THE REAL WORDS OF THE YEAR – 2018

It has become a tradition for the major dictionary publishers, along with some linguists’ associations, to nominate a ‘word of the year’, a term (or in the case of Oxford’s 2015 crying/laughing emoji a symbol) which supposedly captures the essence of the zeitgeist, and in doing so marks the proposer as someone in tune with the times and with their target audience. The words chosen are rarely actually new, and by the nature of the exercise calculated to provoke disagreement and debate. I have worked with and written about what linguists and anthropologists call ‘cultural keywords’ and have my own ideas on which expressions could be truly emblematic of social change and cultural innovation. The words already nominated by the self-appointed arbiters are discussed at the foot of the page, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine (in order of preference)…

 

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AI

Yes, strictly speaking it’s two words, but this little initialism looks like a two-letter word and is processed by the brain as a ‘lexeme’ or a single unit of sound and sense. AI, artificial intelligence, is the hottest topic not only in tech-related practices but in fields as (seemingly) diverse as marketing, finance, automotives, medicine and health, education, environmentalism. Zdnet.com has published one of the most useful overviews of AI and its sub-categories and applications:

https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-ai-everything-you-need-to-know-about-artificial-intelligence/

Though it is one of the most fashionable and most resonant terms in current conversation, a slogan and a rallying cry as well as a definition, AI is problematic in the same way as two other recent contenders for word-of the moment, CRYPTO and DIGITAL. The former is shorthand for all the very complex, not to say near-incomprehensible elements that have accompanied the invention of crypto-currencies – bitcoins and blockchains in particular. These advances have yet to prove their worth for most ordinary consumers who will often be bemused by new terminology that seems to be traded among experts somewhere beyond their grasp or their reach. In the same way for the last few years ‘digital’ has been a mantra evoking the unstoppable influence of new electronic media, (related SOCIAL was a strong candidate for buzzword of 2017). Digital’s over-use by overexcited marketing professionals, would-be thought-leaders and influencers has been inspiring mockery since 2016, as in the spoof article in the Daily Mash: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/nobody-knows-what-digital-supposed-to-mean-20160614109525

To put it almost as crudely as the Daily Mash does, there’s a sense in which almost no layperson knows, or can know fully, what Digital, Crypto and AI really mean, and the same goes for the expressions derived from them – ‘deep learning’ comes to mind. Their power derives from their novelty and their ability to evoke a techutopian future happening now. The phrase artificial intelligence was first employed in 1956 and its abbreviated form has been used by insiders since at least the early 2000s, but it is only now that it, and the concepts it embodies, are coming into their own.

 

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INTERSECTIONALITY

At first sight just another over-syllabled buzzword escaping from the confines of academic theory (‘performativity’, ‘superdiversity’ and ‘dimensionality’ are recent examples) into highbrow conversation, intersectionality is actually an important addition to the lexicon of identity studies. It was coined as long ago as 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and legal scholar who wrote that traditional feminist ideas and anti-racist policies exclude black women because they face overlapping discrimination that is unique to them.  The word took 26 years to make it into the OED and is still unfamiliar to many, but during 2018 has featured in more and more debates on diversity and discrimination, marking the realisation that, for BAME women and for other marginalised groups, the complexities of oppression and inequality occur in a matrix that incorporates not only gender and ethnicity but such factors as age, sexuality and social class. There are each year a few forbiddingly formal or offputtingly technical expressions that do deserve to cross over into mainstream use. This I think is one of them and no journalist, educationalist, politician or concerned citizen should be unaware of it.

A bad-tempered take on intersectionality as buzzword was provided last year by https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/intersectional-feminism-jargon

 

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CIVILITY

I was intrigued by the sudden appearance (sudden at least by my understanding) earlier this year – its online lookups spiked in June – of a decorous, dignified term in the midst of very undecorous, undignified public debate. This old latinate word’s denotations and connotations were in complete contrast with the ‘skunked terms’ and toxic terminology that I had collected elsewhere on this site. In fact, as is often the case, this word of the moment emerged from a longer tradition, but one largely unknown hitherto outside the US. Its proposer was Professor P.M Forni, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago. In 1997, together with colleagues he established the Johns Hopkins Civility Project — now known as the Civility Initiative — a collaboration of academic disciplines that addressed the significance of civility and manners in modern life. His ideas were seized upon by commentators on this year’s events in the US, with some asserting that the civil rights protests of the past were indeed more civil than today’s rancorous exchanges. Democrat Nancy Pelosi denounced Donald Trump’s ‘daily lack of civility’ but also criticised liberal opponents’ attacks on him and his constituency. Others pointed out that polite debate alone had never prevailed in the struggles against bigotry and violence and that civility was an inadequate, irrelevant response. Cynics inserted their definitions: ‘civility’ = treating white people with respect; ‘political correctness’ = treating everybody else with respect…which prompts the thought that perhaps, in recognition of realities on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s really ‘incivility’ that should be my word of the year.

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Here, in the Economist, is the ‘Johnson’ column’s perceptive analysis of those other nominations for 2018’s word of the year:

https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2018/12/08/the-meaning-of-the-words-of-the-year

While US lexicographer Kory Stamper provides the inside story on the American choices:

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/12/18/language-nerds-worked-really-hard-that-words-year-list/wJgdhIMAQK7xcBvlc2iHOL/story.html?s_camp=bostonglobe:social:sharetools:twitter

Lynne Murphy‘s annual US to UK export/import of the year:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-us-to-uk-word-of-year-mainstream.html

And her UK to US counterpart:

https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2018/12/2018-uk-to-us-word-of-year-whilst.html

In the New Year the American Dialect Society announced its own word of 2018, a disturbing euphemism employed by the Trump regime and a candidate for my glossary of toxic terminology (see elsewhere on this site):

https://www.americandialect.org/tender-age-shelter-is-2018-american-dialect-society-word-of-the-year

Last, but very much not least, from the militantly millennial LinguaBishes, some excellent examples of millennial/Generation Z terms of 2018:

https://linguabishes.com/2018/12/27/2018-words-of-the-year/

 

 

And, FWIW, I like to think that my own collection of cultural keywords, seeking to define the essence of Englishness back in 2011, is still relevant today:

Image result for the 100 words that make the english tony thorne

BUY-TO-LEAVE

Another recent buzzword highlights the impacts of commercial innovation upon urban infrastructure and on the lifestyles of both rich and poor in the metropolis…

 

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In 2015 I wrote about the fact that estate agents, journalists and grassroot activists were using the phrase lights-out London to describe the phenomenon whereby parts of the UK capital, especially those super-prime districts in the centre, have been deserted by ‘real’ people and are in the hands of absentee landlords (the government’s term is non-resident landlord, NRL) or absentee owners. There were then around 700,000 empty properties across the UK: in London 75% of buyers of new-builds are foreign, many of whom practise not just the buy-to-let tactics favoured by a generation of small domestic investors, but buy-to-leave. Wealthy non-doms are keeping around 20% of accommodation unused (units referred to colloquially as empties or more formally as vacant assets) in the knowledge that their investment will simply grow in value; other properties are unoccupied for most of the year, meaning that local economies in these areas are suffering a triple whammy. Spiralling house prices prompt private individuals to sell up and move out, at the same time the cost of office space is driving businesses further and further from these prime locations: once thriving shops and restaurants find themselves half-empty.

25% of investors coming from Gulf states to buy property in London planned purely to gain from rising prices without living there, according to the Guardian in 2016, who also reported that a quarter of all those who planned to buy a property in London were targeting capital gains rather than looking for somewhere to live or to let out. Even those buying second or third homes for their own families did not reveal how often or for how long the properties would be occupied.

The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 has refocused attention on the issues arising from absentee landlordism and official laxity – or possibly official collusion: many of Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s councillors are themselves landlords and active in the ambivalent regeneration projects which are supposed to provide both public and private housing, but which many see as vehicles for gentrification and, when housing poorer tenants, guilty of poor safety standards. 72 of the Conservative MPs who voted against a parliamentary motion to make homes ‘fit for human habitation’ were landlords; one was the newly appointed Police and Fire Minister, Nick Hurd.

Regulators haven’t been completely inert: the Bank of England’s Prudential Committee intends to crack down from September 2017 on portfolio landlords – those with four or more mortgaged buy-to-let properties – subjecting their businesses to stress tests to ensure that they have income streams and business plans in place.

Global, and local turbulence goes on, however. The company – a consortium of Malaysian investors – redeveloping the huge and iconic Battersea Power Station site on London’s riverside (‘the Everest of real estate’) promised in 2011 to include 636 affordable homes among its final range of ultra high-end housing units. In Summer 2017 it reduced this number to 386, saying the original commitment was based on lower construction costs and a seemingly unstoppable boom in newbuilds which since the Brexit vote has calmed considerably. At the Greenwich Peninsula site on the other side of London Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon have reduced the number of affordable homes from 35 to 21 percent.

 

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At the beginning of August 2017 The Labour Party condemned as ‘simply unacceptable’ the revelation, stemming from the accidental disclosure of council data following the Grenfell Tower fire, that 1652 properties were unoccupied in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  A Guardian report drew on the same information to publish the names of owners of vacant properties, among them oligarchs, foreign royalty and business speculators. This prompted the Liberal Democrats to demand increased surcharges on long-term empty homes, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to tackle the issue before the end of the year.

 

You can find more examples of the official jargon used in the field of development and regeneration here (I was particularly struck by one of the listed entries: 

Community Cohesion

There is currently no universally accepted definition of this.’)

http://www.jargon-buster-directory.com/development-regeneration-jargon.php

 

…and the latest from Battersea here, courtesy the Telegraph:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/22/inside-battersea-power-station-everest-real-estate-test-case/

 

 

BUZZWORDS AND BIZWORDS – 3

Keep abreast of ideas and innovation in the commercial, corporate and digital spheres by tracking the language generated by professionals. Here is another batch of – depending on your stance – picturesque neologisms, amusing buzz-terms, sinister obscurantist jargon… 

 

CREATIVE DIRECT MARKETING

 

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The marketing profession, obsessed as it is with sophisticated digital strategies, has woken up to an uncomfortable truth: significant groups of potential consumers are either hard to target via electronic channels or temperamentally resistant to its tactics. Older children still in the family home (aka fledglings), students living in flat-shares, young couples who have only just moved in together and empty-nest pensioners all represent life-stages and demographics who are susceptible to a radical new way of promoting brand engagement. Creative Direct Marketing or CDM is the fancy label for a strategy more simply defined as putting envelopes through letterboxes. For younger digital natives an old-fashioned letter is an intriguing novelty while a door drop is the best way to reach groups of students who may not show up on official registers, young partners on tight budgets who welcome offer leaflets, coupons and vouchers and nostalgic empty-nesters, for whom the postal service remains the most familiar and trustworthy way to receive information.

 

PRICE ANCHORING

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Sometimes the oldest tricks are the most effective, like the psychological technique familiar to salespeople, but to very few consumers, known as anchoring. The anchor effect (sometimes also known as focalism) works by introducing a striking piece of information (a financial opportunity for instance) or powerful memory (of a previous desire for something or a sense of satisfaction with ownership for example). This then dominates the subject’s subconscious thinking, pushing aside all the other factors that should influence their decision-making, while they are exposed to a real-life opportunity. At its simplest you present potential customers with a much-too-high figure – a spectacularly overpriced car or TV set for instance – then offer them the opportunity to buy at a lower price which may still be more than they could normally afford. ‘Setting the anchor’ (skilled practitioners can gauge its success by checking the purchaser’s body-language) exploits a so-called cognitive bias: humans tend to rely much too much on the first piece of information, or induced state of mind accessed when making subsequent decisions.*

 

INDUSTRY AGNOSTIC

 

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

 

Industry-agnostic, meaning associated with no particular branch of business, is term du jour for opportunistic investors who take advantage of perfect storms of economic and internal turbulence to put money into distressed assets; high-profile but vulnerable companies. These people talk about moving from value investing (i.e just- for-profit) to values investing (i.e still-for-profit, but focusing on projects with social aims), but crucially have no personal attachment to whatever branch of business they have selected. Adjectival industry agnostic or sector agnostic typically appears in marketing pitches (‘Industry Agnostic Practices for 360 Degree Business Consulting and Execution Facilitation’) or on the cvs of those – in IT, HR, finance – claiming universally applicable skills. Agnostic itself dates from 1869, then meaning unattached to any particular religious creed, formed from ‘a-‘, not and ‘gnostic’, believer in esoteric knowledge. In the last year or so, though, it has caught on right across the commercial spectrum in its new, broader sense. Cloud computing is said to be location-agnostic, applications are touted as platform agnostic, display agnostic, device agnostic. In just the last couple of days I have come across battery agnostic in the case of an electric car, not to mention vendor agnostic, storage agnostic and silicon agnostic.  A rarer recent synonym, BTW, for this sense of agnostic is atheist.

 

Send your exotic new terms to tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk

All informants will be gratefully acknowledged in print – unless they prefer anonymity.

 

* Anchoring and other cognitive biases are described in this article from Mental Floss:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/68705/20-cognitive-biases-affect-your-decisions

 

IT’S GETTING DARKER

It’s officially Spring now and we are emerging from the gloom induced by short days and long nights (or, from another perspective, by disruption to circadian rhythms and melatonin levels). The darkness (adjective ‘dark’ is from Old English deorc, used also as a noun from the 13th century) clears – literally – but metaphorical darkness is pervasive…just  after posting the paragraphs below I became aware of dark money, defined by The Observer as ‘an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor’ (see below) and Dark Justice, a group of anti-paedophile vigilantes who pose as children online…

 BBA-OpenMind-dark-data-ahmed-banafa

We have marvelled at the notion of the invisible dark matter said to permeate the universe and physicists have supplemented this with the concept of dark energy; not directly detectable either but necessary to explain expansion and the appearance of life in the multiverse.

On a slightly more mundane level there are in 2017 consultancies advertising their services in uncovering dark data (information collected during business operations but not actually used) and helping organisations to exploit it. The d-word has been trending for some time. The dark web (aka the deep web or darknets), we are nervously aware, is inaccessible by standard searches, a mysterious zone where illicit products and services are traded and illicit vices practised.

Most professionals have heard by now of dark pools, (the image is of hidden areas of liquidity) where off-market trading of stocks, also known in banking jargon as internalisation, takes place, where large blocks of shares can be bought and sold anonymously and prices are only made public after deals are privately concluded. But other kinds of opaque transaction, though quite legal, also threaten to distort markets, masking true levels of market scarcity or surplus and hiding real levels of indebtedness, thus creating information asymmetry between insiders and outsiders. A more recent buzz-term in the fields of finance and commodities is dark inventory (shadow inventory is sometimes used for real estate), describing assets placed off-balance-sheet. These may be equities, contracts, undeclared hoarding – of metals, for example – or other pre-sold commodities which may or may not actually exist (fictitious quotations of steel and nickel are ghost inventory) but which remain beyond public scrutiny. The same term can stretch to include toxic, debt-encumbered or otherwise sinister elements in a portfolio. Dark social, meanwhile- the term was coined in 2012 by former deputy editor of The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal – refers to information exchanged in the workplace by private individuals via channels such as instant messaging programs, messaging apps and email rather than on public platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This so-called outbound sharing alarms the corporate world for two main reasons: it sidesteps company restrictions on the timewasting or subversive use of social media at work, and it so far isn’t possible to track, analyse or turn into marketing opportunities.

Far more disturbing is the notion of a coming digital dark age (not to be confused with the techno music and futuristic/fantasy artworks dubbed dark digital) which some pundits have been predicting. This refers to the potential loss of huge quantities of culturally important data, particularly old manuscripts, memoirs, mementos and images preserved electronically, if technological advances make their storage-formats obsolete so that they are no longer recoverable.

In 2018 overheated enthusiasm for blockchains and bitcoins gave way to fears about the sustainability of cryptocurrencies and the ways in which they could be manipulated. At the same time financial data-reporting on a national scale can be deliberately subverted, or can be skewed by the sheer complexity of the processes involved. One result is the phenomenon of dark GDP: economic activity not captured by current estimations. This is said to amount to 10% of US GDP, and who knows how much in secretive, bot-infested Russia?

Back in the everyday ‘Mr Slang’ Jonathon Green reminds me that from the 1990s dark has also featured in multiethnic youth vernacular in the UK. As with some other key slang terms it can have contrasting meanings, pejorative and appreciative, in this case signifying both ‘harsh’, ‘unfair’, ‘unpleasant’, and ‘impressive’, ‘edgy’.

 

 

*Latest updates: May 17, from George Monbiot, on ‘Dark Money’

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/17/dark-money-democracy-billionaires-funding

…and from The Conversation on August 24, ‘Dark DNA’

https://theconversation.com/introducing-dark-dna-the-phenomenon-that-could-change-how-we-think-about-evolution-82867?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1503571067

…and as the skies darken at the outset of Autumn, here’s The Conversation again, this time on ‘Dark Tourism’ 

https://theconversation.com/dark-tourism-can-be-voyeuristic-and-exploitative-or-if-handled-correctly-do-a-world-of-good-81504