Saturday, June 09, 2007

Made up words and fruity phrases

Two interesting articles in The Independent last week take a look at how language changes and what we think of these changes. In the first article, Philip Hensher responds to the new words in the Collins Dictionary (as covered here) by asking if some of the new words featured actually exist in real usage, a question that students have asked every year when we’ve covered this topic in class. I mean, who uses bromance, manboobs and bobfoc?

Hensher’s article is worth a read for his wider take on the nature of language change:

Language is a living thing, not something to be entombed and frozen. One of the ways it changes most rapidly is through its vocabulary. It's not the only way novelty makes itself felt, but it's the easiest to grasp. A new term for an old thing emerges - "banging" for "excellent", taking over from "wicked". Or, occasionally, a new term for a new thing - no one knew any term for "carbon footprint" before that particular term, because nobody had the concept. The appeal of novelty demands to be recorded, however bogus the particular instance.

And he raises another possible take on new words when he says “You can't make up language as you go along; it would be truer to say that it invents you, the way you have of seeing the world as well as expressing it”

In a second article, Joan Bakewell looks at swearing and taboo language, especially the changing responses to “bad words” over time. This is made all the more relevant by the recent n-word and p-word scandals on Big Brother. And she links language change to the wider currents of change in society when she says,

Sexual words... now have a wider currency and acceptability. They crop up in the workplace, shops and offices, the school playground, and they litter the vocabularies of comedians and comic shows… With the loosening of sexual behaviour has gone the parallel freedom of language.

The rising taboo words are now concerned with race and discrimination. The BBC's survey found that "Paki" was now rated the most offensive word of all, with "nigger" a close second. And it was reportedly an untransmitted rhyme that used the Paki word that invited Ofcom's most severe criticism of Big Brother. If swear words are those that have the most power to offend, then it appears we aren't really worried about religion and sex any more, but we do really care about racism.

So, if you use the New Words, New Woes post to mug up on processes of language change, these two articles give you a wider perspective and some useful material to look at the contexts to our language use.

Useful for:

ENA5 – Language Change

Thanks to Chas for these links


Ant said...

"I mean, who uses bromance, manboobs and bobfoc?"

My immediate reaction was that manboobs is a word I've used myself (I fear I may need to start doing some work to avoid developing a pair!) and heard on a number of occasions, though I think I'd hyphenate it in writing.

Bromance and bobfoc, though? Nah.

But personal anecdote can be notoriously unreliable. Googling isn't exactly scientific, but interesting in this case. A search on each of these terms reveals about 107,000 for manboobs, about 34,200 for bromance, and only about 755 for bobfoc.

The returns for manboobs mainly use the word quite unselfconsciously: for its users it is now fully a part of their lexicon, without them feeling the need to explain it or put it in inverted commas or otherwise indicate that it has a 'special' status.

Many of the ones for bromance are actually about the word itself, or at least include an explanation. And while I didn't look at all the bobfoc ones even though there are realatively few, they were overwhelmingly either definitions of the term, or discussions about it.

Interesting food for thought on this blog, as always.


Dan said...

It's true and you're right, Ant. I wrote off manboobs a little too quickly, in a rhetorical flurry. And while I don't yet suffer from manboobs, I'm starting to develop the male equivalent of a muffin top: not quite a beer belly, as red wine's my tipple, but maybe a sort of swollen liver lifebelt. Oh dear.

As for the word "bromance", it made an appearance in The Guardian soon after I did that post too:,,2099931,00.html

But the more serious point of your comment is one that I'll try to pass on to my students next year: there are some very useful new ways of researching language in use, google being one of them. So thanks!