Word fashions

Word fashions

The past weeks have been so hectic that I’ve had little time to stop, think and blog. But a report on the BBC yesterday made me pause: the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ has proclaimed ‘selfie’ as its word of the year. The ‘word of the year’ is an interesting cultural indicator in English-speaking society: the choice is usually linked to technological innovation, a shift in social attitudes, or a set of political changes that affects everyone. Sometimes all three are involved.

But the selfie seems to be largely an indicator of technological change and social attitudes: the predictably outraged comments that follow the BBC reports on the ‘selfie’ and its crowning as ‘word of 2013’ suggest a move towards a vainer society, facilitated by the ability to take a snapshot of yourself on the phone and distribute it instantly via social media, usually for approbation. I guess you could call the overall procedure, ‘fishing for likes’.

The thing that really interested me about the BBC report, however, was the statistic revealing that, though the expression ‘selfie’ in its current sense, is first recorded in 2003, its use has risen 17000% in the past twelve months. That’s 17000%! First of all, the surge in usage is astonishing; secondly, how do the nice chaps at OED work this out?

The answer, of course, is that modern lexicography is based very much on monitoring the language with mind-bogglingly huge computerised corpora. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have fantastic corpus resources of the spoken and written language that have revolutionised dictionary-making over the past quarter of a century. Before the rise of computers, the main reference dictionaries employed small teams of readers to sift through prescribed texts, ferreting out interesting or novel usages for the citations. This itself was a mammoth enterprise, and its early days are ably dramatized by Simon Winchester in his books, ‘The Meaning of Everything’ and ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’ (or, in its American edition, the rather more sensational, ‘The Professor and the Madman’) which are well worth reading. But now, rather than having teams of dedicated readers, writing down terms on slips of paper, we have electronic corpora that can search extensive archives of written text (and increasingly transcribed speech) that show how words and meanings enter the language, rise in popularity, remain stable, or fade away. Tracking their fortunes over time can tell us a lot about technology, culture and attitude. This is particularly true when you look at the impact of one word or language on another.

Take for example, the little Russian suffix, ‘-nik’, meaning ‘small’. We can track the cross-cultural impact of this little bit of a word in American English by interrogating the freely-available online Corpus of Historical American English, maintained at Brigham Young University by Professor Mark Davies and his team. By logging onto CoHA and entering ‘*nik’ as your search item, and choosing ‘Chart’ as your display option, you can track the progress of this little bit of language from 1810 to 2009, mainly, of course, in written texts.

The number of occurrences of ‘-nik’ is of course relatively small between the 1810s and 1940s, and on closer inspection, the words in which we find this suffix are generally names of a Slavic origin, or foreign words that are glossed, e.g. in the 1930s we find a reference to the ‘the General Stefanik Circle of the Slovak League of America’. But then in the 1950s, there is a sudden late surge in the frequency of this suffix – thanks, of course, to a ‘little moon’ that began to orbit Earth in the late 1950s, the first man-made satellite, ‘Sputnik’. Early references to this technological advance show the response of American commentators to this Russian achievement. In 1958, Time magazine reports, ‘Despite the Sputnik furor and the panicky cries that the U.S. was lagging behind the Russians in missilery, Convair and the Air Force stuck stubbornly to a schedule that was programed for maximum effort long before Sputnik.’ Even in this one sentence one can sense why the ‘-nik’ suffix was becoming so frequent.

The ‘-nik’ surge continued in the 1960s, but ‘Sputnik’ was being joined by a number of new English coinages that employed the Russian suffix that the little man-made moon had done much to popularise. ‘Beatnik’ is first dated to the 1960s in CoHA, and the use of the Russian diminutive conveys much of the general suspicion that these counter-cultural figures aroused, and the pro-Soviet sympathies they were assumed to share: in an issue of Harpers magazine published in 1968, we find the sentence, ‘As they worked, the two government officers had a friendly laugh together over the filthy cowardice of “beatnik pinko kids.”’

Then, once ‘-nik’ had been released into English as an attitudinal suffix, signifying a certain attitude of contempt and political distaste, other words joined the fold: ‘refusenik’, ‘peacenik’, ‘folknik,’ ‘vietnik’ and ‘freaknik’ come into the English language from the 1960s onwards. Over two or three decades the degree of political distaste fades but an air of obsessiveness remains – a ‘neatnik’ is still someone who is a little too compulsively orderly in their habits.

So are these coinages merely a passing fad, as someone complains of ‘selfie’ in the postings that follow the BBC report on the OED’s decision? Some are. If you look at the frequency of ‘peacenik’ in CoHA, it is first found in the 1960s, peaks in frequency in the 1980s, but fades away in the 2000s to its low 1960s level. It seems to be on the way out. But the relative popularity of ‘-nik’ as a suffix that conveys a cultural attitude remains: the usages in CoHA in the 2000s still include a lot of proper names, but in between them you can find ‘no-goodnik’, ‘retro-beatnik’ and ‘neo-beatnik’. And, of course, people are still talking about Sputnik, that alarming piece of technology whose influence changed the language. The selfie might have a long future ahead of it.

Further reading:

The rise of the selfie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650

‘Selfie’ is the OED word of 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24992393

The Corpus of Historical American English: http://corpus2.byu.edu/coha/

Winchester, S. (2002). The surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary. Penguin UK.

Winchester, S. (2003). The meaning of everything: The story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.


Drama & Gardening

Drama & Gardening

Sometimes, when I get too serious about intercultural language education, I remember a student I once taught in my first job, in Salerno, in Italy. He was a lively Italian law student, and he drove a Fiat 500 with a maniacal fury along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast.

‘Look, look at the culture!’ he would yell, as we overtook a nun on a moped.

‘What culture?’

He gestured to the vine and olive trees on the steep slopes above us. ‘The agriculture!’ he cried.

I was reminded of this student by the BrazTESOL Special Interest Group event on Intercultural Language Education that Andrea Assenti del Rio and I held last week in Sao Paulo, an event kindly supported by Martins Fontes bookshop and Cambridge Brazil. Somewhere between 30 and 40 participants turned up, which was just enough to fill the room, and they stayed for the day’s events. I did some of my usual stuff on understanding images, and on the cultural aspects of conversational interaction. Andrea talked about the cultural content of course-books, and how to supplement them, and she took us through some techniques from the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ that she has been using to combine language learning, critical thinking and conflict resolution. And she also talked about gardening.

The participants were wonderful. I like working with Brazilian teachers – there is no problem in getting them to respond. It is more of a problem stopping them from responding; but that is a very good problem to have. So they enthusiastically shared their ideas on making and understanding art in the classroom, questioned the use of phrasal ‘chunks’ in conversational stories, told us of their rich experiences in adapting course materials to their own ends –and participated whole-heartedly in Andrea’s dramatic exploration of critical incidents.

The drama techniques of ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ can be understood as a metaphor for cultivation. There is the stage of germination when the ‘spect-actors’ – those who both spectate and act – have to build up trust. A simple way of doing this (while revising numbers) is to stand in a circle and see if you can count from 1 to 10 without anyone overlapping. It’s not easy. Like cultivation, it takes patience, and quite a few failures. One person says ‘one’ and three people immediately call out ‘two’. Or they let a pause elapse. But how long a pause can we stand? Or more precisely how long a pause can Brazilian teachers stand? When it works well, an almost palpable sense of trust develops in the silences between the calling out of numbers. We stop shouting and we begin to listen. And gradually, out of the failures, the group develops its own rhythm.

From the listening and trust-building we become ready for a more elaborate technique. Small groups – of around four or five – identify an incident in which they feel someone has been abusing his or her power over someone else, and they act out that incident together before the whole class. In the sessions I’ve attended, there have been different kinds of everyday oppression portrayed – people using their size to jostle for space on a metro train or bus; migrant workers labouring in sweatshops with no basic working privileges. Since we usually work with educators, the incidents frequently involve teachers, parents, secretaries and pupils – sometimes a parent is abusing a teacher, sometimes it’s a director of studies browbeating junior colleagues. Sometimes you can see the ‘oppressor’s’ eyes light up as he or she channels an incident from memory. The sap rises. Language flows.

The audience then reflects on the critical incident that has been performed, and the teacher asks for suggestions on how to subvert or challenge the oppression. But because the audience is composed of ‘spect-actors’ they can’t simply make their suggestions; no, they have to join in and perform their interventions in a replay of the original incident. So the erstwhile viewer takes on the role of the bus passenger who is being jostled; or turns one of the migrant workers into a kind of shop steward or negotiator; or finds some words to say that might calm an angry parent or soften the attitude of an unreasonable boss. Then, we discuss whether or not that intervention would have worked in real life, and perhaps act out some further alternatives.

Again, it is a simple technique that works surprisingly well in generating language and cultivating – there’s that word, again, ‘cultivating’ – critical thinking. We may not agree with the solutions put forward in the scenario, but we are prompted to think hard about possible alternatives. And in the shared experience, and in the discussions that pool that experience, we are encouraged to grow.

So it seemed appropriate that when Andrea was describing the work of her school in La Plata, Argentina, she also talked about a gardening project that the younger learners are currently engaged in. Her city was dreadfully affected by flooding earlier this year, and many of her neighbours lost their lives, or know people who were suddenly and terribly bereaved. The community is coming together in a number of initiatives, and one that Andrea’s school has initiated – small though it might be – is a garden project. The children are bringing seeds and learning about the vocabulary and grammar of gardening in English. The springtime lettuces that are beginning to germinate in La Plata are more than just a resource for learning language; they are a symbol of rebirth, renewal.

Or, as my Italian student said so many years ago, of ‘culture’.

See http://www.homeintercultural.com.ar/engl/home_engl.html