Did you remember to floss this morning? Looking forward to a helping of gammon at the weekend? Fancy a spot of plogging before bed-time? Language is ever-evolving – and for proof, we need look no further than the Word of the Year shortlist published by Collins Dictionary.
The countdown holds a mirror up to the tumultuous era of Brexit, the downfall of male hegemony in the entertainment industry and elsewhere, and the popularity of annoying dances inspired by video games.
The list also suggests the plight of the environment is becoming a genuine everyday worry. The deceptively bland term ‘single-use’ has been declared Word of the Year by Collins. This refers to non-recyclable items we utilise once and then chuck away, adding to the mountain of waste in which humanity threatens to figuratively drown (the literal drowning to follow after the ice-caps melt).
“Images of plastic adrift in the most distant oceans, such as straws, bottles and bags, have led to a global campaign to reduce their use,” said Collins. “The word [single-use] has seen a four-fold increase since 2013. This has been a year where awareness and often anger over a variety of issues has led to the rise of new words and the revitalisation and adaptation of old ones,” added Helen Newstead, Head of Language Content at Collins.
“It’s clear from this year’s Words of the Year list that changes to our language are dictated as much by public concern as they are by sport, politics and playground fads.”
That our concern about looming environmental catastrophe is such as to make ‘single-use’ a part of everyday conversation is certainly an encouraging outcome. The fact it’s very possibly too late to do anything about the looming environmental catastrophe beyond nattering about it is less positive, but it’s good to talk, right?
Related to that is ‘plogging’ – a slightly creepy Scandinavian pastime involving jogging and collecting litter at the same time (try it in your estate and see how long before someone calls the gardaí).
On the subject of huge disasters bearing down on us, Brexit has also had a big impact on the Collins list. Again, this speaks to the anger, confusion, bafflement and boredom many of us feel regarding the subject.
‘Gammon’, as Brexit-watchers will know, is a pejorative for Little Englanders of a certain age. These tend to turn redder than Sunday roast when it is pointed out that Ireland won’t be rolling over in order to accommodate their ascent to the unicorn-filled uplands of life outside the European Union.
Also cropping up is the dreaded ‘backstop’ – the guarantee sought and obtained by the EU that Britain will take the appropriate regulatory measures to ensure a border does not go up in Ireland. As with gammon and single-use, it isn’t a buzzy word, coined by the young and later taking root among the rest of us. These are terms which ping around Twitter and on the comments sections of newspapers – testament to the fact that language and politics are more interwoven today than ever before. That’s reflected in the 2017 list, too, in which ‘youthquake’ – a political sea-change powered by the young – was declared Word of the Year. But if someone from a century hence were to peruse the Collins list, what conclusions might they arrive at? Well, they would obviously discern that this is a period of tremendous upheaval.
Gammons aren’t merely shouty and opinionated – they are red-faced with apoplexy. Backstop isn’t just a political manoeuvre – it is a double-serving of legalistic fudge the precise meaning of which the European Union and the UK seem fundamentally unable to agree upon.
There is an inevitable mention, meanwhile, for MeToo – the uprising that has flowed from the Harvey Weinstein scandal (though the phrase was actually coined a decade ago). Related to this is ‘gas lighting’, the process of psychologically bullying someone by causing them to think they’ve gone mad – and very much in the news lately when the girlfriend of cheating Strictly snogger Seann Walsh accused him of it. How sweet and innocent the very first Collins list, compiled in 2006, reads by comparison. Top picks then included ‘wags’ – for Victoria Beckham and chums – ‘bovvered’ (as in, am I?) and something called ‘blook’ – a book serialised on a weblog.
What this tells us is that 2006 was a time when we were all very busy gossiping about footballers’ wives and reading our blooks, and that environmental and political cataclysm were not topics anyone seriously worried about. Nor did the society of 12 years ago have to fret about ‘flossing. As if you didn’t know – and of course you do – this is a dance “in which people twist their hips in one direction while swinging their arms in the opposite direction with fists closed” and which was popularised by the video game Fortnite. Sounds like fun – at least it does until you’ve watched your eight-year-old do it literally 50 times in an hour, all while you’re trying to pack them off to bed.
On the other hand, compared to red-faced Brexiteers, Harvey Weinstein and all of those straws that are killing baby seals, what’s objectionable about a dance that kids enjoy? Flossing may be annoying, but it is one of the few entries on the Collins list not to portend on-rushing doom.
The last true hope for humankind, it would appear, lies with a ridiculous dance beloved by prepubescents who really shouldn’t have been allowed that extra helping of Haribo. Whether that’s a positive or negative is hard to say – but it’s possibly all we’ve got to cling to.
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