Monday, 8 June 2009

Inspired by reel life

There are so many interesting words, uses and etymologies that often go unnoticed until brought into the limelight by their use in journalism, politics, finance, literature, music, advertising, television or film. Events of last week were no exception, for where popular culture goes, old words, new words, and linguistic trends may be unearthed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be a little too busy being governor of California to work on any Terminator films at the moment, but the humans vs. Skynet battle continues regardless in the post-apocalyptic Terminator Salvation, released in cinemas last week. The word terminator is a fairly obvious extension of terminate, and its application as the name of the robots sent to kill influential (if fictional) humans such as John Connor is both catchy and logical. Yet it also has an alternative sense, defined in The Chambers Dictionary as “the boundary between the illuminated and dark portions of the moon or of a planet”. The terminator divides night and day on the moon, casting shadows from craters and mountains along its line. Due to the light scattering effect of all the air in our atmosphere, Earth’s terminator is not so clear, and night becomes day much more slowly. So Earth does have a terminator – it just isn’t out to eliminate the human race.

Last Saturday’s MTV Awards across the Atlantic were dominated by blockbuster vampire film Twilight, and its two stars Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart. Although their romance seems to be restricted to the big screen and feigned moments in award ceremonies, the co-stars have nonetheless been assigned the combination nickname ‘Robsten’, following in the footsteps of celebrity supercouples such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (Brangelina), Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (TomKat) and the now separated Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (Bennifer). Although these combined names have become increasingly prevalent in popular culture, they certainly aren’t a new invention. Bill and Hilary Clinton reportedly went by ‘Billary’ during their first few years in the White House, while Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, stars of American sitcom I Love Lucy, referred to themselves as ‘Desilu’. This portmanteau technique of word formation can be seen in many common compound words, such as chocoholic, blog, cyborg, brunch, sitcom and Spanglish. Even television itself was originally a portmanteau, fusing the Greek tēle- meaning ‘far’ and the Latin –visiō meaning ‘to see’, concisely describing the function of the television through the combination of ancient languages.

Talking of television, love it or hate it, most people will be aware that Channel 4’s reality show Big Brother returned to our screens on Thursday. Only time will tell what new catchphrases this year’s contestants will popularize, but the show itself certainly remains faithful to the notion of a sparse society controlled by an unseen superior as depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984, from which the title ‘Big Brother’ derives. Indeed, Orwell’s novel coined a surprising number of terms that have taken on extended meanings in modern language. As well as the powerful dictator figure of Big Brother, Orwell introduced the idea of doublethink, the power to believe two conflicting notions at once, and Newspeak, a simplified language system including such words as ‘blackwhite’, the habit or ability to claim or even believe that black is white, and ‘unperson’, one who has been erased from existence entirely. Such was the power of 1984 that the adjective Orwellian now describes the characteristics of the society Orwell so vividly portrayed in it, one embodying a climate of dehumanization and authoritarianism. Of course, whether this year’s Big Brother will demonstrate those concepts remains to be seen.

Deborah Smith

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