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)…

 

Image result for Artificial intelligence

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

GAMMON – UP AGAINST THE WALL

Image result for gammon and pineapple 1970s

 

This week, very late in the day, the mainstream UK media and the wider national conversation finally caught up with a social and political slur that had been trending for more than a year already. The insult in question was ‘gammon’, one of only a couple of pejorative labels (the other, slightly more affectionate, being ‘centrist dad’) directed from the left at the right as opposed to the many (‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’, etc.) routinely hurled in the other direction.

The word itself is British and denotes an orange-coloured side or slice of cooked ham or bacon often proposed as emblematic of the garish-looking, odd-tasting and nutritionally suspect dishes served (warm, with a pineapple garnish) across British tables in the 1970s (when, ironically, ‘gammon rasher’ was rhyming slang for ‘smasher’ in the sense of something superlative). Gammon was adopted from French gambon, from gambe meaning leg, in the 15th century, while backgammon is unrelated and probably comes from an old form of the verb to game.

Following the Times’ , the Express and the New Statesman’s belated discovery of the word Twitter was a-buzz on May 14, first with protests, many seemingly by gammons themselves, at what were alleged to be its racist and classist implications and then with more coherent attempts to unpack its real denotations and connotations.

Someone with the handle ‘Build a wall, line all the nazis up along it’ explained…

‘Gammon isn’t about class, it describes white ppl who spend a lot of their time being pink because they’re so angry being white doesn’t make them special’

Exasperated by ongoing witless misunderstandings, I added my own two-penn’orth…

‘Nothing to do with class, it denotes florid, loud, usually lardy middle-aged ranting bigots. #simples

By midday someone else had discovered a reference in Victorian literature that seemed to anticipate the modern usage…

My god, he’s right: @Protooptimism has discovered that Dickens used “gammon tendency” as a political insult in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9):

 

 

It’s not quite clear whether Dickens’ use of the word relates to the slang sense then prevalent in the underworld, of ‘gammon’, verb and noun, to mean (‘to use) the secret, deceitful language of thieves and tricksters’, hence applicable perhaps to jingoism and bluster on the part of a ‘fervid’ middle-aged blowhard. An intriguing correlation with Irish was noted by another commentator…

No linguists paid much attention at the time to the mutation of gammon from a collective term of abuse for a constituency or persuasion to a label applied to the individual members thereof. The BBC, though, yesterday carried a good, level-headed history of the expression’s first post- Brexit referendum appearances and its rise to prominence…

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-44108080

Urban Dictionary‘s original entry, if you can find it,  could be commended, but it seems subsequently to have been cosmeticised by a gammonista…

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gammon

By the end of a long day the furore (by now dubbed ‘gammongate’) had somewhat subsided, leaving a few wry observational tweets…

Presume after today, use of a certain type of roasted ham as an insult will be prohibited. Hope there’s a gamnesty on previous usage.’

‘Since the words ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ both started as insults, I fully expect British politics to soon be contested between the Gammon Party and the Melt Party.’

‘It’s offensive to call people whose reactionary apoplexy makes them go pink-faced “gammons”. The correct term is “people of choler”.’

And, late news, this, perhaps (but unlikely to be) the last word, again from Twitter, this morning…

JamieJones77‏ @JamieJones77

‘I’m a 55 year old white thinning cropped haired old punker. #Gammon isn’t racist, it perfectly describes the bigoted tossers of my own age group who turn pink when they get angry about their privilege being challenged. G’wan bust yer blood vessels you rancid foaming dinosaurs.’

…Five days on I discovered this, from the originator of the expression himself…

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/gammon-brexiteers-angry-white-men-middle-age-immigration-a8352141.html

…and, very belatedly indeed, I was reminded of this excellent summary by A-level teacher and language buff Dan Clayton

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2018/06/telling-porkies-about-gammon.html

 

Image result for gammon insult

 

In November this year Collins Dictionaries listed the g-word among their words of the year. In the Guardian Poppy Noor argued that the left should steer clear of such name-calling…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/gammon-playground-insult-words-of-2018