Words of the year – 2022

Gaslighting? Really? This word that was cool in my childhood appears to have been resurrected by the current generation of internet and social medias users. Thus, Merriam-Webster has recently crowned gaslighting their word of the year. Just when I was about to slam this choice as a tired word merely enjoying a modern audience, I stumbled across this use by Hadley Freeman in The London Times:

‘…to tell women that not accepting biological males in their spaces puts trans people at risk is outrageous gaslighting: women are far more likely than trans women to be killed by male violence in this country, but such facts have suddenly become very unfashionable in progressive circles.’

Perhaps gaslighting isn’t so bad after all.

The Oxford English Dictionary has taken a different approach for their word of the year, having invited the public to vote from a shortlist of three, presumably arrived at via a scholarly analysis of corpora of written and spoken language produced over the past year. A far cry from the subjective, though amusing, lexicography of Samuel Johnson. The OED’s three runners-up were: metaverse, the hashtag #IStandWith and the phrase goblin mode. Since metaverse conjures up images of a self-obsessed Mark Zuckerberg, it didn’t get my vote. The hashtag #IStandWith certainly is a testament of our time of activism, movements shared online and individuals making their mark. Cute and less important is goblin mode, which denotes ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations’ – a phrase apparently popularised by post-pandemic attitudes to work and socialising. The voting closed on Friday 2 December, and the winner was announced yesterday as goblin mode. It could have been worse, but I’m left feeling outside of popular vernaculars – again.

Collins English Dictionary chose permacrisis as its word of the year. Apparently, this word has been used a great deal this year by the British media and economists to describe Liz Truss’s short reign as PM, along with the state of the UK government and the Brexit-whipped economy. I can’t argue with that even though I did have a problem at first using ‘perma’ with ‘crisis.’ But Collins’ lexicographers have explained that away: ‘While ‘perma-’ could not logically be applied to the original sense of ‘the turning point of a disease,’ it can be applied to this secondary meaning without being a contradiction.’ Yep, life in Britain these days can be described as a permacrisis.

Ah, the joy of neologisms.

Apparently, a goblin.

The UK Government – In other words

It’s been a good week for adjectives. The abrupt end of Liz Truss’s premiership, positioning the country for its third Prime Minister in two months and worryingly fifth Chancellor (finance minister) in four months, has given political writers and pundits plenty to say. But what do you say when a country and its leading political party are in meltdown that doesn’t sound cliched or as inarticulate as pub-speak on a Saturday night? I was hoping for some colourful metaphors but have mostly encountered adjectives.

I’m not a great fan of adjectives. Their overuse plagues student writing, genre fiction and celebrity memoires. But today I make an exception, noting that the weekend papers have resurrected the adjective in good form – at least for now. Among those used to describe the actions of Liz Truss and her cabinet include ill-fated, calamitous, demented, brexity, Gonzo, eye-popping, chaos-churning and career-serving (though obviously careers at the top of government have crashed to an ignominious end, these clown ministers will likely have high-paying jobs in the private sector for years to come). The best stacked-modifier award goes to Patrick Cockburn of The Independent who described Boris Johnson, who is bizarrely a contender for PM again, as having a career with ‘a comic opera Gilbert and Sullivan feel to it.’

But it hasn’t all been about adjectives. The -ism nouns haven’t done too badly either. Several pundits have stepped back from the immediate circus that is the British government to ask what this means for the ideologies that have gained prominence in the West in recent decades. Could the fall of Britain in such a way trigger the end of neoliberalism, of libertarianism, of populism, of nationalism? As these ideas have been put into practice and have disastrously failed, one does wonder. Writing in The Independent, Adam Boulton, remarked that the Conservative party, which is likely to reign for another two years, will continue with its factionalism and the instability it creates. That is, some of the aforementioned isms aren’t likely to go away overnight, or quietly for that matter.

Oh, yes, I did stumble across one metaphor from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer that brought a smile to my face for its sentiment as well as its creativity: ‘… the polls suggest the Tories will be disembowelled by the voters when they get their hands on them at the polling stations.’ Nothing beats a good metaphor.

Larry the cat, who lives at 10 Downing Street has outlasted six Prime Ministers.

Dark Tourism

Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’

My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.

More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.

Mary Beard among the human remains of Pompeii

This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.

There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.

Putin’s Words

“‘When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”’ I’ve been thinking about this well-worn quote from Lewis Carroll in recent days as I listen to the verbal gymnastics performed by Vladimir Putin.

Much of what Putin is saying about Ukraine can be found in the bully’s handbook as well as the propagandist’s handbook: Create a false narrative that makes you look like a victim and that leaves you with no other choice but to attack. Putin has claimed that Ukraine is committing ‘genocide’ against the Russian diaspora in the separatists’ regions of the country, and that his military actions will ‘liberate’ the people. This might at first sound like reckless hyperbole, but I think Putin has chosen his words carefully. ‘Genocide’ induces a heady mix of anger and fear, while ‘liberation’ is what most of us desire in some form or another. He’s manipulating the most basic of human instincts. The falsity of Putin’s claims doesn’t matter. He knows if something is said enough, there are people out there who will believe it. Trump’s ludicrous claims of a rigged presidential election are a case in point.

I’ve also been struck by Putin’s characterisation of the Ukrainian government as a ‘gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.’ Apparently for Putin drug addicts are not only a blight on society, but they should be feared. I see drug addicts as substance abusers in the same way I would regard alcoholics, people struggling with psychological and/or societal ills. The real danger is the drug lord and those who aid and abet the distribution network.

As for neo-Nazis, or just plain Nazis, this word has the currency of being both powerful and meaningless at the same time. The Nazis of the Weimar Republic were anti-Semitic, racists, homophobic thugs responsible for one of the worst acts of genocide of recent centuries. Since I’m not hearing or reading about anything like this taking place in Ukraine, and certainly not under the auspices of the Ukrainian government, I have to assume that Putin (if he were being truthful) must be using the word Nazi in its other sense. I remember as a child thinking my older sister was a Nazi because of the way she ordered me around when it came to making my bed and washing the dishes. Perhaps Putin is using Nazis to mean something else, something between the literal/historical meaning and the anodyne sense for a bossy person. If Putin is calling the Ukrainian government authoritarian or dictatorial, again he’s missing the mark as by all other accounts, Ukraine is a liberal democracy.

I started with Humpty Dumpty, so I’ll end with a metonymic meaning of a humpty-dumpty. Today a humpty-dumpty is a person or thing that once destroyed cannot be restored. In this battle for Ukraine, I’m seeing humpty-dumpties on both sides. While I relish the idea that this will ultimately be Putin’s downfall, I also fear for the Ukrainian people who won’t be able to put their lives back together again.

Everyone’s Talking Ulysses

As this month marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s impossible to avoid.

My confession: I’ve read it one and two thirds’ times. That is, I first tackled this 700+page tome as an undergraduate in Chicago and failed to finish it – this is what happens when you work fulltime and take on a full schedule of classes. Self-pity aside, I managed two thirds of the book and with fastidious notes from the prof’s lectures, I partly bluffed my way through an essay exam, emerging with a B+. Fast forward to some 25 years later, I was in my forties and decided it was time to read the book cover-to-cover, including the 200+ pages of annotations at the back.

Such a reading exercise is hard work, simply because so much is involved in following the wandering thoughts and observations of Leopold Bloom and in understanding the political and social references of the time (those annotations come in handy). Ezra Pound described Ulysses as an ‘encyclopedia in the form of farce,’ and it is encyclopedic in that it covers a mass of subjects and ideas. But I don’t think ‘farce’ does it justice – the humour in Ulysses is at times situational, but is more often subtle and satirical.

Even though getting through Ulysses is an undertaking, it is worth it, especially in middle age. My undergraduate self couldn’t have possibly appreciated the nuance of emotions and the reflections on life:

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.’

The 25-year gap between my first and second readings was filled with, among other things, living in the UK and reading other modernist writers, such as Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. While I recall my younger self appreciating the turns of phrase and the love of language that trickles throughout the novel, I value it more from the vantage point of being a literary stylistician, noticing the occasional wink to the reader.

Would I read it again? People certainly do. I remember the poet Anthony Thwaite telling me that he read it about once every decade. For the true Ulysses aficionados, there’s the Twitter account UlyssesReader, which tweets out quotes from the book every ten minutes – it’s a corpus-fed bot. Serious fans make the pilgrimage to Dublin for the Bloomsday celebrations every 16th of June, the day the story takes place. It all sounds like good fun, but when it comes to rereading, I’d rather reread Joyce’s short story collection, The Dubliners, with one of my favourite stories, ‘Eveline.’ Or better still, read something for the first time. There’s Finnegan’s Wake, a Joyce book I found unreadable when I tried it some 30 years ago – it makes Ulysses read like a child’s nursey rhyme – and there it sits in my Kindle, waiting for me.

My Year of Journaling

You might recall the start of 2021, I initiated an experiment in writing in a journal on a daily basis. No more sporadic journal writing in waves. This new regime was to give some rigour to my writing practice. I did stick with it, but a couple of times a month, I found myself too busy to write and just completing the daily exercise with a sentence or two, usually about how busy I was that day.

After 365 journal entries, I have 82 pages filled with a total of 41,225 words. That sounded impressive until I did the maths and realised I only wrote on average 110 words per day. When I was working on books, I kept my momentum by writing 5000 words per week (roughly 750 per day). I console myself with the thought that journaling wasn’t the only writing I did in 2021. There were these blogs, a couple of new essays, two articles for East Anglia Bylines and editorial work on a short story (published in September) and two academic articles (published in June and October).

What was this journal about? As a journal intime, it was about me, my feelings and my ideas for writing. Looking back at the year, the journal entries often referred to Covid and how I was feeling about it, or how the government restrictions, cancelled events and rescheduled flights interrupted my life. Interestingly, the words Covid, pandemic and test(s) didn’t even make the top 100 words on the frequency list – I uploaded the file into a concordancer as geeky linguists like me do. There were, however, a fair share of implicit references to it ‘things being as they are these days.’

Among the highest frequency words from the year of daily journaling had to do with writing itself – write, wrote, writing, blog and article all made regular appearances. Related to this was the word time – that showed up big and bold on a word cloud that I generated of the journal file (see below). These word clouds exclude pronouns and function words (such as determiners and conjunctions).

Word cloud of my 2021 journal

Back to the concordancer, which includes all words in a text, of those 41,000 plus words, the most frequent one was the pronoun I. No surprise there as journals are home of the Narrative I, which is also the Authorial I. As I was writing to me, and most certainly not to anyone else, I felt free to work through writing ideas, including the ridiculous and unpublishable – an exercise of creative muscle-stretching. Above all else, I was free to say what I thought, and the results often surprised me. These deeply private thoughts included affirmations, self-loathing, and the recording and interpreting of dreams. The act of writing such thoughts has been psychotherapeutic to say the least.

For these reasons, I’m continuing in 2022 with daily journaling, and I can highly recommend it – and not just for people who write.

Meritocracy: the self and the social

While I’ve read some fine books in 2021, my favourite this year has to be Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. Central to this book is the idea that thinking we live in a meritocracy – an idea much-used by politicians – has created a false sense of deserving and has alienated the unsuccessful. Sandel points out that many who have not received the rewards of their hard work, in particular those who have been most effected by the economic crises of recent decades, blame their governments and/or immigrants, giving rise to populists’ movements in democracies such as the UK and America. Reading this book made me re-examine my own thinking on meritocracy and how it has changed over the years.

When I was a child, I believed that if I tried really hard at something I would reach my goals. Watching Jimmy Stewart films and being told by teachers and parents that anything was possible if you worked for it, I was a product of my culture. Yet, I knew even then that there were limits. I was never going to be Miss America (because I didn’t have the looks), nor was I going to be a professional baseball player (because I was a girl). By the time I was a teenager in the 70s, the women’s lib movement made me all too aware that adult life was not played on a level field and that if I succeeded at anything, I would be paid less than my male counterparts.  

While the bubble was deflating, there was still enough air in it for me to believe that hard work and ambition would have their rewards. Living in predominately white, working and lower-middle class America, believing in meritocracy was a default position. On top of that, I was caught up in the wave of aspirational coaching and new age spirituality espousing the notion that positive thinking yielded positive results. My reading list in those days featured self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Louise Hay. It was all about self-improvement – it was all about me, me, me…

Although I found such thoughts empowering, there was a flipside to all of this: that failure was something I projected on to the situation. I would never blame a government or social structures – that seemed a sign of weakness, blaming others as a child would. By my mid-twenties, I easily blamed myself for the jobs I didn’t get, the publications not realized and for times of being negatively targeted by family members or colleagues. Likewise, when I did achieve and accomplish something I owed it to myself (and sometimes luck). I was being rewarded for my labours and for jumping over obstacles. It was still all about me, me, me…

Over the years, the more I talked to friends, the more books I read in politics and sociolinguistics, the more films and stage plays I saw, the more my thinking included how the power of social structures, the media, advertising and popular culture, along with money of course, dictates who achieves and who does not. Sandel’s book deconstructs our so-called meritocracy in a similar way. I was particularly pleased to see how he uses corpus linguistics to illustrate points on language used by politicians and advertisers to sell the idea that we live in or could live in a meritocracy if we vote a certain way or do certain things.

But Sandel has done more than just validate my own thinking. He has made me aware of the judgements I have made in recent years about the less educated, noting how they tended to vote more for Brexit and Trump. Sandel points out that a university degree is on the one hand not always given to the smartest or most deserving and is on the other hand an entrée to the jobs our society places more value on. He also looks at education in the climate change debate, again making me think differently. Politicians on America’s far right who are climate change deniers are just as educated as those who believe that climate change is real and human made. Both sides of the argument have used their schooling and analytical skills to justify beliefs they already had.

As 2021 winds down, my thanks to Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel

Allyship – Word of the year 2021

Dictionary.com has announced that allyship is its word of the year. A word I have never seen before, let alone this year. I was expecting vaccine, variant, renewables or some neologism, like antivaxxer.

According to Dicitonary.com, allyship is a noun referring to ‘the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.’ It’s a straightforward blended word, combining the word ‘ally’ with the morpheme ‘ship.’

Although allyship is new to Dictionary.com, its origins go back to the mid-1800s, but that was in a broader sense, a group of allied organisations. The modern sense used by Dictionary.com can be traced to the 1940s but didn’t come into more regular use (apparently, even though I missed it) until some 15 years ago.

These lexicographers go on to say, ‘Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 – and crucially, how the public processed them.’ For me, recent examples of this include white protesters at the Black Lives Matter marches and heterosexuals across the world actively supporting gay rights in Ghana, Uganda, Russia and Poland. Though some in these pools of partisans have been accused of virtue-signalling (another good word), I’d like to think that the vast majority are genuine.

But I was put in my place when I did my own corpus search on allyship and found an article from The Guardian. Questioning the allyship of whites who support black causes, Kelsey Smoot had this to say:

‘The truth is, genuine allyship is not kindness, it is not a charitable act, nor is it even a personal commitment to hold anti-racist ideals – it is a fall from grace. Real allyship enacted by White Americans, with a clear objective to make equitable the lived experiences of individuals across racial lines, means a willingness to lose things. Not just the extra $50 in one’s monthly budget by way of donating to an organization working towards racial justice. I mean palpable, incalculable loss.’

Smoot raises some good points about empathy and activism. Nevertheless, I like the social justice flavour of allyship and might start using it myself for actions I think are genuinely deserving. This might be a tall order.

Dying languages, changing climates

With the recent publication of ‘Native Speaker 2,’a few people have asked me about the inspiration behind this story of a feisty nonagenarian who is one of the last speakers of an American Indian language. It was loosely based on a talk that I heard at a linguistics conference back in 1995. When an old American Indian woman spoke in a quivering voice of her sister’s death marking the demise of their language – with no one to speak to, a language doesn’t live – there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Some 25 years later, the emotion of her words stays with me. My retelling added some humour in the characterisation of the aged woman, and I used the Wintu language group of Californian languages as the language on the verge of extinction. My gratitude to Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire, a highly readable book about Californian Indian Languages.

Dying and extinct languages are undoubtedly one of the many consequences of colonialism. One of the other consequences is that countries colonised in the modern era (16th century to the present) are more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This has been highlighted these last few weeks with coverage of COP26, where indigenous peoples and their supporters had a more notable presence than at previous COPs. One native Brazilian, protesting against the destruction of rainforests, also made the point that the rich nations that colonised the southern hemisphere have caused most of the devastation to our planet and are still reaping the rewards.

endangered languages
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Okay, I was talking about California earlier, a rich state in rich country (speaking in broad terms). America has been both colonised and coloniser. Though it could come down to the appellations, Native/Indian American and just American. Nevertheless, the cultural and linguistic side of these dual roles, coloniser and colonised, has been surreptitious and slow, taking place over decades and centuries. But on the environmental side, the spirit of both roles can be seen in the damage the US has brought upon the world, including itself, in my lifetime. America has become the bully who self harms.

On a lighter and nerdier note, according to linguists and anthropologists, the relationship between climate and language has other direct links. Differences across languages can be explained in part by different regional climates. For example, languages spoken in warm, wet and heavily wooded areas, such as in the Asian-Indian subcontinent, tend to use more vowels and fewer consonants. At the other extreme, languages used in arid, desert-like regions are more consonant heavy. One of the explanations for this has to do with the effects of dryness on the vocal cords (all vowel sounds are voiced, involving vibration of the vocal cords).

The conference I went to back in the nineties was my first and last native American language conference. As fascinating as it was, I was among the few non-indigenous people in attendance. The linguistic field of language documentation for dying languages had moved on and was starting to hand over the reins to those whose ancestors spoke the native languages. Although people were welcoming, I felt like an intruder, a descendant of contemptible European colonisers. I only wish now that my younger self realised the full extent of the harm of colonisation, damage that goes far beyond languages and cultures.

The Stories We Tell: Some Thoughts on Narratives

Loads can and has been said about narratives, with books and academic journals devoted exclusively to the topic. I’ve been thinking about the utilitarian side of narratives. In Gaia Vince’s Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time, the power of stories is seen as the creator of languages and communities. This is familiar territory in anthropology and linguistics (I’m thinking Labov (1969), Prince (1988), Hardy (2005) and the writings of Margaret Mead and Mary Douglas). What I found more illuminating was this anecdote:

“In a 1944 study in the United States, 34 college students were shown a short animation in which two triangles and a circle moved across the screen and a rectangle remained stationary at the side. When asked what they saw, 33 of the 34 students anthropomorphized the shapes and created a narrative: The circle was ‘worried’, the ‘little triangle’ was an ‘innocent young thing’, the big triangle was ‘blinded by rage and frustration’. Only one student recorded that all he saw were geometric shapes on a screen.”

Vince explains this as the brain devising narratives with actors and story patterns where none exist in order to make sense of things. I do wonder to what extent this is cognitive and innate or behavioural and learned given that so much of our learning in early childhood involves anthropomorphizing animals and objects.

On the flipside of this, researchers across a range of disciplines have used storytelling to encourage subjects to talk about their experiences. One of my former students researched the attitudes of Saudi women in higher education by asking them to fill in a narrative for which my student researcher provided the frame. This proved far more fruitful than interviews, where these women gave brief answers and appeared reluctant to speak about their workplace and culture.

Arguably, some of the appeal of Twitter (excluding the years when it was hijacked by a US president) and other social media is the way that they provide a stage for people to tell the stories of their lives. Sociolinguist Ruth Page covers this in her book Stories in Social Media: Identity and Interaction. Having studied these online communications as a linguist myself, I find interesting the use of common knowledge and public discourse in these often highly elliptical narratives, especially those limited by the number of characters allowed. That is, what isn’t said is as important as what is. Since understanding and communicating with stories appears to be human, perhaps too is the need use ellipsis, creating gaps in stories that we know our audience can fill.

Given the ubiquity and usefulness of storytelling, it’s a shame the word ‘narrative’ has recently taken on a negative connotation as an arm of propaganda. This politician or that group creating its own narratives which the media – mainstream and social – start to follow and build upon. Do I need to give examples? Nope, I’ll let you fill in the gaps.