Friday, 18 September 2009

Barbed words

There was a discussion in one of our July posts about new words that are modelled on other established words (telegenic from photogenic, digerati from literati).

Dictionary compilers often stumble upon clumsy word blends that raise a groan (would the sublebrities and vegematarians please stand up?). However, some similarly constructed coinages must be admired for their incisiveness: they pin down exactly the sense they are intended to convey.

One coinage which neatly encapsulates an idea is churnalism. It is a blend of 'churn' and 'journalism' used by journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, and the idea certainly caused a stir.

'Churnalism' was the name given by the writer to a perceived practice in news media, when decreasing budgets and increasing workloads take their toll, of regurgitating a news item without questioning its provenance. As a result of the practice, a single press release (or even one part of it) written by an individual or organization can be taken up by a newspaper and interpreted by its readers as unassailable fact. Other agencies might pick up the story from that newspaper and run it themselves.

As the story is reproduced, there may be little attempt on the part of time-poor journalists to do the job they would like to do in verifying the story or uncovering new aspects of it. Thus, one view of a particular situation, or even a general notion, can be latched on to and propagated but left unchallenged.

Churnalism is not a barbed word in the sense that it is intended to hurt. But it is a good example of a word that is trenchant, cutting through redundant verbiage and coming straight to the point.

Mary O'Neill

Friday, 11 September 2009

Finding your feet

One of the exercises within the CD-ROM for the recently released Chambers Student Learners’ Dictionary involves inserting the name of a part of the body into the correct idiomatic expression. The exercise, designed for learners of English, may sound easy, but when you consider the plethora of expressions in English that involve various bodily appendages, you can understand how it might be a little more difficult for a learner.

The thinking behind body-related expressions is often quite clear. To do something behind someone’s back or to stab someone in the back is to be treacherous in a such a way that the victim cannot be aware of it or anticipate it. Similarly, sticking your neck out portrays the vulnerability that would be associated with that action, especially if performed around sharp instruments or fast moving traffic. Seeing eye to eye demonstrates a shared viewpoint, while something that falls on deaf ears may as well have not been said.

You can do more things with your feet than anyone would have thought possible, whether relaxing by putting your feet up, or putting your foot down in determination, or sometimes awkwardly putting your foot in it. All of these are only possible if you’ve got a leg to stand on of course, so you have to avoid paying an arm and a leg for anything. If you do end up making an expensive purchase you might pay through the nose, a process that sounds particularly painful.

One would also assume that losing limbs would represent injury, or at least discomfort, unless of course you’re laughing your head off, a surprisingly enjoyable experience, or someone’s been pulling your leg. Giving someone a hand can’t be too excruciating either, and is definitely more morally rewarding than a severed limb. And of course, while some may argue of the potential emotional stress, falling head over heels isn’t always as bad as it sounds.

There are so many expressions like this that it’s no wonder some English learners try to learn them all by heart, but with so many different variations they would really have their hands full, and even with the right phrase on the tip of their tongue, might never quite put their finger on it.

Deborah Smith

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Tuesday, 1 September 2009


Those meerkats have got a lot to answer for. Back in May, I wrote a blog about the origin of the animal’s name, noting that an advertising campaign had brought this curious creature to public attention. Now it appears that the advertisements have been so successful that they are even influencing the way that people are using English.

The advertisements in question feature a Russian-accented meerkat called Aleksandr, who professes to be amazed at how many people confuse the words ‘market’ and ‘meerkat’, and ends his demonstrations of the difference between the two by saying, ‘Simples!’

Influenced by the wit of the advertisements and the intrinsic cuteness of the meerkat, people have taken to repeating Aleksandr’s catchphrase as a humorous way of saying that the explanation they have just provided is easy to understand. At the recent World Athletics Championships, for example, British athlete Phillips Idowu was interviewed after winning the gold medal in the triple jump and made light of his victory with the words, ‘Hop, step, jump, 17.73. Simples!’ A petition has even been launched on a popular social-networking site to get the word ‘Simples’ included in a dictionary of English.

There is ample precedent for advertising slogans being adopted in English speech. Plenty of us have pronounced meat to be ‘bootiful’ in homage to a noted turkey farmer; and for a period around 2000 the greeting ‘Whassup?’ – borrowed from the adverts of an American beer company – threatened to become as common as ‘Hello’, before the craze disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

It is precisely the ephemeral nature of such crazes that is the biggest barrier to ‘Simples’ making it into the dictionary. While television is very good at getting people to repeat phrases in pubs and playgrounds, few of these slogans have great staying power. The Chambers Dictionary has resisted the urge to include earlier television catchphrases such as ‘Cowabunga!’ (popularized by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), ‘Fandabidozi!’ (The Krankies), ‘Flobbadob’ (The Flowerpot Men) and ‘Scorchio!’ (The Fast Show). Perhaps ‘Simples’ will prove to have more legs, but it is a little early to tell.

Ian Brookes

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