Diary of a Linguist
In our new feature, Katie Wales is Babel's resident diary-keeping linguist. Keep an eye out for the next instalment in February's Babel No22!
Standing solitary on the station platform in Rutland awaiting a Cross Country train, the automated voice, as usual, gives a warning about suspicious-looking objects, and how we should alert a member of the station staff (ha! ha!). "See it- Say it- Sorted" is the message. I have time to note the useful ambiguity of the reference of ‘it’ repeated; but what exactly do I "say"? Obviously the use of three phrases; the monosyllabic verbs; the trochaic rhythm and the alliteration are all meant to help as a mnemonic. Coincidentally, I read that the NHS also uses alliterative triplets for notices for unfortunate acid attack victims: “Report, Remove, Rinse”. A sign of our times...
Australian health warnings go further: but can the message be remembered? “Slip. Slop. Slap. Seek. Slide.” (A pity that “Seek” has no alliteration, but still.) “Slip” on a shirt; “slop” on the sunscreen; “slap” on a hat; “seek” shade; “slide” on some sunnies.
It’s reported in The Times that in mid-July a schoolboy used a 45-letter word at the Youth Select Committee in parliament, the longest word ever recorded there: ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’, referring to a lung disease caused by inhaling volcanic ash. Previously the record was claimed to be held by the MP Mr Rees-Mogg in 2012 for ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ (29 letters), meaning the habit of estimating something as worthless. However, it turns out that the teenager’s word was not officially recorded; and that, in any case, in 2008 the 42-letter word ‘antiecclesiasticaldisestablishmentarianism’ was used in a select committee.
Esoteric words have been much on journalists’ minds this summer, both the Daily Mail and The Times urging a revival of lost or obscure words like ‘mumpsimus’ (meaning a mistake you keep making). As one Times journalist put it, “it is a nefastuous task to use an obscure word starting with a new letter every day”. I am reminded of the wonderful Blackadder episode, where Dr Johnson boasts to Prince George that his new book contains every word in the English language. “In that case, sir”, Blackadder says, “I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafibularatories….It is a common word down our way”.
The Times has also been extolling the virtue of local dialect words, along with the BBC for this year’s national poetry day (August). This is the message of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book on dialect and landscape, Landmarks (2015), which I reviewed for English Today (2016). But sadly, it is hard to see how many words will survive, let alone spread more widely.
A chilling report for a technophobe like myself: Facebook has been force to shut down an AI experiment after two robots (‘chatbots’) began talking to each other quite independently in an unknown language! Later reports dismissed this as particularly worrying: the researchers had forgotten to programme them to talk in English. But, hang on, this ‘shorthand’ was still ‘self-learned’.
The world watches the United States and North Korea, and listens to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Alliteration and doublets prevail for the US President: his forces are “locked and loaded” for action; North Korea could face “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen”: a sneaky triplet there. Interestingly, the first recorded use of the phrase “lock and load” is thought to be in the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne; a film about fighting the Japanese in the Pacific in the Second World War. So this is no mere cowboy schema evoked here, of the kind loved by Ronald Reagan, although for the moment the Americans seem inclined to ‘sit still in the saddle’. North Korea’s own response has used balanced phraseology but a more physical and personalised imagery, with threats to “wring the windpipes of the Yankees and point daggers at their necks”. There has also been rhyme: they “won’t flinch an inch”.
Does Kim Jong-un speak good English? Or is this the work of a translator?
NB the nuclear attack warning for Hawaiian islanders is a triplet (see July 15th), if not alliterative: “Get Inside; Stay Inside; Stay Tuned…”
It’s certainly a month of “Bombs and Bombast” as The Times aptly puts it (August 12th).
Light relief comes from a former PhD student of mine, sharing my long-held interest in the ‘north-south divide’. The student on-line publication The Tab recently discovered a new north-south divide, not linguistic admittedly, based on Greggs bakery shops in England per head of population. The ‘divide’ stretches from Lincolnshire to the Severn Estuary via Doncaster and Nottingham, but not Sheffield. Less than 2,500 people per Greggs is the benchmark to distinguish whether you live in the North: so in Manchester there is one Greggs for every 10,500 people; London, 92,500. I just fancy a sausage roll…
The editors of the 27th edition of Duden, the German equiavlent of the OED, have now officially recognised ‘der Brexit’ (masculine), as well as ‘die Fake News’ and ‘tindern’, to date online. There are 5,000 more words than the previous edition in 2013. Thinking of the OED, I was pleased to read this week that Mel Gibson, shooting a film about its origins, and himself playing the role of editor James Murray, complained that the locations were to be in Dublin, not Oxford itself.
Thinking of the OED, it is a difficult time for editors: so many new words this summer alone, but how many will last even a few months? There’s the acronym ‘MAMIL’ (‘middle-aged men in lycra’); but more blends, including ‘shoffice’ (a shed that’s also an office); ‘swineapple’ (pineapple stuffed with pork); ‘croll’ (a roll-shaped croissant) and ‘sharenting’. This is difficult to translate succinctly, so it might just stay, although the word has produced media groans, and the practice is controversial: namely, the habit of posting pictures of your children on social media. I’ve only just got used to ‘emoji’, a digital pictorial symbol, which has been in English for 6 years, and this summer featuring in its own film: I mean movie. I don’t envy Patrick Stewart’s CV, since he voices (sic) a poo emoji….