Thursday, 3 May 2018

Choose your words with care!

Words are funny things. I have always found them fascinating, in my perhaps rather geekish way. I am not alone, however. A young colleague of mine used to try to expand his students’ vocabulary by instituting his “Word of the Week” system. Students won points, and eventually prizes, for successfully and correctly using the word of the week in class discussion (he taught history) and in essays.

The other day I came across an article about someone’s pet word-hates: the modern expressions that the writer finds hard to accept, to say the least. From the world of business he took “monetise”, “going forward” (one of my own least favourite expressions - what’s wrong with “in (the) future”?), “to action”, “to dialogue” and any more nouns that have become verbs! Demonic phrases, he said they were.

Then there is the word “nom”. I wince when people put pictures of food on facebook, not because of the pictures of food -after all, I do that myself - but because it is accompanied by the statement “Nom! Nom!”. In all the old children’s comics it used to be “Yum! Yum!” So where has all this “nomming” come from. And yes, it is used as a verb as well!

The writer also picked up on the use of the continuous present to express appreciation of things: clothes, new hairdo, whatever. Our daughter is guilty of this. She rarely tells you simply that she “loves” something. She has to tell you “I’m loving” whatever it happens to be.

It’s a funny old world.

You have to be careful about words that appear similar in different languages, those old false friends. Those of us who have taught Spanish have all experienced the pupils who refused to use the expression “estoy constipado” to say “I have a cold” because it reminds them of something else altogether. Much ruder examples abound. Apparently Monsieur Macron, PrĂ©sident de la France, has suprised and amused people by describing the Australian PM’s wife as “delicious”. Was it a mistranslation? Or was he echoing the words of one of the monsters in the children’s book “Where the Wild Things are”: “I’ll eat you up, I love you so”? Who knows?

And sometimes people can coin a term which later escapes from them and is misappropriated. About twenty years ago a woman having difficulty finding a boyfriend described herself an “involuntary celibate”. This led to Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project”, an all-text website where she posted theories and articles and ran a mailing list. “I identified that there were a lot of people who were lonely and not really sure how to start dating,” she said. “They were kind of lacking those social skills and I had a lot of sympathy for that because I had been through the same situation.” The term was later shortened to “incel”.

Life moved on, she got into a relationship, her social life improved and she did lots of other things and passed on the website to someone else, and forgot about it. Until, that is, she read about Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed six people and wounded 14 others in California. In online posts that raged at women for rejecting his romantic advances, Rodger had described himself as an incel.

Imagine her horror. That was her term, coming back to haunt her.

Then it was revealed that the young man accused of driving a van into pedestrians in Toronto just recently has links to incel websites.  Alana’s community of lonely people who wanted help and advice about dating had turned into an online community of misogynists who posted stuff about wanted to use rape and violence against women.

The power of words had met, up with the law of unforeseen consequences!

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