It’s been a while since I’ve written about nearly swearyadvertising here. (It’s not as though I’ve taken a vow of purity: I’ve been shoveling that stuff over at the Strong Language blog.) But when I spotted a trifecta of fecal facetiousness within a span of a week, I just couldn’t hold back.
Don’t read “How to Name a Baby” to learn how to name a baby. Read it for insights into historical baby-naming trends and to confirm your hunches (e.g., “the popular girl name Reagan is for Republicans”). Also: charts!
Given names are “one of the last social acceptable frontiers of class war.”Also: nominative determination, implicit egotism, and how the Internet has made baby naming more difficult. Part 1 of a four-part podcast series about names from Australian radio network ABC. The presenter, Tiger Webb, has an interesting name story himself. (Hat tip: Superlinguo.)
The not-so-secret jargon of doctors is full of acronyms: a flea—fucking little esoteric asshole—is an intern, an FLK is a “funny-looking kid,” and an “SFU 50 dose” is the amount of sedative it takes for 50 percent of patients to shut the fuck up.
Ever wonder what value-creating winners do all day? Here’s Business Town to enlighten you. It’s “an ongoing project attempting to explain our highly intangible, deeply disruptive, data-driven, venture-backed, gluten-free economic meritocracy to the uninitiated. With apologies to Richard Scarry.”
“The decision is made. The name won’t be changed.” – Tim Mahoney, head of marketing for Chevy, speaking to the Detroit Free Press about the Bolt electric vehicle, whose name is strikingly similar to that of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. In fact, a Spanish speaker would pronounce the two names identically. (Hat tip: Jonathon Owen.)
As usual, Oxford Dictionaries was first out of the gate, nearly a month ago, with its WOTY choices. And the winner was… vape.
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vapehas grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year—based on a spike in number of lookups on the dictionary’s website—is culture:
Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).
This year, the use of the word culture to define ideas in this way has moved from the classroom syllabus to the conversation at large, appearing in headlines and analyses across a wide swath of topics.
Runners-up include nostalgia, insidious, legacy, and feminism.
The twentieth Kanji of the Year took a total of 8,679 votes, or 5.18% of the total 167,613. The reasons for its selection are clear: on April 1 this year the government raised Japan’s consumption tax for the first time in 17 years, bringing it from 5% to 8%. Meant to bolster funding for the country’s future social security needs, this tax hike impacted Japanese wallets and brought about drastic swings in the economy as a whole, with consumers front-loading major appliance, vehicle, and home purchases ahead of April 1 and curtailing spending after the higher rate went into effect. Two straight quarters of negative growth thereafter convinced Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to put off the next planned rate hike, from 8% to 10%, until the spring of 2017.
The German word of the year is lichtgrenze, the “border of light” created by thousands of illuminated helium balloons that were released November 9 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other words on the German list were less celebratory: “It was a year of terror, strikes, and football frenzy.”
Geoff Nunberg, the linguist-in-residence on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” picked God view as his word of the year:
It’s the term that the car service company Uber uses for a map view that shows the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who ordered them. The media seized on the term this fall when it came out that the company had been entertaining itself and its guests by pairing that view with its customer data so it could display the movements of journalists and VIP customers as they made their way around New York.
Nunberg continued: “What we’re talking about here, of course, is the sense that the world is getting more and more creepy. …Creepy is a more elusive notion than scary. Scary things are the ones that set our imagination to racing with dire scenarios of cyberstalkers, identity thieves or government surveillance — whereas with creepy things, our imagination doesn't really know where to start.”
Also in radioland, Ben Schott presented the most ridiculous words of the year, from the ridiculous active nutrition (“sports nutrition for people who don’t exercise”) to the appalling catastrophic longevity (“insurance-speak for people living too long”). Schott writes the Jargonator column for Inc. magazine; he spoke with NPR’s “The Takeaway.” (Link includes full audio and partial transcript.)
Here’s a reminder that there are as many Englishes as there are words of the year: the Australian National Dictionary Centre selected shirtfrontas its word of the year for 2014. It’s a verb, it comes from the vocabulary of Australian Rules football, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used it in a threat to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin:
The term was little known outside of its sporting context, although the figurative use has been around since at least the 1980s. Abbott’s threat to shirtfront Putin, and the word itself, was widely discussed and satirised in the Australian and international media.
The ANDC’s shortlist includes man-bun, Ned Kelly beard, and coward punch.
This sense of titch* was new to me until very recently, when I encountered it in a brief New York Times Sunday Magazine story about Fatyo, a Japanese retailer that specializes in apparel that is—quoting directly now from the Fatyo website—“Metropolitan, tough. Real and daily, casual clothes. Identity always on the street. Representing Tokyo. FAT.” (Not phat: FAT.)
The Times story, in full:
Euphemism-averse sneakerheads might consider buying clothes from Tokyo-based Fatyo, a tell-it-like-it-is streetwear brand that sizes not with traditional words or numbers but with more descriptive terms: “titch” and “skinny” on the small end of the spectrum, “fat” and “jumbo” on the other. The website burbles: “Being Fat. Wanting to be FAT. Being more like you, to be FAT.” It might be a tough sell in Japan, where the obesity rate is an enviable 3.5 percent.
This illustration accompanied the story:
In English-speaking countries, when sizes aren’t expressed numerically they’re usually given as Extra-Small, Small, Medium, Large, and Extra-Large. J. Crew, the American retailer, caused a bit of a furor earlier this year when it introduced clothes with an XXXS label. (For more on this move, and on “vanity sizing” in general, read “Who’s Buying J. Crew’s New XXXS Clothes?” in the New Yorker; for a larger historical perspective, read Kathleen Fasanella on the history of women’s sizing.)
I’d read (and tweeted) about Fatyo’s unusual size categories in June, but back then only the “fat” and “jumbo” designations had made headlines and raised eyebrows. Now titch piqued my curiosity. Did it have a Japanese origin, like skosh (from sukoshi, meaning “little”), to which many Americans were introduced via Levi’s ads in the 1980s? (Levi’s even trademarkedthe phrase “with a skosh more room.”)
The original was Little Tich, a famous music hall performer whose real name was Harry Relph. He was born in 1867 with slightly webbed hands that had an extra finger on each. He stopped growing at age 10 and as an adult was only 4 ft 6 ins tall (about 1.4 m). As a child, he was nicknamed Tichborne because he was short and stoutly built, like Arthur Orton, the famous fraudulent claimant to the Tichborne inheritance.
Little Tich himself, via World Wide Words.
In case you’re not up on your Victorian legal scandals (I certainly wasn’t), the Tichborne casecentered on Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, who was presumed to have died in a shipwreck in 1854.
World Wide Words has this to say about the spelling of titch:
At some point — it’s hard to be sure when, though presumably long enough after Little Tich’s death in 1928 for the link to him to be broken — the spelling largely shifted to titch to match that of rhyming words like itch, pitch and stitch.
I still don’t know how titch made its way to Japan. A British or Australian copywriter? One of those quirky borrowings with a lost history? I await the wisdom of the Internet.
* I’d occasionally heard titch in the sense of “a small amount,” as in “I’ll have a titch more coffee.” This sense may be related to touch.
We binge-watched revenge porn while leaning in and snacking on cronuts. We took a break from being selfie-absorbed (not to mention shelfie-, welfie-, and lelfie-) to cheer Batkid and jeer Glassholes. We ducked out of Thanksgivukkah dinner to vape our e-cigarettes. We worried about drones that spied on our metadata. Wow. Such doge!
It was the silliest of years, it was the most serious of years. And our favorite words expressed all the mood swings.
According to Oxford, “the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% since this time last year.” The word first surfaced in 2002 on an Australian online forum; it was added to OxfordDictionaries.com in August 2013. (The Australian citation was discovered earlier this year by a member of the American Dialect Society listserv, HugoVK, who posted it to Wiktionary.)
Selfie was independently selected by the American language scholar Allan Metcalf, who a month ago wrote in Lingua Franca that selfie was a “perfect word”:
It’s transparently about the self. It’s selfish, but the diminutive suffix -ie makes it cute selfish instead of mean selfish. And it is quite literally a self expression, in both senses of that term.
Runners-up in the Oxford contest included twerk, binge-watch, bitcoin, and two Fritinancy words of the week: showrooming (April 2012) and shmeat (May 2013).
Laura Wattenberg, astute observer of baby-naming trends, selected Blue Ivy as the Baby Name Wizard name of the year. The story of the name, she writes, is “all about the essence of intellectual property rules: invention, identity, exclusivity and control.”
In a commentary for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” linguist Geoffrey Nunberg defended “Big Data,” his choice for the 2012 word of the year: “It’s responsible for a lot of our anxieties about intrusions on our privacy, whether from the government's anti-terrorist data sweeps or the ads that track us as we wander around the Web. It has even turned statistics into a sexy major.” Nunberg also talked about the political buzzwords of 2012 – right to work, entitlement, evil, and more – in a Bill Moyers Q&A.
The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s word of the year is green-on-blue: “(used in a military context) an attack made on one’s own side by a force regarded as neutral.” It beat out qubit, fourth age, brotox, and fossil farming – none of which, I’m fairly confident, are on any US WotY lists.
The year in maps, from The Atlantic Cities, includes, at #5, the delightful Metrophors map of geographic X-is-the-Y-of-Z metaphors (“THE Ukraine is THE Ohio State University of European countries”). (Hat tip: Lance Knobel.)
Coming next week: the American Dialect Society’s word-of-the-year vote. If you’re in Boston on Friday, January 5, get yourself over to the Marriott Copley Place to support your favorite words. Everyone’s welcome, and it’s a total hoot. I attended the January 2009 vote in San Francisco and wrote about it here.
Now that we’ve taken a swig of swagger, the current word of the week, let’s look at swagger’s siblings, swag and schwag.
First, we’ll dispense with a bit of etymythology: swag is not an acronym for “stuff we all get,” no matter what the New York Times Sunday Styles section tells you. (Indeed, a correction to that effect was published Sept. 26.) It can, however, be an air force acronym (U.S. or Canadian) for Scientific, Wild-Assed Guess (distinguished from the layperson’s WAG, your basic wild-assed guess).
Planking: The activity of lying face down, arms to the side, “in an unusual or incongruous location” (Wikipedia).
Planking is the name given by Australian practitioners to the “lying-down game,” which originated in North East England in 1997 and took more than a decade to gather momentum. By 2009 it had been tagged by the British media as an “internet craze,” even though the activity is decidedly non-virtual. In September of that year, according to a report in the Sunday Times, seven doctors and nurses in Swindon were suspended from their jobs for playing the game. (Or, more to the point, for being photographed while lying prone “on resuscitation trolleys, ward floors and the building’s helipad.” As others have discovered to their rue, it’s not necessarily the doing that leads to downfall, it’s the documenting.)
The game acquired its shorter, more vivid name when it became popular in Australia in the spring of 2011. A May 11 article in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the word planking was “so new it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page.” Richard Litonjua, a Brisbane electrician who started a Facebook page for his fellow plankers, offered several rules, including “Be creative,” “Do it overseas,” and “Be a proper plank” (“'You've got to be a good straight plank, head straight, arms straight, legs down”).
Planking goes by several other names in countries where it’s popular: “à plat ventre” (France), “extreme lying down” (Australasia), “facedowns” (US and Ireland). In Taiwan, where the activity is popular among young women, practitioners call themselves Pujie Girls and use their public performances to promote various causes. According to a Pujie Girls Facebook page, “pujie” literally translates to “falling on the street” in Mandarin. The word is also a pun on the Cantonese curse “Puk Gai”: “may you drop dead.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Mad Magazine blog, The Idiotical, last week posted a series of doctored photos headlined “Planking Gone Too Far,” including this one:
The job of a lexicographer may often be sedentary, but it’s hardly lazy, what with words being invented, repurposed, and upcycled on a daily basis. For proof, see Oxford Dictionaries Online, which recently announced some of the most recent additions to the venerable word-hoard, including baby bump, man cave, unfollow, and ZOMG. Completely new to me: schmick, an Australian slang term, dating back to the 1980s, that means “stylish.”
Speaking of the OED, and speaking of venerable, Wordorigins.org has been posting weekly lists of words that first appeared in a particular year. The first list, of words whose first appearance was in 1911, includes allergen, floozy, ivory tower, and taupe, and quite a few surprises. Go to the home page to search for additional entries in the series.
There are new words, and there are newsy words. Newswordy, a newish blog, is a collection of buzzwords in the news. One word is presented (handsomely) each day, along with a quote, a definition, and news and Twitter feeds on the subject. Yesterday’s word was pernicious: “having a harmful effect, esp. in a gradual or subtle way.”
Over at Ironic Sans, a source of excellent why-didn’t-I-think-of-that ideas, David Friedman (no relation) proposes a new top-level Internet domain, .ugh, “for websites that can only be parody, complainy, or snarky.”
Something serious now: Pollywog, a naming and branding agency in Minneapolis, reminds us that nonprofit organizations aren’t exempt from trademark challenges. Case in point: a feud between the Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” and a smaller, Minnesota-based group that was using “Mush for the Cure” for a sled-dog race.
More serious stuff: “Before you start trying to come up with a name, you have to get real,” writes The Name Inspector. Here are his five hard truths of naming—essential reading for all entrepreneurs.