Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Sarah Palin - the portmanteau queen?

The former Governor of Alaska and wannabe Republican president Sarah Palin caused a stir recently when she seemed to coin a new word - refudiate - in an interview on Fox News. The story concerned plans to build a mosque in New York, close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Centre once stood.

Refudiate is what is known as a blend or portmanteau word. In this case, a blend of refute (to prove wrong) and repudiate (to deny or reject). 

She used the word again in a tweet a few days later:
Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.
The US media had a lot of fun with this and Palin only poured oil on the fire when her original tweet was removed and then followed-up with another:
"Refudiate," "misunderestimate," "wee-wee'd up." English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it! 
This implies she not only puts herself in the same league as George W Bush (misunderestimate) and Barack Obama (wee-wee'd up) but also Shakespeare.

We all know that George W Bush tended to mangle the English language but it comes as a surprise to hear President Obama coin the phrase 'wee-wee'd up', as he did last year:

I sort of understand what Obama was implying with this odd phrase. He was referring to people getting worked up and agitated. I don't classify this as 'mangling' the language. This is genuinely inventive.

However, by comparing herself to Shakespeare, Palin merely gave the twitterverse a subject to really get its collective beak into. As the Huffington Post reported, the hashtag #ShakesPalin quickly became a trending topic. Even better - it led to some clever tweets such as these:

@normative - To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous liberals, or to quit halfterm, and by opposing, rake in speaking fees.

@djsmk - Neither a thinker nor a reader be / for thought oft loses both itself and friend /and reading dulls the edge of Fox TV.

But why are words like refudiate called portmanteaus? It refers to the old type of large travelling case or trunk which had two halves, hinged together. Lewis Carroll seems to have coined the phrase in Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There, with Humpty explaining the meaning of Jabberwocky to Alice:
"Well, slithy means 'lithe and slimy'... You see it's like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word."
Portmanteau words are not a new phenomenon. If they're genuinely useful they'll gain currency and will eventually enter into mainstream dictionaries. We're all familiar with brunch (breakfast and lunch, coined in 1896), smog (smoke and fog, coined around 1900), and motel (motor and hotel, coined 1925).

Modern examples include blog, camcorder, chillax, fanzine, chugger, advertorial, Brangelina and even wikipedia. I recently came across the word 'civilogue' on a website to describe the type of comments they would accept - a blend of civil and dialogue.  

Palinspeak, as Palin's eccentric use of the language is often called, will no doubt throw us more to muse on in the coming years. Am I going to get wee-wee'd up about it? No. It's impossible to misunderestimate her and she's already refudiated her use of the word refudiate.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Raoul Moat: what's in a name?

Raoul Thomas Moat. It's been almost impossible this week to avoid hearing or reading about the improbably named Geordie gunman currently on the run in Northumberland after shooting three people and killing one of them.

It's a serious situation. Yet we have the capacity to find the humour in it - a way of coping with tragedy that all humans share.

And the main thing we find amusing about it all? Mr Moat's name. It's an odd one and in an idle moment earlier this week I found myself attempting to make an anagram of it. The best I could come up with was: oath, trauma looms. Not knowing what to do with it, I posted it on my facebook page. Then, yesterday I included it in a twitter post.

Of course I did. Social media has been an element of the story itself as Mr Moat allegedly made threats via facebook before penning a 49-page handwritten letter to the police. The internet is the place to go for up-to-the-second gossip.

Right now, the internet is awash with comment on what's being said via the media and lots and lots of jokes. Search for 'Raoul Moat jokes' on google and you'll get more than 6,500,000 results. Lots of people want to talk about Raoul Moat; most of them just passing on what they've heard or read.

The story is a trending topic on twitter and among the top tweets (those tweets that have been re-tweeted by others more than 100 times) are:
Manchester City have officially bid £45m for Raoul Moat. They've no idea who he is, but they've heard everyone's after him.
If Raoul Moat wore a stripy jumper and thick glasses he'd be a lot more fun to try and find.
NORTHUMBRIA Police, if u haven't found Raoul Moat By Sat, double the reward from 10k to 20k & call it a Raoul-over.
There is also:
I don't find any of these jokes raoul moatly funny.
I just checked on facebook and more than 17,000 people apparently 'like' the facebook group "Raoul Thomas Moat" Needs To Be Found Before He Kills Again!.

This is all pretty harmless but the problem with all this stuff floating out there in cyberspace is that it's getting harder and harder to filter out all the rubbish from the good stuff and the lies from the truth. This is where you have to exercise the more rational side of your brain. And it's not just individuals who seem to have lost the power of critical thinking.

This week an American news website swallowed a spoof Raoul Moat story whole from the News Grind, a website that produces nothing but spoof news. A 'revised' story now states:

...the situation is far different than what we reported in an earlier version of this post, which relied on false information from what turned out to be a satirical news site.

The original report has since been removed from the News Grind site but a blog on has a great piece on it.

By the way, as I write this, the latest Raoul Moat 'news' from News Grind, Stupid fat people in hiding after Moat warning', is a response to the warning by police that Mr Moat was now "targetting the wider public".

This story doesn't just have legs, it's got wheels - until they fall off.

Friday, 2 July 2010

English? Globish? Chinglish?

The reach of English is astounding.

English is the third largest language, by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

According to Wikipedia, around 400 million people speak English as a first language and between 199 million and 1,400 million more speak English as a second language. As linguist David Crystal points out in his book 'How language works' (2006), non-native English speakers outnumber native English speakers by about 3:1.

In 2005 between a quarter and a third of the world's population spoke English. In China around 350 million people are currently learning English in their own free time. It's estimated that by 2020, native English speakers may comprise only 15% of up to 2 billion people using or learning the language.

But the question is - what sort of English will they be speaking? English is used internationally for business, science, diplomacy and dominates the internet. Written English is likely to remain largely unaltered.

However, spoken English is already changing at a rapid rate. Apart from all the mother-tongue varieties (British English, American English, Australian English etc.) we already have pidgin versions such as Singlish (Singapore English), Engrish (in Japan) and Chinglish (in China) and many, many more - including Swenglish (used in Sweden - as anybody watching the Wallander series on BBC4 will have noticed).

The phenomenon of a global form of English used primarily by non-native speakers - Globish - cropped up on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week recently, with Robert McCrum discussing his new book  'Globish: How the English language became the world's language'.

Globish is a much-simplified sub-set of English based on about 1,500 words (the OED lists more than 600,000) with simple grammar and no idioms or jokes. It has been described as 'decaffeinated English' or 'English Lite' and is promoted by a former IBM executive, Jean-Paul Nerriere, who wrote a book called 'Parlez Globish'

He had noticed that in international business meetings, non-native speakers of English were using a simplified form of the language to communicate with each other - and actually preferred not to speak with native English speakers, who tend to overcomplicate things.

An article in The Australian newspaper put it like this:
Their florid phraseology and grammatical complexities are often incomprehensible, said Nerriere, who added: "One thing you never do in Globish is tell a joke."
So - no need to worry about Globish taking over anytime soon. But it might force us to

Some people worry about the way that English is changing. The Queens' English Society (motto: good English matters) has even set up an Academy for English to protect it from 'declining standards'. However, it is doomed to fail. English has always changed and evolved, soaking up words and phrases from other languages and is the richer for it.

Given the numbers of Chinese people learning English, my guess is that we'll benefit from new expressions coming from 'Chinglish'. From Chinese English Pidgin we already have 'long time no see', 'look-see', 'lose face', 'no go', and 'no can do'.

As Oliver Ludz Radtke says in his little book 'Chinglish: found in translation': "...the English-speaking traveller more frequently encounters Chinglish in the form of public signs rather than spoken oddities." He aims to show the creative side of Chinglish - a product of Chinese grammar and the English dictionary.

And creative it certainly is.  Where we would have a sign simply saying 'Keep off the grass', in China you might see:

Makes you stop and think, then smile.