What is this milkshake duck that the “whole internet loves”? “A lovely duck that drinks milkshakes”. Had anyone heard this slang term before this week, when the Macquarie Dictionary announced it as their 2017 Word of the Year? Probably not. Unless they move in certain circles on the internet. Surely this is a joke!
Indeed, the term was coined as a joke. Able to be used as both a noun and a verb, it has existed since June 12 2016 when Australian cartoonist Ben Ward tweeted it to cover a trend that he had satirised for which there wasn’t a name: a non-celebrity enjoying a viral rise overnight on the internet, followed shortly thereafter by a rapid fall after being outed on the internet because of an unsavoury act in their past. In Ward’s tweet the cuddly duck is accused of being a vicious racist.
There is no denying that the term is useful, but is it a totally new phenomenon of the internet age? Efforts to coin words that people wish would exist have a long history and enjoyed a particular vogue in the early 1980s before the rise of commercial internet providers.
For instance, in 1983, in The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd compiled a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any English words for yet, based on names of places in England”. A typical example is Shoeburyness — “the vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else’s bottom”.
From obscurity to notoriety
Ward tweeted what he obviously thought was a pretty good joke about the power of social media to adulate, elevate, and then reject. What Ward didn’t expect to happen was that it would morph into a meme.
A year after Ward’s tweet the term came to the attention of Oxford Dictionaries Online, via the podcast Reply All, after a high-profile gamer, Tim Soret, was designated as a milkshake duck when it emerged that he had been involved in 2014’s notorious online sexist harassment scandal “Gamergate”. The Oxford Dictionaries Radar column of June 22 2017 noted that the usage of the term milkshake duck was rising and promised to keep an eye on it.
In the Comments column of The New Yorker, the eminent Harvard scholar Louis Menand says: “People prefer to have their neologisms boil up unbidden from the global electronic soup — like, for instance, ‘milkshake duck’.”
Menand’s comment emphasises the inarguable role of social media in the coining of new words, but he resists explaining “milkshake duck” and suggests that his readers Google it. The term is also included in the American Dialect Society’s 2017 Word of the Year list, which announced “fake news” as its winner. Interestingly, fake news, the meaning of which has changed significantly in the past year, was Macquarie’s Word of the Year for 2016.
The Macquarie committee stated in the justification for their choice of “milkshake duck” that it was a “much-needed term to describe something that we are seeing more and more of, not just on the internet but now across all types of media”.
It will be interesting to see if the term does enter the mainstream. No one whom I have spoken to since Monday had heard it used before its announcement as word of the year, but I expect it will gain some impetus with the push from Macquarie.
Sniglets and fugitives
The image of the duck is ridiculous and has no discernible connection to any real event. Its Dadaist absurdity is reminiscent of a Marx Brothers’ film or the anti-joke riddle: “What’s the difference between a duck?” “One of its legs is both the same.” It joins a long line of neologisms coined to meet a specific purpose.
In 1984, Rich Hall, a comedian whom many of us know from Stephen Fry’s QI, published a book, Sniglets, a sniglet being “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should”.
My favourites are “mustgo” for an item that’s been in your fridge for so long that it’s a science experiment, “Xiidigitation” for the practice of trying to determine the year that a film was made by deciphering the Roman numerals at the end of the credits, and “merferator” for the cardboard cylinder inside a roll of toilet paper. There have reportedly been English classrooms where students have been encouraged to create sniglets. What a good idea!
Also in the 1980s, Barbara Wallraff created a feature, “Word Fugitives”, in The Atlantic online that capitalised on this fashion for recreational word creation. She invited readers to suggest words that they would like to see available and she and other readers would do their best to coin a new word to represent the phenomenon. For instance, is there a word for when a pet and its owner look alike?
In the meantime, are there any words that readers of this article can suggest are needed and that will deserve a place in the Macquarie Dictionary?
The links below are to two articles on audiobooks that tell the story of two very different experiences with audiobooks.
“In order for a book to be good,” said Leo Tolstoy to his wife Sonya on March 2 1877, “one has to love its basic, fundamental idea. Thus, in Anna Karenina, I loved the idea of the family.” These words Sonya copied into her diary on March 3.
This “idea” plays out through the plot of Anna Karenina, published between 1874 and 1876, and often acclaimed as the best novel ever written. It begins with one of the most famous first lines in fiction:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The first of the novel’s two major plot lines relates to the irresistible Anna, who “had not known family life”, being brought up by an aunt and married off to the considerably older Alexei Karenin.
The second depicts the landowner Konstantin Levin (a frontman for the novel’s estate-owning author) who loves, loses but ultimately marries Kitty Shcherbatsky, the youngest daughter of parents devoted to their children and each other.
The two strands are linked by the lovable womaniser Stiva Oblonsky, who is Anna’s brother, Levin’s best friend, and Kitty’s brother-in-law. Anna travels from St Petersburg to Moscow to patch up a hiccup in Stiva’s marriage to Dolly (Kitty’s older sister).
At the station she finds herself instantly and mutually attracted to the dashing army officer Alexei Vronsky, who is collecting his mother from the same train. The enthralling narrative follows all three couples and finally results in one happy marriage (Levin and Kitty), one that just jogs along (Stiva and Dolly), and the infamous relationship that ends in the titular character’s suicide (Anna and Vronsky).
Tolstoy, the youngest of four brothers, was always going to be a writer, but having inherited a large family estate, became a landowner as well. He was crankily opposed to romantic love and conflicted about sex. Only after much procrastination, at the age of 34, would he marry 18-year-old Sonya Behrs and see her raise eight children – though she endured 16 pregnancies.
His sometimes tortured personal views – the 1889 novella The Kreuzer Sonata is little more than a diatribe against sex, love and marriage – provide the unifying context for Anna Karenina.
The bigger picture
Yet “family” is far from the only theme in the novel. Both Tolstoy and his writing are striking for their preoccupation with significant issues affecting humanity, then and now: nationalism (which Tolstoy foregrounded in War and Peace), spirituality, pacifism, brotherhood, agriculture and modernisation (read: technology).
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s lifelong concern with spirituality is at the heart of Levin’s struggle with the church’s requirements for confession before marriage. Levin, like Tolstoy himself, objects to the Russian Orthodox Church both in principle (its hypocrisy, wealth, authoritarianism, nationalism) and in practice.
The author’s opposition to industrialisation is also recognisable in the narrative. The fact that Anna meets her lover Vronsky on a train platform, and ultimately dies under the wheel of a train, reflects this opposition.
Tolstoy struggled with these themes on a daily basis and explored them in both his long and shorter writings, embodying their effects in characters we feel we know intimately – certainly enough to love or loathe them.
That we do react with such a sense of total immersion is due to Tolstoy’s deep understanding of human nature and his ability to draw us into any one of an infinitude of emotions. He admitted that when he “wrote” a character, no matter how antithetical to himself they might be, he felt convinced that for those moments he was that person. The result then reads as if he had actually lived every one of their desires, aspirations and faults before laying them before us.
A conflicted moralist
Yet, perhaps because it was a genuine and essential aspect of Tolstoy’s own world view, moral judgment is always present in his writing. Though not spelled out, this judgment is implied by unavoidable cause and effect in human actions.
In Anna’s case her passion for Vronsky results in a sexual liaison that leads to the breakdown of her marriage, separation from her son, and almost complete isolation from society. Clinging to her (unlicensed) liaison with Vronsky, who tries helplessly to make up for these losses by being everything to her, she moves from emotional dependence to unfounded jealousy to final, self-destructive despair.
At the start the reader feels, with Anna, that what she does is wonderful and romantic, but it then becomes counterproductive and, finally, a disaster. This is Tolstoy in both his guises: the empathetic writer and the moralist, determined to show that family values must triumph over personal gratification.
A timeless narrative
Anna Karenina has generated four ballets, six stage plays, ten operas and 16 films. English-language versions include a 1935 black-and-white film starring Greta Garbo – much treasured despite the incompatibility between Garbo’s signature languor and Tolstoy’s emphasis on the title character’s “suppressed animation”.
More recently, a 2012 British film with Keira Knightley was ridiculed by Russian film critics, mainly due to Knightley’s performance. There have been seven television adaptations, including two by the BBC. In Australia we had a television version loosely based on the novel, The Beautiful Lie (2015), which was set in the present day.
New translations of the novel are steadily brought out, but no final agreement on “the best” can ever be arrived at. Opinions differ as to how far the translator should divert from fidelity to the text’s language in order to achieve greater closeness to the “spirit” or “intention” of the author.
Some critics still champion Constance Garnett’s dubious translation of 1901, despite mistakes made in the text (many of these were corrected in a revised edition by Leonard Kent and Nina Berberova in 1965). Others prefer that of Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) who, living in Russia, were able to go over each line with the author.
Both translations are still available, but many contemporary critics prefer newer ventures that aim for a more “with it” vocabulary or a trendier style. Fortunately, Tolstoy’s waiving of his translation rights ensures that a stream of forever-new versions will always reflect inevitable changes in language usage and social perceptions.
This superb novel will never gather dust because, while mores and attitudes – like translations – change with the times, desire in its various manifestations will always be with us, as will the conscience that must decide whether any of them ought to be reined in.