Vocabulary and usage notes for 2015
wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
2015 was a particularly rich year for me in terms of vocabulary. More days than not, I felt compelled to research or muse about at least one word I came across in a document I was translating or editing or a newspaper, book, report, or online bulletin. Although German is not one of my working languages, this year’s list contains a number of German words, undoubtedly a reflection of the leadership role that Germany assumed this year on issues such as refugee relief and climate change. In reviewing my notebooks, I was surprised to see how many economic terms and neologisms describing behavior disorders I had jotted down over the past twelve months. The following is a selection of words that were new to me, piqued my curiosity, or struck me as being particularly relevant last year. I hope that a few will be of interest to the subscribers to this blog and WordPress readers in general.
A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.
Airmageddon and airpocalypse cropped up repeatedly in newspapers this year. One article published by The Guardian on the dense smog registered this year in China contained the interesting observation that many of the residents in large Chinese cities “in denial” prefer to refer to the sooty air they are forced to breathe as haze (wumai) rather than pollution (wuran). For those interested in knowing what airmaggedon sounds like, DJ Brian Foo has created experimental, data-driven compositions using fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) readings taken in Beijing over a period of several years.
ASBO is short for “anti-social behavior order,” a civil order introduced in Great Britain during the Blair administration to limit and discourage acts of anti-social behavior that fall short of being criminal offenses but threaten social harmony. These run the gamut from littering, loitering, spitting, and not picking up after one’s dog to public drunkenness and illegal dumping. A CRASBO is a similar type of order issued in response to anti-social behavior related to a criminal act.
When I see the Spanish word alunizaje I immediately think moon landing. Last September, however, I came across it in a context linked to a secondary, but very common, use of luna (moon) to describe everything from large panes of window glass, the windshields of vehicles, and full-length mirrors to tiny watch crystals and eyeglass lenses. The alunizaje referred to in the newspaper article I was reading is a particular form of breaking and entering that involves smashing the window of a bank or business, either by tossing a heavy object through it or by ramming it with a car. An alucinero is a thief specializing in this sort of breaking and entering.
I looked up bail-in while reading about the Greek financial crisis. According to several sources, the term was first used by The Economist to describe a situation in which a borrower’s creditors are assume some of the burden by means of partial write-offs.
BAT and BREF stand for best available techniques and best available techniques reference document respectively. BREFs contain specific information prepared by the European Environment Agency on industrial processes and their impact on the environment. The EEA’s mandate is to help EU institutions and the governments of EU member states make informed decisions, integrate environmental considerations into economic policy and move towards sustainability.
Bigorexia, formally known as muscle dysmorphia, is an anxiety order suffered by people who perceive themselves as being puny even though they are big and muscular. According to one source, about one out of ten men who work out in gyms have this condition, which can lead to the abuse of anabolic steroids and supplements.
Binge-watching is the Collins Dictionary’s 2015 word of year. A World Wide Words post about the announcement notes that binge is a Midlands word for a nineteenth-century method of rendering casks and tubs watertight by soaking them in water. By extension, anyone who got sloshed was described as binging or going on a binge.
Alex Salmond sparked a controversy and my curiosity when he publicly suggested the late Labour MP Tony Benn must be “birling in his grave” in reaction to a pro-war speech delivered by his son in the British House of Commons. “Birling in one’s grave” turns out to be the Scottish equivalent to the more common evocation of someone spinning or turning in the same cramped quarters.
I was a bit surprised to see the Spanish word bracero in an English-language article posted on socialeurope.eu. However, a rapid Internet search confirmed the word is used in US English to describe “a Mexican laborer admitted legally into the US for a short period to perform seasonal, usually agricultural, labor.”
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.
Some of the most fanciful-sounding terms I stumbled upon last year had to do with the strait-laced subject of economics. Cold compression is a term used in Germany to refer to bracket creep, a phenomenon that occurs when workers lose purchasing power as their salaries keep pace with inflation but tax brackets remain the same.
A commodity is said to be in contango when the price of futures contracts for it is greater than the spot price —a negative scenario for long-term investors. According to Investopedia, “The opposite of contango is known as normal backwardation. A market is in backwardation when the futures price is below the expected future spot price for a particular commodity. This is favorable for investors who have long positions since they want the futures price to rise.” Fascinated? ETF.com offers an online crib sheet about both concepts.
Then there is deflationary boom, a rare combination of rising economic activity and falling inflation, which according to some is theoretically not supposed to happen but may be the byproduct of advanced manufacturing technology and globalization.
Diflouromethylornithine (DFMO) is a word we may be hearing more about in the future. It is the name of a small-molecule drug now being investigated in clinical trials as a cancer treatment that scientists believe might be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease as well.
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.
Energiewende is a German word that was tossed about frequently this year in texts emphasizing Germany’s lead in the area of national transition to renewable energy.
eTwinning is an ICT-based initiative launched in 2005 to promote collaborations between schoolteachers and students throughout the European Union. As of the end of 2014, it had facilitated the development of more than 5,462 inter-school projects. It might have been conceived for kids, but I love its online language quiz designed to test students’ knowledge of EU languages. Question one is “What is the origin of the greeting ciao?” Think hard. You have three choices: 1) It is a derivative of Caius, a common Latin name; 2) It was the call shouted out by Venetian gondoliers to avoid collisions with other gondoliers when the Venetian canals were shrouded in fog; or 3) it came from the Venetian phrase “sciào vostro,” which literally translated means “I am your slave” or “at your service.” I managed to get that question right but failed to correctly locate the birthplace of Weiner Schnitzel.
Fossick is a term used in Australia and New Zealand to refer to recreational sift mining. Speakers of Australian and New Zealand English use the word to express the idea of “rummaging” or “ferreting something out.”
Take note: girls who climb trees and play soccer are not tomboys; they are gender-nonconformist or gender expansive young people.
On the heels of the Oxford Dictionary’s choice of a pictograph (the “face with tears of joy” emoji) as its 2015 word of the year, the Oxford University Press declared a symbol (the hashtag) as its “children’s word” of the year. According Vineeta Gupta, head of children’s dictionaries at OUP, the humble hashtag, which was selected on the basis of an analysis of over 120,000 entries submitted to a young people’s short story competition, is being used by children for dramatic effect. Two examples: “She then picked it up and ran out of the cave… the cave exploded and she didn’t look back at it exploding, she just kept on walking forward # super cool.” And, “The only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to get eaten (# frightened!!!).”
All words are pegs to hang ideas on.
Henry Ward Beecher
INDC or intended nationally determined contributions are formal but voluntary pledges countries make to lower the CO2 emissions. The degree to which countries honor the pledges they made at the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference will determine whether or not global warming will remain below the +2o C threshold scientists have indicated we cannot surpass without triggering global climate catastrophe.
Intrapreneur, a portmanteau word created by adding the prefix intra (meaning within) and entrepreneur, describes an employee granted the freedom to take risks and act independently within a corporate framework.
Following an international tendency to stretch the limits of what can be considered a word, Je suis Charlie was runner-up on the Society for the German Language’s list of top words of 2015. Not surprisingly, Flütchlinge (refugees) took the top honors this year. Another complete sentence (Angela Merkel’s Wir shaffen das) placed tenth.
The word Kanzlerinnendämmerung rippled across the front page of European newspapers last fall in allusion to the possibility that German Chancellor Angel Merkel might have undermined her ten-year political mandate by allowing Syrian refugees to pour across the German border. However, that has yet to happen. In what could well be considered the quote of the year, she repeatedly assured her critics and the German public, “Wir schaffen das,” (we can do this). This month she was named Time magazine’s person of the year.
Kiezdeutsch is a non-standard form of German spoken in immigrant communities characterized by what is described in a fascinating Atlantic article on the subject as a resourceful, if grammatically incorrect, ironing out of “the kink in Standard German” that requires a speaker to say “tomorrow go I” instead of “tomorrow I go”.
KPI stands for key performance indicator. Although KPIs are used to measure all types of performance, it usually crops up in my work as a mechanism for measuring a company’s ecological footprint.
We have too many high sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them.
Laïcité and liberté d’expression (secularism and freedom of expression), the French Festival de Mot’s two top choices for word of the year, were chosen by on the basis of an international poll in which people from 118 countries participated.
The micro-levy is a bright new approach to funding social programs born of a conversation between U.N. Undersecretary General Philippe Douste-Blazy, Jacques Chirac and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva about the growing gap between the rich and poor. The idea is incredibly simple: tag a small surcharge on certain routine transactions in countries that lack development funding and use the money to address that country’s health and social problems. The revenues from UNITAID, a program introduced in 2006 based on the micro-levy concept, are now being used to pay for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis treatment programs. Last September marked the debut of UNITLIFE, a similar mechanism the U.N. hopes will be applied to sales of oil, gas, gold, and other prime materials. According to Douste-Blazy, “Multiple African countries have already agreed to the initiative of using a small solidarity levy in extractive industries to combat chronic malnutrition. In the oil industry, for example, the sum collected would be a nominal $0.10 per barrel of oil. If expanded to eight African countries, the 10-cent oil levy would generate $100-200 million per year, and a worldwide roll-out would generate at least $1.64 billion a year.” If pledges are fulfilled, this could be a game changer.
MIT has recently announced that online students will now have the opportunity to earn an MIT micro-master’s degree certificate. Professor George Sieman, an early believer in open online education and the person who coined the term massive open online course or MOOC, applauded MIT’s move and described it a reflection of “an accessibility mind shift.”
Necropolitics, a term coined by Achille Mbembe to describe the political use of social, political, and physical terror, was used frequently by writers and thinkers embracing very different ideologies during 2015.
O2O, or “online to offline” is a marketing strategy that involves identifying potential clients online via email messages or Internet advertising and subsequently convincing them to visit bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. Customer incentives to go O2O include the possibility of picking up items purchased online at a local store rather than waiting for them to be shipped to a home address and/or returning items purchased online rather than sending them back via a courier or postal service.
When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves
I came across the word pancalism while reading Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. It is a term coined by James Mark Baldwin in a lengthy work on the nature and development of thought and meaning. Eco employed it to refer to a medieval belief that “the entire cosmos was inherently beautiful.”
While looking up information about Jacob Seisenegger’s and Titian’s full-length portraits of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, I discovered that the clinical term for what is popularly known as the Hapsburg Lip or Jaw is prognathism, a condition characterized by an severe underbite caused by a misalignment of the lower jaw. A comparison of these two nearly identical portraits of the emperor reveals that Titian tried a bit harder to dissimulate his subject’s prominent jawline.
Prosopography is the study of common characteristics and behavior patterns within a specific historical group. It is particularly useful to researchers attempting to learn more about pre-modern societies and other groups for whom there are few or no written records.
Quiddity is a term used in scholastic philosophy to describe the properties that a particular thing or person shares with others of its kind. Its diametric opposite is haecceity—the quality of “thisness” that, according to medieval scholastics, distinguished an individual from all others in its species or category.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations contains what may be the most famous quodlibet in classical music history: the playful intertwining of two popular songs of the era “Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest (I have not been with you for such a long time) and “Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben” (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away). Apparently “Kraut and Ruben” means “confused jumble” in colloquial German. Quodlibet is Latin for “whatever you wish”. According to Wikipedia, this crowd-pleasing conceit was known as far back as the fifteenth century and in the Renaissance “the ability to juxtapose several pre-existing melodies . . . was considered the ultimate mastery of counterpoint.” A variation of the quodlibet known as ensalada was extremely popular in the sixteenth century Spain.
The Fundación del Español Urgente (Fundeu) chose refugiado as its word of the year for 2015 in response to the ongoing debate regarding the terms refugee and immigrant. Fundeu was ahead of the curve when it declared escrache the Spanish word of the year in 2013. Shaming, its equivalent in English, did not appear on English lists until this year.
I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.
Retruécano is a poetic synonym for the Spanish word quiasmo, a literary device known in English as chiasmus. Although not many English speakers are familiar with the term chiasmus, most know at least a few examples of chiastic structures by heart. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and “Foul is fair and fair is foul” in Macbeth are examples as are John F. Kennedy’s memorable exhortations “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” and “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Although plotted out in reverse, both the thrust and chiastic structure of the three musketeers’ motto “Un pour tous, tous pour un” remained intact in the English translation “All for one, and one for all.”
Luckily for that translator, Dumas had not embedded his chiasmus in the elegant corset of a Petrarchan sonnet as writers during the Spanish Golden Age so often did. The rhyme structure of the Petrarchan sonnet, which follows an abba abba pattern in the first eight lines but shifts to a cde cde or cdc dcd scheme for the last six, is almost impossible to preserve intact in a translation from a Romance language into English. Sonnets a writer has adorned further with a chiasmus leave a translator with little room to maneuver. He or she must parse the poem line by line from a number of angles and make some very hard choices between style and meaning. Willis Barnstone went for meaning when he rendered the opening lines of Quevedo’s “Epístola satírica y censoria” ¿Siempre se ha de sentir lo que se dice? /¿Nunca se ha de decir lo que se siente? as Will one always regret what one says? / Or will no one every say what one feels? Alan S. Trueblood, on the other hand, managed to retain a semblance of the rhyme in first four lines of the following sonnet penned by Sor Juana de la Cruz, translating En perseguirme, mundo, ¿qué interesas?/ ¿En que te ofendo, cuando solo intento / poner bellezas en mi entendimiento / y no mi entendimiento en la bellezas? as World, in hounding me, what do you gain? / How can it harm you if I choose, astutely, / rather to stock my mind with things of beauty, / than waste its stock on every beauty’s claim?
How did socialism find its way onto this list? Because it was one of a series of words ending with the suffix –ism, Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2015. Peter Sokolowski, M-W’s editor-at-large notes that online searches related to socialism rose 169% this year. As I was writing this entry, I received a Daily Writing Tips bulletin that traced the use of “ism” as a noun back to 1680, the year that a critic supposedly referred to Milton as “the great Hieroglyphick of Jesuitism, Puritanism, Quaquerism, and of all Isms from Schism.”
SDG stands for sustainable development goal. Although launched with less fanfare than its earlier millennium development goals initiative, the United Nations has recently announced an ambitious new seventeen-point action plan it is hoped governments, businesses, and civic organizations will support and implement over the next fifteen years.
As an American colleague so aptly noted in a recent email, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh has finally given his writers permission to use they as a gender-neutral alternative to he and she. Will other authorities follow suit? The fact is that it works in some cases and sounds just dreadful in others.
If the word doesn’t exist, invent it; but first be sure it doesn’t exist.
Ungoverned space is a controversial term used by certain US think tanks to describe geographic areas under little or no state control that could pose risks to global order and security if used as safe havens for terrorist groups. Needless to say, what qualifies (or not) as an ungoverned space or a terrorist group depends greatly on what side of a given political fence one is observing the world from.
Voluntourism didn’t come close to qualifying for word of the year, but it did make the Oxford Dictionary new word list released in June. The correct adjective form is voluntourism (as in voluntourism programs).
Wet drought is a new term being used to describe a severe shift in weather patterns in the State of Washington where runoff from seasonally melting snow pack has been replaced by rain. Moisture that should be falling in the form of snow and serving as a frozen mountain reservoir that gradually melts as the growing season progresses is now falling as rain that quickly disappears into Puget Sound. As the Natural Resources Defense Council explains, “The line between snow and rain is thin but absolute. We’re all about to find out how much difference a few degrees can make.”
Xe is a gender-neutral third-person singular subject pronoun proposed as an alternative to gendered pronouns he and she. Should it catch on, prepare yourself for the challenge of learning its declensions. As an object it should be styled xem, the possessive form is theoretically either xyr or xir and the reflective form xyrself or xirself. This blog provides a tip sheet for those who want to be ahead of the curve on this issue.
A yardang is a formation created by wind erosion. The spectacular example below is in the Tassili n’Ajjer National Park in Algeria.
Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.
Zipf’s Law is named after George Zipf, a linguist who discerned a stable hierarchical pattern within natural language corpus in the 1940s that has since been applied to other concepts such as income and population distribution. In a nutshell, Zipf established that the most frequently occurring word within a corpus appears approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times the third most frequent word, and so on down the scale. Somewhat mysteriously, the same pattern emerges in rankings of things as diverse as television audience rankings and rankings of cities by population.
Style and usage notes for 2015
Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by it.
Bill Walsh, copy editor of The Washington Post and author of several books on style including the delightful Lapsing into a Comma, announced a few new style rules during 2015. Five years after the Associated Press and two years after the New York Times, Walsh has decided that no hyphen was needed in the word email. It was one of several words he decided had started to look odd to readers. Another was “web site,” which almost everyone has converted, at least mentally, into the single word “website.” The name of Wal-mart Stores Inc. has been giving copy editors headaches since the company dropped the hyphen in its logo in 2008. Walsh recommends going with the more recognizable “Walmart” unless the context calls for the use of the company’s full legal name Wal-mart Stores Inc. His biggest decision, however, was to accept the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, which was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year for 2015. Chris Matiszczyk asserts that American acceptance of the singular they may bring American speech a bit closer to British practice. At least he will be able to say “Chelsea are a good team” with a bit bit more impunity in the company of American listeners. One of the changes Walsh has proposed will take me a bit longer to warm up to: “mic” for “mike” (as in microphone).
An increasing number of writers and editors stopped using the expression “illegal immigrant” this year. The Associated Press took the lead on this issue in 2013. “Undocumented” and “unauthorized” are two of the most widely used alternatives. The Guardian gives credit for opening a debate on this topic to Elie Weisel, who has publicly asserted, “You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal.” In October, Representative Joaquín Castro introduced the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression Act, which if passed, would “remove the term ‘illegal alien’ and replace it with ‘undocumented foreign national’ and keep executive branch agencies from using ‘alien’ or ‘illegal alien’ in signage and literature.”
Now for the fun part.
If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.
The following are some of the strangest and funniest editing errors reported on grammar and language sites or personally discovered elsewhere this year:
From Michael Quinian’s World Wide Words:
Crows are renowned for being clever, but this headline in the Los Angeles Times on 24 December startled Dean Riley: “Wild crows use tiny cameras to film themselves using tools.”
How one error leads to another (detected on the Goodreads website):
June 17, 1878: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published 137 years ago today. (What is perhaps the most widely read work of modern African literature was written in 1958.)
A concert listed on the amicidellamusicamilano website that must have been an extraordinary event:
An original programme by the histrionic Roman pianist and composer Alessandra Celletti dedicated to the new Italian pianist generation.
Remember to add those apostrophes . . . (spotted by an American Dialect Society member):
“Bernie has my vote and my daughters, too.”
A funny typo discovered on the website of an otherwise marvelous MOOC:
On the same day, Henry gave provisional licence to Sir Robert Chalons to dispose of a gold cup, two bowels and a basin of silver gilt given to him as security for a payment of £45 6s 10d, for the wages of his retinue of two men-at-arms and nine archers for the second quarter of the year.
William Germano noted in a September tweet that although printers of the first American edition of Frankenstein got the names Frankenstein and Prometheus right, they spelled the author’s name “Shelly” instead of “Shelley.”