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.



‘Fools are fain of flitting.’ This 17th century Scottish proverb, which means ‘only fools enjoy changing their place of residence’, seems particularly appropriate this week. My wife and I have moved into a rented flat in Vila Madalena, in Sao Paulo, and so we’ve been spending most of our time retrieving and unpacking boxes that have been stored away, and we’re still trying to squeeze their contents into the very pleasant but slightly cramped space of our new home. The main problem, of course, are our books, which are spilling out from our few bookshelves to take up occupancy on tables, windowsills and staircase.

Being married to a Brazilian, I am always struck by her rather different assumptions about domestic space. Like other Brazilian women I’ve met, she has an abhorrence of certain things that seem perfectly reasonable to me, like having a washing-machine in the kitchen.

‘It’s where the plumbing is,’ I protest. ‘It’s the obvious place to put it.’

‘It’s unhygienic, she says. ‘I hate cooking where dirty clothes are being washed.’ I don’t understand her concern. I worry about the logic of muddy jeans in a washing machine somehow contaminating vegetables that are being stir-fried in a wok, but there you go. I don’t mind at all having the washing-machine isolated in its own little laundry area, and intercultural relationships are about the art of compromise.

Another domestic habit that used to niggle me was my wife’s habit of leaving doors open in the flat. When I went around religiously closing them, with my grandmother’s admonition ‘Were you born in a field? echoing in my memory, she went around opening them again. I slowly realized we were the products of different social assumptions regarding door opening and closing: I was conditioned to prevent icy Scottish draughts from whistling through poorly-insulated houses; she was conditioned to let cool, fresh air circulate throughout the dwelling.

These differences in assumption are small, even trivial, examples of what Michael Agar calls ‘rich points’ in his stimulating book, Language Shock. When we flit from culture to culture, we come across differences in thought and habit that often strike us immediately (and perhaps illogically) as just wrong. But underlying these differences are often rich strata of sometimes unarticulated beliefs and attitudes that have grown up over generations. If we pause to reflect on them we can begin to quarry the rich seam of cultural attitudes that can help us to understand other people’s seemingly weird ideas – even if we never quite get around to accepting them ourselves.

Meanwhile, we continue to unpack the boxes. Some boxes are more interesting than others: the cutlery, clothes and linen all have particular places to go that do not require much in the way of decision. But ornaments, pictures and posters are another matter. What will we put in the living spaces; what will we put in the more intimate spaces of the bedrooms? What public faces will we show and what will we present as representative of ourselves at this stage in our lives?

An interesting classroom activity that prompts slightly older learners to reflect on their use of domestic spaces simply asks them to describe, in pairs or small groups, what pictures or posters they put on their bedroom walls (a) when they were 14 or 15 years old and (b) now, assuming they are at least four or five years older. And then you can ask how their different choices demonstrate how their personality has either changed or remained constant.

In my experience of doing this, the learners’ responses are remarkably consistent across cultures: women have a tendency towards having posters of animals (often horses) and male pop and television stars on their bedroom walls as mid-teens; there is a wider diversity later. Males tend towards sports teams, racing cars and rock stars. In any class there is usually at least one person with more unpredictable tastes, and the conventionality and unconventionality of the choices can be discussed as a class.

In my own case, I had posters of science fiction films on the bedroom wall as a teenager; this evolved later in life to art posters, particularly of Pieter Breughel’s winter scenes, like The Census at Bethlehem. One might see this change as a maturing of tastes, or possibly a shift towards pretension. I would rather see the later choices as a natural extension of the earlier ones: one of my favourite science fiction films was – and still is – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which is where I first came across Breughel’s icy, sociable depictions of outdoor village life. They decorate the Russian spaceship orbiting the sinister planet that turns its inhabitants’ nightmares into reality.  I also first associated his Fall of Icarus with a short science fiction story by Brian Aldiss, long before I discovered the allusion to the same painting in W.H. Auden’s beautiful poem, Musée des Beaux Arts. So my later choices were linked by a widening and deepening network of personal associations and memories. The challenge to our learners is whether they see their own later choices as linked to, or breaking free from the choices of the past.

In my book, Intercultural Language Activities, a section is devoted to exploring our own domestic spaces, trying to make the familiar ‘strange’. The places where we live are often so unremarkable to us that we do not notice their culturally distinctive nature. I remember Mike Byram telling a story in a seminar about taking classes of school pupils from England to France on language trips; afterwards he asked them to compare French houses with their own. The activity initially failed, since the pupils simply had not observed their French accommodation in much detail. So he then asked later groups of pupils to take time out during their visit to draw a French house or flat. The pupils returned with a wealth of detail and observations about differences between French and English domestic spaces. Sometimes, we have to be trained to see.

Agar, M. (1994) Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: HarperCollins

Corbett, J. (2010) Intercultural Language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Going intercultural

This blog is a space for reflection on intercultural language education, especially as it relates to English language teaching. I first became aware of intercultural language education in the 1990s, when I found myself teaching on a series of summer schools on what was then called ‘British Cultural Studies’. The summer schools brought together an exciting group of international students and a stimulating – and highly diverse – bunch of guest speakers, among them Susan Bassnett, the Translation Studies scholar and Mike Byram, who was then busily developing his views on Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC). In different ways, Susan and Mike were big influences on me – and they still are, but my main concern was with the participants in the summer school courses, who were largely English language teachers, from Europe, Asia and South America. How were they actually to apply the ideas informing intercultural language education in their classes and courses?
What intercultural language education is, and how ICC might be acquired or developed, will be the main topics of this blog. I also hope to offer some practical ideas for the ELT classroom. At the outset, I had only the vaguest notion of what ‘going intercultural’ might involve, but my views have been developing over the years as I’ve taught courses in intercultural language education, attended conferences, and met more and more practitioners. I’ve realised that ‘going intercultural’ means a bewildering variety of things to many language teachers. To some, it is a set of recipes for basic survival in an unfamiliar environment. To others, it is a means of negotiating ethical encounters with The Other. To me, it is both of these things, but it is also the development of a set of skills to observe and understand human behaviour, particularly linguistic behaviour, in the myriad cultural contexts that communities create. These skills can be developed in many ways, but one of the most fundamental is learning to ‘loaf and lurk’.
The expression ‘loafing and lurking’ is borrowed from ethnography, and it refers to the training required to become a ‘participant observer’ in our own or another culture. ‘Loafing and lurking’ requires us to step back from our normal immersion in everyday activity, and to try to see it with fresh eyes – as if with the eyes of an alien, who has just landed on Earth. It requires hanging around places, observing what’s going on, and making systematic observations, sometimes using a ‘schedule’ or list to guide us. We look at patterns of behaviour, and we try to understand the underlying reasons for the patterning. We also need to develop ‘semiotic’ skills to read the visual, verbal and aural information that surrounds us. Increasingly we need to apply these skills to virtual communication and ‘being’ on the web.
Ten years ago, I published my first extensive book on intercultural language education, mainly as a means of trying to understand it myself. I was living in Brazil when I wrote the first draft, and I was trying to synthesise the various encounters and readings that had informed my thinking a the time. Since then I’ve written and co-written two more books on the subject (one a resource book for teachers; one a co-written book on language and medical education), as well as numerous chapters and articles, and I have tentatively agreed to revisit the 2003 volume soon, to rework it for a second edition. Coincidentally, I am back in Brazil, so the omens appear to be good. The world has changed a lot in the last ten years – and I know more – and less! – than I used to. So this blog is a way of revisiting some of my earlier assumptions and addressing some newer issues too.
I still think that ‘loafing and lurking’ is a core skill in intercultural language education, though, and I will finish this first blog with a brief classroom activity that helps develop this skill. More can be found in my resource book Intercultural Language Activities, where a more extended version of this activity can be found.
Often, when we are in an unfamiliar situation, we are not confounded so much by the language that people use, but by the behaviour that is expected of us in that situation. I always feel a heightened sense of anxiety when visiting a barber-shop or hairdressing salon in a foreign country. What am I expected to do? What will happen to me? In Sao Paulo, one of my most startling experiences was when the hairdresser and her assistant started plucking hair from my ears with pincers – they had warned me, but I hadn’t quite understood their warning… So, to explore hairdressing culture, beginning at home, we can ask our learners to ‘loaf and lurk’ when they next visit the salon or barber’s. They might consider the following questions:
* Do men and women use the same salon or barber-shop? Are there facilities for children?
* What kind of routine, exactly, do men and women expect to encounter in the hairdresser’s? Is hair washed before and/or after it is cut? What are the styling options? Can men be shaved, or have their beards trimmed? Is hair removed from ears and/or noses? Can you have your nails manicured? Can you expect a massage?
* How many people attend the customer? A hairdresser alone, or an assistant too? Do both get tipped? How much?
* What kind of ‘small talk’ is expected when you talk to the hairdresser? Do you need to be able to say how you spent your weekend, or where you are planning your next holiday? Is gossip about public celebrities expected?
The learners can share their expectations in class, then go and observe a hairdresser in operation. They can then report their findings and role-play ‘hairdressing encounters’ in which participants make appropriate – or inappropriate – requests.
Getting your hair cut is a small slice of everyday life, but there are many cultural variations on hairdressing behaviour, and our expectations do differ across cultures. We can either learn a massive inventory of possible communicative interactions or – through ‘loafing and lurking’ – we can learn to be cultural explorers, sensitised to possible difference, and primed to act accordingly.

Bassnett, S. (2003). Studying British Cultures. Routledge.
Byram, M., & Morgan, C. (1994). Teaching-and-learning language-and-culture. Multilingual matters.
Corbett, J. (2003). An intercultural approach to English language teaching. Multilingual Matters.
Corbett, J. (2010). Intercultural language activities. Cambridge University Press