘road rage‘, and an increase in female assertiveness caricatured as ‘girl power‘.

Derek Draper

Julia Hobsbawm

Peter Bradshaw

THE SLANG AND NEW LANGUAGE ARCHIVE

A research portal for scholars, the press and the public

The Slang and New Language Archive was created in 1994 while I was Director of the Language Centre at King’s College London. The archive, consisting of a small library of books and periodicals and a number of databases and sub-directories, was designed as a repository for the collection, storage and dissemination of new language, in particular examples of nonstandard varieties of English such as slang, jargon and buzzwords. The archive was later expanded to take in examples of media language, political language, linguistic curiosities and etymologies. It remains a resource, unique in the UK, assisting researchers, students, teachers and journalists, as well as non-specialists, in accessing information about aspects of contemporary language that are under-represented in traditional dictionaries and reference works.

This link will take you to the Archive webpage at King’s College, where there are further links to relevant articles and published sources…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/research/slang-and-new-language

Glossaries from the archive may be accessed on this site by entering keywords, such as slang, jargon, MLE (Multiethnic London English), familect (highly colloquial language used in the home), coronaspeak (language related to the COVID-19 pandemic) and weaponised words (the contentious language of Brexit and populism) and slurs (racist and misogynist terms) in the search box. Once you have accessed a post of interest, check the tags and categories at the foot of the page for other articles or glossaries on the same topic.

Two of the larger archive datafiles are hosted on Aston University’s Institute of Forensic Linguistics Databank site. These are a glossary of current youth slang

https://fold.aston.ac.uk/handle/123456789/4

And a glossary of UK street slang, rap music and gang terminology

https://fold.aston.ac.uk/handle/123456789/5

Please note that the King’s archive focuses principally on contemporary language, that is terms used from the twentieth century to the present day. If you are interested in historical slang, I strongly recommend the monumental work by my associate, the British lexicographer Jonathon Green. His dictionary, now generously freely available online, lists current and historical slang terms with timelines and citations illustrating their usage and development…

https://greensdictofslang.com/

For more information, for queries, or to donate examples of language, contact me via this website or via the King’s College webpage. I’m on Twitter as @tonythorne007 too.

DO TRY TO KEEP UP

Following fashions is an exhausting task. And has become more exhausting still.

I have been recording the fads, fashions, cults and trends that energise popular culture, and the labels by which they register themselves on our collective consciousness, for more than thirty years. With the advent of the Internet and messaging the lifestyle innovations, aesthetic novelties and personal badges of allegiance are nowadays free to go viral, go global, and in many cases to disappear, virtually instantaneously. I talked to Olive Pometsey of The Face magazine (itself an iconic vehicle for the propagation of new ideas and images) about the latest, accelerated, overheated iterations of micro and macro-identities competing on online platforms. The equally frenzied quality of much comment and analysis is perhaps conveyed by the notes I made before we spoke…

Olive’s excellent article is here…

A crowdsourced, online, free-for-all, 24/7 source of slang, catchphrases and new terminology is my friend Aaron Peckham‘s Urban Dictionary. As the Face article was going to press this was its phrase of the day…

vibe shift

Coined by trend forecaster Sean Monahan, a vibe shift describes the emergence of a “new era of cool.”

Fashion is a realm that experiences frequent vibe shifts, especially with the arrival of a new decade. Gone are the days when frosted tips and low-rise jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch were in.

We’re in the midst of a vibe shift right now with the widespread lifting of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We’re going out again and adapting in new ways to our environment; some will survive the shifting tides, and some won’t.

Yeah I’m in my vibe shift right now. You won’t catch me in the club now that things are opening back up again. I’m all about going to the Home Depot, renovating my home and hearthyknow? Once I tried topless gardening things changed a lot for me.

by bruhdisease April 24, 2022

Those once-thriving subjects, Cultural Studies and Media Studies, which I used to teach in the 1990s, are nowhere to be found in today’s educational landscape, and the cultural practices we used to analyse are these days ignored by most commentators, the subcultures (and microniches, hyperlocal communities) if they are mentioned at all are dismissed by older cohorts as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. I doggedly persist, in solidarity with The Face, Wire, Dazed, i-D, TikTok, nanoinfluencers and microcelebrities, in finding them fascinating and significant.

Just a few days after the Face article appeared, the Mail Online announced the latest look for Summer 2022…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10782439/Why-blokecore-set-biggest-trend-summer.html

And if you want a comprehensive list of currently trending aesthetic genres, it’s here…

https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/Special:AllPages

A November update from the Guardian features one influential fashion website, and more of the latest terminology (‘auntwave‘)…

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2022/nov/09/blackbird-spyplane-newsletter-jonah-weiner-interview?CMP=share_btn_tw

…But then, in January 2023 Vice revealed the trend beyond all trends – (and beyond my understanding at first sight)…

https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxnmeq/corecore-tiktok-trend-explained

…In May Hugh Barnard alerted me to a Wiki register of aesthetics…

https://aesthetics.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Aesthetics