Friday, December 17, 2010

Hit Me Up with some culturomics: new words for 2010

Moustache + November = Movember
As we get closer to New Year and the alcopocalypse that is the Christmas party season, many language enthusiasts like to have a look at the new words that have emerged or gained new prominence in the year so far.

It's been a good year for new words, with one of my favourites being a renaming of a whole month as Movember ( a blend of the clipped mo for moustache and November). Having spent a rare night out in Hoxton a few weeks ago, it was hard to distinguish the brave Movemberists from the usual hipsters who normally sport a pathetic caterpillar atop their upper lips.

Wiki- has grown in popularity as a prefix too, with Wikileaks being all across the news over the last month. We looked at the wiki- prefix a while ago on the SFX Moodle ENGA3 unit (and if you're an SFX student, it's still there and you can contribute to the new words wiki), but for those who aren't SFX students the etymology is here. At the other end of a word, you'll find a suffix, and the -gate suffix which first appeared, not as a separate morpheme but as part of the proper name Watergate, has been applied ever since as a suffix to any type of scandal. So earlier this year when the General Election was taking place (You must remember: it was when and Nick Clegg was telling students that he would scrap tuition fees and David Cameron promised that EMA was safe.) Gordon Brown got himself involved in Bigotgate. And connected to Wikileaks, we have cablegate, where the cables that were intercepted have had -gate tacked on the end.

Connected to Wikileaks again is hacktivism, which is a blend of hack (as in its computer hacker meaning rather than its other ones) and activism. The Visual Thesaurus article on new words has more on this and loads of other words, and, like most things on VT, is a really good read.

 The role of  social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter in spreading language and creating new trends (trending as a verb being revived thanks to Twitter) has continued to have power over many people, with the initialism HMU (Hit Me Up i.e. call me/contact me/ping me/BBM me/message me/give us a bell) coming top in the Facebook status updates top 10 list. Until the day I saw that report, I had never heard of or used HMU, but now I will. Every day.

Pamela Stephenson - a true GILF?
Another new word, which may well have existed for a little while, but came up at a recent teachers' reunion in a Soho pub (which probably tells you a lot about the ages and mental states of those involved) was GILF. If you already know what a MILF is then you should have a fairly good idea of what a GILF might be. And if you were to then think Pamela Stephenson on Strictly Come Dancing, you'd be close to the real meaning. What can I say? There are some sick people out there. I prefer the X Factor.

On a much bigger and more educationally respected scale, this report in today's Guardian reveals how a project at Harvard University is creating a database of billions of words by digitising more than 5 million books. They call  it culturomics: presumably a blend of culture and economics, with a bit of linguistics thrown in? a blend of culture and genomics (as pointed out by Ben Zimmer in his comment below).

What's particularly revealing from a lexical point of view is that the vocabulary of English is seen to be expanding rapidly. The figures quoted in the study show that in 1900 there were an estimated 544,000 words and then in 2000, 1,022,000 words, with an estimated growth of approximately 8500 words a year.  The report's abstract can be found here and there's a lot of good reading in there, including how grammar is changing over time. One of the most striking points about grammar is in the section on the regularization of past tense endings:

...each year, a population the size of Cambridge adopts “burned” in lieu of “burnt”...1% of the English speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck” every year: someone will have snuck off while you read this sentence.

On that bombshell, I'll sign off. This will probably be the last blog post this year, so have a good Christmas break and New Year.