Friday, 22 November 2013


In my time as a teacher in sixth form, whenever I interviewed potential students for places on A Level Modern Foreign Languages courses I used to ask them what their favourite word was in the language they wanted to study. Some of them looked at me in a bemused fashion, clearly wondering if I might be completely mad or just mildly eccentric. Other waxed enthusiastic about words like “muchedumbre” (Spanish for crowd) or “malheureusement” (French for unfortunately). The latter were immediately accepted onto the course while the former might find themselves accepted only conditionally. 

Having a favourite word is a mark of enthusiasm. If you enjoy studying a language, you take pleasure in the sound of the words, in the construction of expressions and the sheer code-breaking fun of language. A friend of mine told me about causing havoc when watching a Spanish film with French subtitles. (Don’t even ask me why she was doing this.) At some point a Spanish actor was heard to say, “Estamos todos en el mismo barco”. The French subtitles read, “Nous sommes tous dans le même bateau”. Whereupon my friend said, out loud and enthusiastically, “Oh, we’re all in the same boat: you can say it in all three languages”. That’s the level of language-fixation I’m talking about. 

I was reminded of all this when I made the following discovery: - “Selfie – "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website" – has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries editors, after the frequency of its usage increased by 17,000% over the past 12 months.” 

It’s not the word in itself that enthuses me; rather it’s the concept of Oxford Dictionaries having a word of the year. 

On their shortlist for this year was the verb to “binge-watch” – I like this one. By analogy with binge-drinking and binge-eating, you can now binge-watch TV series. You buy a box set of whichever series you didn’t manage to see when it appeared on the small screen the first time round and watch all the episodes in one sitting. 

The “selfie” has a number of spin-offs. There’s the “belfie” (a photo of your bum – yes, people do this!), the “helfie” (a photo of your new hairdo), the “welfie” (a work-out “selfie”), the “drelfie” (a “selfie” while drunk) and even the bookshelfie (a snap taken for the purposes of literary self-promotion). There you go! 

A couple of writers who appreciated the creation of new words for new circumstances are George Orwell with his “newspeak” in his novel “1984” and Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World”. Both writers would probably recognise elements of their created futures in the world of 2013. Here’s a link to an article by John Naughton in the Guardian, suggesting that as well as putting a plaque up in Westminster Abbey for C.S. Lewis, we should be remembering Aldous Huxley too.

I came across another language related article, also in the Guardian, this time about bad language. Someone called Lola Okalosie was asking this question: Can you stop people swearing in front of children? Apparently nine out of 10 parents reportedly swear when children are around which probably explains why the habit is reportedly growing in schools. Lola Okolosie is worried that her fifteen-month-old’s first words are likely to include some choice swearing unless she can curb her own bad language habits. You only need to travel on a bus full of school children to understand her concerns. 

Here’s a little of what she had to say: “Swearing is fine if you are able to articulate yourself well without it. It is saddening if that is not the case. In general it has become much less of a social taboo. I have been taken aback by its presence in situations where my instincts are to self-censor. (...) Too many of us can't or won't modify our usage depending on the context. If we are truthful, it is not just parents who need to mind their Ps and Qs. Most adults are implicated. I am sure many reading this have used the f-word and only realised too late that they were in the presence of a child and a suitably reproachful parent. But asking adults to stop swearing en masse won't and can't happen. Best to leave it to those whose sense of shame and anxiety is so easily pricked: parents.” 

Personally, I’m a bit old fashioned about swearing and tend to think that of you use it all the time you have nothing left for the moment when you really need to vent your frustration. 

A friend of mine told me once about taking his five-year-old to a football match and having to cover the child’s ears throughout the first half of the game because of the language of a fan near them. When he asked the chap at half time to try not to swear quite so much in front of the little boy he received the reply: “Swearing? I’ve not been f***ing swearing!”

 Enough said!

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