Five words that don’t mean what you think they do


Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock

Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Articles of this kind usually assert that a word’s correct meaning lies in its earliest uses, while later developments are corruptions. Disinterested doesn’t mean “not interested” but “impartial” they complain. Decimate must refer to the destruction of precisely one-tenth of something they protest. Fulsome can only mean “insincere” rather than “very full” they cry.

While this may seem logical enough, in some cases it doesn’t quite work. Here we apply the principle of earliest meaning to five common words and we get some rather unexpected results.

1. Pretty

This word is from Old English prættig, “cunning”, from præt “trick” – unrelated to prat “idiot”, which originally referred to the buttocks (hence pratfall: a fall onto the backside).

By the 15th century, pretty described something cleverly made, artful or ingenious. This led to its use to describe someone attractive or good-looking – most commonly a woman or child, although the diarist Samuel Pepys refers to one Dr Clarke as a “very pretty man”.

Ironic uses of pretty to refer to something unpleasant are the origins of phrases like “pretty pass”, “pretty state of affairs” and “pretty kettle of fish”; the latter more often found in the phrase “different kettle of fish”. The kettle here isn’t the kind we use to make tea, but rather a large cooking vessel (from Latin catillus).

2. Tall

Tall is from an Old English word that meant “swift” or “active”. By the 15th century, it had come to mean “handsome” or “elegant”. Its use to mean “skilful” gave rise to the expressions “tall of hand”, meaning “handy” and “tall of tongue”, meaning “good at arguing”.

The 16th century saw the emergence of uses relating to height; subsequent metaphorical extensions include “large”, as in “tall order”, and “exaggerated”, from which the phrase “tall story” emerged. These changes in meaning may seem surprising, but several common adjectives that describe our physical appearances began life referring to dexterity and pliancy. Handsome, as the name suggests, originally meant “easy to handle”, “clever” meant “dexterous”, and “buxom” meant “obedient” (from “bow” meaning “to bend the neck”).

3. Silly

Someone silly in Old English was “happy” or “fortunate”, and later “pious” or “holy”. Because the innocent are easily taken advantage of, it came to signal a person deemed “weak” or “helpless”. Further negative associations are apparent from its use to mean “rustic” or “lacking sophistication”, from which our modern sense of “foolish” emerged.

This process, whereby a compliment becomes a term of abuse, is known to linguists as “pejoration” (from Latin peior “worse”). Its opposite, “amelioration” (from Latin melior “better”), can be seen in the history of “nice”, which originally meant “foolish” (from Latin nescius “ignorant”).

4. Naughty

In Old English, to be naughty was to be poor, literally “to have naught” or “nothing”. It was later used to describe someone immoral and, in a weakened sense, mischievous or disobedient. The particular association with badly behaved children led to the “naughty corner” – a place of isolation to which a child may be sent as a punishment.

Perhaps it was the naughty corner’s Victorian associations that led to the invention of the “naughty step”, a form of discipline advocated by the British reality TV show Supernanny, whose transatlantic success led to its adoption in the US.

Its use to mean “indecent” survives into modern usage in phrases like “naughty but nice”. This phrase was promoted by adverts for cream cakes in the 1980s and was the brainchild of the novelist Salman Rushdie, while he was working as a copywriter. “Naughty bits”, referring to the genitals, was first recorded in a Monty Python sketch in 1970. This euphemism was considered too explicit for American audiences and was bleeped out when the show was broadcast in the US.

5. Sad

This word is from Old English sæd, which meant “full”, as the German satt still does. In English, it has been replaced in this sense by “satisfied” or “sated”, from Latin satis “enough”.

By the 14th century, sad meant “settled”, “firm” or “resolute” and from this the senses “serious” and “grave” developed.

The modern use of sad to mean “sorrowful” can be traced back to Old English, where the word already carried a sense of being weary or tired of something, reflecting the way that satisfaction quickly shades into ennui. Surprisingly, “happy” was brought to us by the Vikings who plundered the north of England and is borrowed from the Old Norse happ, which filled the gap created by the changing use of “silly”. It originally meant “fortunate” – a sense preserved in the phrase “by happy chance”.

To suggest that we are using words incorrectly, therefore, is to ignore the various ways in which meanings of words change over time. In the case of fulsome, “very full” is the earlier of the two senses. Its use to mean “excessive” arose out of “fulsome apologies” that were felt to be insincere – as Priti Patel found to her cost in her resignation letter of 2017.

The looser use of decimate to mean “devastate” is recorded from the 17th century, so can it really be wrong today? And if we did insist on only sanctioning its earliest use – put to death one in every ten of an army of mutinous soldiers – how often would we use it? So feel free to be disinterested in this post, or to lavish it with fulsome praise. Attempting to constrain the uses of words is plain silly – in its modern rather than its medieval meaning.The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year


The links below are to articles reporting on Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2020 – actually, there are more than one.

For more visit:
https://lithub.com/oxfords-official-word-of-2020-is-well-its-a-lot-of-words/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/23/oed-says-2020-too-many-potential-words-of-the-year-to-name-just-one-oxford-english-dictionary

‘Rona’, ‘iso’, ‘quazza’ — words of the year speak to our Australian take on COVID



Unsplash/United Nations, CC BY

Roland Sussex, The University of Queensland

Language is like archaeology. It lays down evidence for following generations to excavate and write PhD theses about. Layers of the stuff. And such has been the language of the year of COVID.

Not surprisingly, COVID has spawned an efflorescence of words and expressions. And these will certainly be dug up for analysis by our descendants.

In Australia we have a characteristic way of repurposing words, and we have applied it to COVID. Isolation became “iso”, which was crowned (joke: corona is Latin for crown) Word of the Year, or WOTY, by the Australian National Dictionary.

And coronavirus became “rona”, the Macquarie Dictionary’s COVID WOTY for 2020, announced today.

The Macquarie has departed from its usual practice (as has the Oxford English Dictionary) and anointed not one but two WOTYs (should that be WOTIES?): one to honour the way COVID has dominated our world, thinking and language this year; and another across-the-board WOTY as well. Their latter choice was “doomscrolling”, the practice of continuing to read news online or on social media when you know there’s nothing new in the news, and it’s all miserable.




Read more:
‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our language


Short, not necessarily sweet

Iso and rona are diminutives or hypocoristics. I have a database of over 6,000 of these in Australian English. These are derived forms of words that express an emotional overtone, usually amiable and solidaristic (“barbie” for barbecue; “servo” for service station), sometimes pejorative (“commo” for communist, “drongo” for well, an idiot).

But my personal nomination for the 2020 WOTY is “quazza” for quarantine. I predicted its birth and was fulfilled when it duly appeared.

Quazza follows a pattern in Australian English where R becomes Z: Terry gives “Tezza”, Barry gives “Bazza”, and quarantine yields “quazza”. Which is a long way from the Italian word quarantina, a reference to the 40-day period ships had to anchor off Italy in days gone by to prove there was no plague on board.

These diminutives serve an important purpose. They de-demonise threatening words. Without reducing the level of the words’ threat, the diminutives imply: this is something we can get our minds around and manage.

And gradually, with some temporary reversals, that is what we have done, and much more effectively than most other countries. Though whether the diminutives have medical force is not yet proven.

Person in mask looks at laptop in darkened room
‘Doomscrolling’ captures the intersection of this year’s unfolding catastrophes and social media.
Unsplash, CC BY

Getting the message

Of course, there’s more to the influence of language under COVID than diminutives. In terms of public health and communication, three key agencies have driven our handling of the pandemic: scientists, policymakers and the public.

In Australia, the passage of information and action between these three entities has worked rather well. Science has transmitted reliable and helpful analyses of coronavirus and COVID-19 to policymakers. They informed our understanding of specific pandemic terms like “incubation” and “reinfection”.

State and federal governments have issued action guidelines with terms like “COVID safe”. And the public has created their own shorthand like the diminutives described above to make it all a bit friendlier.




Read more:
We’re not all in this together. Messages about social distancing need the right cultural fit


Australians have accessed the science through the media and the internet, and have generally acted responsibly.

Using words consistently and specifically is vital when it comes to health messages.
Unsplash/United Nations, CC BY

The key mechanism for communicating along the three axes between science, policymakers and the public involves messaging. Words matter in this context. What is needed is simple, direct, transparent and plausible language. Translations for multilingual communities are also vital.

Australian authorities have used words effectively and fairly consistently (though not always). The words and terms have fallen within four broad lexical categories:

1. isolation — lockdown, isolation, quarantine

2. distance — social distancing, venue capacity

3. hygiene — handwashing, sanitiser (or “hand sanny” in Australian slang), masks

3. social — COVID safe, flatten the curve, stop the spread, WFH (work from home).

The British messaging was much less effective, moving from “Protect the NHS” (National Health Service) to “Stay alert” without specifying what people should be alert to.




Read more:
Coronavirus anti-vaxxers: one in six British people would refuse a vaccine – here’s how to change their minds


Going the distance

Unfortunately, many countries took up the phrase “social distancing”, when what was needed was “physical distancing”, continuing social interaction as an important part of maintaining well being. The World Health Organisation agrees.

Next time — and there certainly will be a next time — we need to be better prepared.

There will be new vocabulary to describe, and perhaps to help tame, potential new threats. The messaging may be very similar, and we will know, from our experience with COVID-19 in 2020, how best to stop “covidiots” from acting “coronacrazy”.




Read more:
How COVID-19 is changing the English language


The Conversation


Roland Sussex, Professor Emeritus, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our language



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Kate Burridge, Monash University and Howard Manns, Monash University

People love creating words — in times of crisis it’s a “sick” (in the good sense) way of pulling through.

From childhood, our “linguistic life has been one willingly given over to language play” (in the words of David Crystal). In fact, scientists have recently found learning new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating (the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum).




Read more:
The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


We’re leximaniacs at heart and, while the behaviour can occasionally seem dark, we can learn a thing or two by reflecting on those playful coinages that get us through “dicky” times.

Tom, Dick and Miley: in the ‘grippe’ of language play

In the past, hard times birthed playful rhymes. The 1930s Depression gave us playful reduplications based on Australian landmarks and towns – “ain’t no work in Bourke”; “everything’s wrong at Wollongong”; “things are crook at Tallarook”.

Wherever we’re facing the possibility of being “dicky” or “Tom (and) Dick” (rhyming slang for “sick”), we take comfort in language play. It’s one thing to feel “crook”, but it’s another thing again to feel as “crook as Rookwood” (a cemetery in Sydney) or to have a “wog” (synonymous with “bug”, likely from “pollywog”, and unrelated to the ethnic slur “wog”).

Remedies may be found in language’s abilities to translate sores into plasters, to paraphrase William Gouge’s 1631 sermon on the plague. New slang enables us to face our fears head-on — just as when the Parisians began calling a late-18th century influenza “la grippe” to reflect the “seizing” effect it had on people. The word was subsequently taken up in British and American English.

In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).

Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.

Slanguage in the coronaverse: what’s new?

What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.

“Blursday” has been around since at least 2007 but originally described the day spent hung over — it’s now been pressed into service because no one knows what day of the week it is anymore. The official disease name itself, “COVID”, is somewhere between a blend and an acronym because it takes in vowels to make the abbreviation pronounceable (CO from corona, VI from virus and D from disease).

True, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for centuries — “flush” (flash + gush) dates from the 1500s. But it’s never been a terribly significant method of coinage. John Algeo’s study of neologisms over a 50-year period (1941–91) showed blends counting for only 5% of the new words. Tony Thorne’s impressive collection of over 100 COVID-related terms has around 34% blends, and the figure increases to more than 40% if we consider only slang.

Not only have blends become much more common, the nature of the mixing process has changed too. Rather than combining splinters of words, as in “coronials”, most of these corona-inspired mixes combine full words merged with parts of others. The “quarantini” keeps the word “quarantine” intact and follows it with just a hint of “martini” (and for that extra boost to the immune system you can rim the glass with vitamin C powder). Many of these have bubbled up over the past few weeks — “lexit” or “covexit” (the strategies around exiting lockdown and economic hardship), “coronacation” (working from home) and so on.

Humour: from the gallows to quarantimes

Humour emerges as a prevailing feature of these blends, even more so when the overlap is total. In “covidiot” (the one who ignores public health advice and probably hoards toilet paper), both “covid” and “idiot” remain intact. There’s been a flourishing of these types of blend — “covideo party”, “coronapocalypse”, “covidivorce” to name just a few.

Clearly, there is a fair bit of dark comedy in the jokes and memes that abound on the internet, and in many of these coinages too — compounds like “coronacoma” (for the period of shutdown, or that deliciously long quarantine sleep) and “boomer remover” (used by younger generations for the devastation of the baby boomer demographic).




Read more:
Oi! We’re not lazy yarners, so let’s kill the cringe and love our Aussie accent(s)


Callous, heartless, yes. But humour is often used as a means of coming to terms with the less happy aspects of our existence. People use the levity as a way of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with.

Certainly, gallows humour has always featured large in hospital slang (diagnoses like GOK “God only knows” and PFO “pissed and fell over”). For those who have to deal with dying and death every day, it is perhaps the only way to stay sane. COVID challenges us all to confront the biological limits of our own bodies – and these days humour provides the much-needed societal safety valve.

So what will come of these creations? The vast majority will fall victim to “verbicide”, as slang expressions always do.The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University and Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cancel culture, cleanskin, hedonometer … I’m not sure I like any of Macquarie Dictionary’s words of the year



‘Cancel culture’ has been nominated Word of the Year by The Macquarie Dictionary, for reflecting the zeitgeist.
Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

How many of these words, shortlisted by The Macquarie Dictionary in its search for the 2019 Word of the Year, have you used? Anecdata, big minutes, cancel culture, cheese slaw, cleanskin, drought lot, eco-anxiety, flight shaming, healthwashing, hedonometer, mukbang, ngangkari, robodebt, silkpunk, thicc, and whataboutism?

I confess the only one on this list (whittled down from 75 words), that has passed my lips has been “cleanskin”, but I wasn’t referring to someone with no tattoos – the new definition.

I may not have used these shortlisted words, but I have certainly experienced the effect of some of them and can appreciate the value of others. (“Whataboutism”, for instance, a technique used “in responding to an accusation, criticism or difficult question in which an opposing accusation or criticism is raised”, will come in very handy when describing many politicians. )

I doubt, though, whether I’ll be able to remember and use many of these words, colourful and tinged with negativity as many are.




Read more:
When we needed a new word, Twitter gave us ‘milkshake duck’


The Macquarie Dictionary committee has chosen “cancel culture” as its Word of the Year. The term is used to describe community attitudes that

…call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from [for] a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.

Unfortunately, there have been any number of recent examples in Australia of ostracism through “cancel culture”, whose cases have progressed to the courts. I hesitate to mention Geoffrey Rush here.




Read more:
Tarantino has a questionable record in the #MeToo context, so should we boycott his new film?


‘The zeitgeist’

The committee chose “cancel culture” because it believes the term “captures an important aspect of the past year’s zeitgeist”.

In looking over the list, I’m not sure that I like any of these words. I think a couple of them are ridiculous, in particular “hedonometer”, an algorithm using language data from Twitter to analyse levels of happiness.

To qualify as Macquarie’s word of the year, a word must be newly added to the dictionary in that year or, as is the case with “cleanskin”, an old word with an additional new meaning.

Macquarie points out that it differs from other dictionaries, as some simply choose the most common word being searched, or most topical word, regardless of its status as “new”. The people at Cambridge Dictionary, which chose “upcycling” for 2019, relied on their Instagram account to make the call.

If the Macquarie committee had done this, its 2019 Word of the Year would have been “cheese slaw” (a salad of grated carrot, grated cheese, and mayonnaise), which it admits would have been a “niche and controversial” choice.

Macquarie has posted a photo on its website of a cheese slaw (stuffed into a sandwich), as well as an equally unappetising photo of a companion food word “mukbang”. A mukbang, by the way, describes a live online broadcast in which someone eats, often a large amount, while simultaneously speaking to their audience.

Criteria apart from “new” for Macquarie appear to be that a word is ubiquitous, timely, influential, and makes a valuable contribution to Australian English. So, does “cancel culture” qualify? Kind of.

Macquarie sorts the year’s new words into 15 categories, and one could spend an enjoyable time and several hours cruising through them: agriculture, arts, business, communications, eating and drinking, environment, fashion, health, politics, sport, and technology.

ngangkari and thicc

Two of the most interesting new additions – both runners-up as word of the year (along with eco-anxiety) – are “ngangkari”, adopted unaltered from Pitjantjatjara, for an Indigenous practitioner of bush medicine, and “thicc” from African American English, which “celebrates body positivity that does not conform to conventional white standards of beauty”.

The environment figures strongly in this year’s shortlist, in “eco-anxiety”, “flight shaming”, and “drought lot”. Still, the folk at Collins Dictionary named their Word of the Year for 2019 as “climate strike”. The Oxford Dictionary chose “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year.




Read more:
Why declaring a national climate emergency would neither be realistic or effective


Flight shaming is an anti-flying movement that originated in Sweden last year, which encourages people to stop taking flights to lower carbon emissions.
shutterstock

The Macquarie Committee has now opened the voting for People’s Choice Word of the Year 2019. Only once in the past five years has the committee’s and the people’s choice aligned. In 2015, “captain’s call” won both categories.

You may wonder why the competition is even called “word of the year” when it comprises two words, or even three. In 2016 the people’s choice was “halal snack pack”. As the website points out, it’s the lexical unit of meaning that the committee considers, what’s called the “headword” in a dictionary.

In the meantime, if you are interested in chasing up the Macquarie shortlist and maybe voting, you have until midnight on Sunday December 8 to do so.The Conversation

Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five common words we’re all using incorrectly



Stark naked? Not quite…
Shutterstock

Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Many people think they know their main language intimately. But there are many words and phrases in English that people often use wrongly. Whether these erroneous uses truly count as “wrong” is up for debate – after all, a mistake that has become widely adopted should really be considered acceptable. But whichever side of this argument you err towards, here are five examples of ones that we are all making.

1. Stark naked

Someone who has no clothes on is widely described as being stark naked. Originally, however, the phrase began as start naked – from the Old English steort, meaning “tail”. The phrase literally meant “naked to the tail”, probably referring to the buttocks.

Although the word steort is not recorded in this sense, tail has often been used in this way – as it still is in the American phrase work your tail off. The word steort fell out of general use around 1300, surviving only in the names of birds like redstart and wagstart (better known today as the wagtail).

The switch from start to stark naked was triggered by start becoming obsolete, combined with an association with stark, meaning “completely”, in phrases such as stark dead, stark blind and stark naught – first recorded in the early 16th century in the savage put-down: “Ye count your selfe wele lettred [educated], your lernyng is starke nought.”

2. Sneeze

The verb to sneeze is imitative in origin – the sound of the word mimics the sound of the thing it names, as with words like drip, fizz, beep and the noise created by a sneeze: atishoo.

But the original form of the word was fnese, along with fneosung (“sneezing”), and fnora (“a sneeze”). The change from fnese to sneeze arose through confusion caused by the way the word appeared in medieval manuscripts.

Medieval handwriting employed several different forms of the letter “s”, including an 8-shaped form, another resembling a kidney bean, the Greek letter sigma and a long form – still found in printed books of the 18th century. This last letter closely resembled the letter “f” and it was confusion between the long “s” and “f” that resulted in fnese being adapted into modern English sneeze.




Read more:
Lost in translation: five common English phrases you may be using incorrectly


3. Gravy

While gravy may seem a quintessentially English sauce, the word is actually French in origin. Gravy was originally grané, meaning “spiced”, from Latin granum “grain”.

The letters “u” and “n” were often indistinguishable in medieval handwriting – both were formed using two single vertical strokes called minims – so that it would be easy for a scribe to misread the word as graue.

While the letters “u” and “v” are distinguished by the sounds they represent today, in medieval English they varied according to position: “v” appeared at the beginnings of words (vntil, “until”) and “u” in the middle (loue, “love”), irrespective of the sound. As a result, the word grané came to be misread as gravy, and this form has been used ever since.

4. Adder

Adder (the snake) goes back to the Old English word nædre; it is one of a small number of English words where the initial “n” has been lost due to confusion over where the boundary falls when following the indefinite article a/an.

As a result of this process, known as metanalysis, a nædre became an adder. The same misapprehension lies behind words like apron (from napron, related to nappe, “tablecloth”) and umpire (originally nonpeer, “no equal”).

The word orange was also formed this way, although in this case – since it is a borrowing into English from French – the mistake had occurred before it was adopted into English. The French orange is itself a borrowing of the Arabic word naranj (the initial “n” is still found in modern Spanish naranja); it was confusion following the indefinite article un that produced the modern form.

Watch your indefinite article.
Shutterstock

5. Cherry

The word cherry originates in the northern French dialect word cherise (a variant of the standard modern French cerise), which was adopted into English after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Because it ended in an “s”, English speakers mistakenly understood it to be a plural form and so the false singular cherry was born. The same process lies behind the word pea, erroneously derived from the singular form pease (ultimately from Greek pison) – preserved in the nursery rhyme “pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold”.

Although these changes took place hundreds of years ago, the process can be observed today in the emergence of bicep: a singular form of biceps. This may seem logical, but biceps is an adoption of a singular Latin noun, from bi- “two” and -ceps “headed”, referring to a muscle with two points of attachment.

The tendency for speakers to associate the “s” ending with plurals has also given rise to erroneous plural forms. Despite phenomena being the plural of Greek phenomenon, the false plural phenomenas is sometimes used. But the error of this type that is most likely to make pedants reach for their red pens is paninis – the supposed plural of Italian panini (singular panino) – a reminder that what is acceptable for some remains anathema for others.The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year: Toxic


The links below are to articles reflecting on the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 Word of the Year – toxic.

For more visit:
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018
https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/668041894/toxic-is-oxford-dictionaries-word-of-2018
https://bookriot.com/2018/11/15/toxic-2018-oxford-english-dictionary-word/

When we needed a new word, Twitter gave us ‘milkshake duck’



File 20180117 53324 pg38y5.png?ixlib=rb 1.1

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

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.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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?

The ConversationIn 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?

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.