Monthly Archives: January 2016

What words would you remove from the dictionary?

dictionaryI came across a really interesting article in the Times of India recently. Normally at this time of year, we’re used to seeing lots of blogs and newspaper pieces celebrating all the new words that have been added to the world’s dictionaries over the previous year. This article took the opposite approach, listing words it would like to see banned rather than given official sanction in our dictionaries.

Invariably, given the pervasive nature of the English language worldwide, many of these neologisms are English, or more often, again reflecting global realities, American English.

It turns out that Lake Superior State University in Michigan has been publishing this list of words it would like to see banished to the outer darkness for 41 years. Since 1977, the list has been made up entirely of nominations received from around the world throughout the year. The 2015 crop has 13 words, one of which (so) had been “banned” back in 1999, but its usage has changed since then so it was felt reasonable to put it back in this lexicographic equivalent of Room 101. So, without further ado (and a rather small attempt at irony), here is the list in full:

So – which as one nominator pointed out, “is being overused as the first word in the answer to ANY question”.

Conversation – as used in “join the conversation”. We are increasingly encouraged to have a “conversation” and everything will somehow be magically resolved.

Problematic – “anything that the speaker finds vaguely inconvenient or undesirable, such as an opposing political belief or bad traffic”.

Stakeholder – “overused in business to describe customers and others”.

Price point – a tautology, using two words when only the first one is required.

Secret Sauce – I must admit to being a bit confused about this one. I can only presume it’s largely used in the USA? Certainly, both the comments in the original list came from America. The one that came closest to describing the writer’s frustration said, “usually used in a sentence explaining the ‘secret’ in excruciating public detail. Is this a metaphor for business success based on the fast food industry?”.

Break the internet – Again, I must say that I’m not quite as annoyed by this one as several of the university’s correspondents. However, apparently it’s being used to accompany every press release of a new film or indeed any leaked “saucy” pictures which a hacker has managed to make public from a star’s private online collection.

Walk it back – or, if you prefer (as I do), “retract” or “explain”.

Presser – a shortened form of “press release”. What is wrong with “press release”?

Manspreading – apparently, men need to take up more room on public transport (and doubtless everywhere else) “due to their anatomy”. I wasn’t aware of this and don’t think this one has crossed the pond yet – or am I simply not making enough use of public transport?

Vape – as in smoking an e-cigarette. I don’t have a problem with this one as these products do produce vapour and not smoke. The latest research apparently suggests that they are as dangerous as conventional cigarettes, but “suicide” as a verb (see below) might have a detrimental effect on sales.

Giving me life – which again seems to be an Americanism, meaning anything that excites a person or causes him or her to laugh. Quite.

Physicality – “overused by every sports broadcaster”.

Of course, words change their meaning all the time. I recall the famous occasion a local paper in Scotland ran a headline (this was in the 1960s) when the Queen opened a local bridge. “Perth goes gay for Queen’s visit” has a different meaning nowadays to the one it had then. However, this is part of the rich tapestry of life, especially if you work in translation and interpretation. Keeping up to date with changing meanings is a constant challenge, as is understanding how (if not why!) what were once nouns are now verbs.

Finally, if I had my way, the words I’d choose to add to the Lake Superior State university list would include “to podium” or “to medal”, meaning to be given a medal at a sporting event and also the use of “appeal” in “appeal a decision” rather than “appeal against a decision”. “Bah humbug” sums it up quite well. Words eh? Where would we be without them?

Rosetta Stone, Global Connects



A picture paints a thousand words

As an article in the Huffington Post recently noted, “The lifecycles of words are infinite…But the cycle has changed, and it’s now quite quick.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 09.51.42The main thrust of that Huffington Post article was to consider the proliferation of internet ‘words’, specifically emojis that are now recognised by those who are responsible for our major dictionaries. The Oxford Dictionaries naming of the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as their ‘word of year’ for 2015 illustrates this perfectly. Interestingly, after typing the word “emoji” Microsoft Word neatly underlines it in red to tell me that it doesn’t understand it. I know the feeling.

Language, like the weather, has always changed over time. And like the weather those changes provoke fierce debate, not least over whether it’s acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction as I have just done. However, that’s a matter of grammar, not lexicography.   When all is said and done, you can either accept that more words are being introduced more quickly than ever before or you can rail against it. I intend to have a wee rail against it here, knowing full well that someone, probably Simon Heffer, will take exception to that use of Scottish idiom.

Emojis are pictures, not words. We might as well include hieroglyphs in our dictionaries, but (as far as I know) we don’t – yet. Hieroglyphs would, at least, have the advantage that they demonstrably stand for specific letters we can identify. Emojis represent emotions, a complex enough subject for the medical profession, never mind ordinary mortals. Emojis are most emphatically not specific words with clearly defined meanings.

It’s said that a picture paints a thousand words. Yes, that’s precisely the problem. A thousand words are capable of an exponential number of interpretations, and at that point language becomes meaningless. It may be that the powers that be at the world’s great dictionaries are right in their progressive attitude and that my somewhat more conservative approach is wrong. However, dictionaries are apparently becoming less important. According to that same Huffington Post article, “desktop traffic to the largest online dictionaries has fallen steadily … In the past year, Oxford is down 8.5 percent; is down 10.2, and Merriam-Webster, the most conservative of the bunch, has a third less traffic now than it had just 14 months ago.”

I believe that once meaning becomes distorted then communication becomes difficult if not occasionally impossible and that leads to all sorts of problems. The famous “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance” is just one example of how things can go wrong. Words, properly combined under the nuances that grammar introduces to a language, allow anyone to get an idea or proposition from their mind into the mind of their audience (whether in person or remote), without any other possible interpretation being made of their words. Such clarity is rare nowadays and the seeming willingness of the lexicographers “in charge” of our language to accept more and more quasi-meaningless words makes it doubly difficult for those who wish to communicate effectively both now and in the future.

Rosetta Stone, Global Connects