Did we, as genuinely hundreds of people are tweeting, just break the English language? Or did we, as totally tens of bloggers are writing, prove that the English language is a beautiful, organic creature that is forever slipping out of our control? Well, no: to be precise, we have done something mildly annoying.
“Literally”, you see, in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can’t do anything right. So to use it at all is to encounter one of several pitfalls:
1. Mucking about with its meaning isn’t clever or inventive any more
“Literally” has been playfully abused since the time of Walter Scott. In Chronicles of the Canongate, for example, he writes: “The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried.” This was 1827, before the popularisation of the electric light: the house was figuratively electrified.
In 1837, a piece in The Mother’s Magazine by Abigail and Samuel Whittelsey contained the phrase, “They both literally slept in Jesus”, and in 1894 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, that Sherlock’s room “was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams” (we can probably also take this as figurative).
The point is that even if it was fun and surprising to force a “literally” where another word should go back in the 1800s, it’s getting a bit old now. But not quite old enough to change the word’s meaning completely and clean it of all the irritatingly playful associations.
Plus, since then the word has picked up way too much baggage to make it usefully nifty. “Literally” has been mainstream shorthand for “talking like a teenage girl” for a decade – you’re not going to get rid of that reference without violent verbal acrobatics. Literally, I’m afraid, is, like, totally eighteen-hundred and late.
2. To use it is to teeter on the edge of a conversational wormhole
You might be near a pedant, and they will say something like “Don’t you mean ‘figuratively?'” (no, no one says “figuratively” – it is pretentious) or go into “Yes, your foot is LITERALLY coming off. I LITERALLY believe you” paroxysms until smothered. These are the same people who use the word as a definitive intelligence measure – see the snobbery over Jamie Redknapp last year – which in my mind is as much of an error as using a specific piece of knowledge as a mark of cleverness (“X% of Americans don’t know where Armenia is! So stupid…”).
3. There isn’t much to be done
Given all of this, even when someone does use the word correctly, (“he’s literally the prime minister”), it is often such a surprise to the listener that the conversation halts anyway – prompting something like “er, yes. You’re right. He literally is” to emphasise just how much they have acknowledged your traditional use of language.
So there really is not much we can do with the word “literally”, other than avoid it completely. At the moment it is irredeemable. It is a moot word. We just have to leave it up in its bedroom for a while until it grows up a bit.”
Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?
Literally every modern dictionary includes this definition
“Is it ever okay to use literally to mean “figuratively”?
F. Scott Fitzgerald did it (“He literally glowed”). So did James Joyce (“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”), W. M. Thackeray (“I literally blazed with wit”), Charlotte Brontë (“she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits”) and others of their ilk.
But the fact that Charles Dickens used literally in a figurative sense (“‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit”) doesn’t stop readers from complaining about our definition. We define literally in two senses:
1) in a literal sense or manner : actually
2) in effect : virtually
Some of our readers are not happy about this. Here are a few of the comments left at this entry:
Definition 2: the dictionary is literally wrong.
This is literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.
I literally can’t even.
Some people choose not to leave such comments on our site (perhaps they do not wish to hurt our feelings), but still want to make their displeasure clear. These people comment on other forums, as in this sample taken from a recent comment thread on dailykos.com:
Considering that Merriam-Webster has redefined “literally” to mean “figuratively,” I’m going with literally.
Our poor language, I’m figuratively about to hurl.
Agreed! How you you [sic] agree to accept (I’m looking at you craven dictionary editors!) a word that means the exact opposite? It’s unfathomably stupid.
Never trust anything but the OED…
It’s fine to trust the OED, but you might want to check their definition first:
literally, adv. 1c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: “virtually, as good as”; (also) “completely, utterly, absolutely.”
—Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Sept. 2011
Aaargh! That doesn’t seem very literal at all! The dark forces of “figurative-literalism” must have gotten to them, perhaps by blackmailing the editors. Let’s look at how some other current dictionaries define this word.
literally, adv. … 3.b. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, 2016
literally, adverb … 2. (intensifier) ⇒ there were literally thousands of people
—Collins English Dictionary
Literally every modern dictionary includes a definition for the metaphoric or intensifying sense of the word literally. Why do we hate the English language so?
There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language’s morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time. All of the dictionaries listed above also provide usage notes with the definition of literally, indicating that this sense is widely frowned upon. We include a note as well, which reads as follows:
Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
If this sense of literally is bothersome, you needn’t use it. If you dislike hearing other people use it, you may continue to be upset. If you would like to broaden your complaint slightly, and insist that the original meaning of literal is the only proper one, go right ahead (although, before committing to this, you should be aware that this will restrict you to using literal when you mean “of, relating to, or expressed in letters”).
The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769. Its inclusion in a dictionary isn’t new either; the entry for literally in our 1909 unabridged dictionary states that the word is “often used hyperbolically; as, he literally flew.” We (and all the other “craven dictionary editors”) have included this definition for a very simple reason: a lot of people use it this way, and our entries are based on evidence of use. Furthermore, the fact that so many people are writing angry letters serves as a sort of secondhand evidence, as they would hardly be complaining about this usage if it had not become common.
We understand that many have chosen this particular issue as the one about which they choose to draw a line in the sand, on the grounds that a word should not mean one thing and its opposite (a fairly common thing in English). But a living language is a language that is always changing; this change may be lovely, and it may be ugly. As lexicographers we are in the business of defining language, rather than judging it.”
This quarter, more than 500 new words, phrases, and senses have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In keeping with the OED’s broad scope, the list of new entries include such disparate items as hate-watch, a 21st-century verb meaning ‘to watch (a television programme, etc.) in a spirit of mockery, as a form of entertainment’; pogonophobia, a jocular term for a strong dislike of beards that was coined in 1857 but may be more relevant than ever given the current proliferation of barbigerous hipsters; and heliopause, the astronomical term for the very outer edge of the solar system beyond which the solar wind is undetectable, a boundary traversed by the touch of humanity for the first time in 2012, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed it to enter interstellar space. A small sample of the new additions is discussed below.
The charmingly colloquial adjective sticky-outy means ‘that protrudes or sticks out’, elaborating upon the form of the synonymous earlier word sticky-out by adding an additional –y. The OED’s first citation comes from a letter written by the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger to his mother in 1921, lamenting ‘My hair has taken a wild fit, all sticky-outy in ends.’ Indeed, Grainger’s hair was notable for its sticky-outiness, as photographs of him from this period attest.
In Scotland, especially the Shetland Islands, screecham is an evocative slang term for whisky. Regionalisms, being associated with oral usage, tend to be recorded in a wide variety of spellings, and the earliest evidence of screecham is in the form ‘screighin’, which supports an interpretation of its etymology as deriving from skreigh n. 3 (another Scottish slang word for whisky) plus the suffix -ing(which forms nouns like wedding or clothing), with the ending becoming obscured in later use. Skreigh is also a Scottish word for ‘shriek or screech’, and is thought to have taken on its association with whisky with allusion to the roughness of the liquor, thought likely to elicit a shriek from the person who drinks it.
freak flag, noun
Simple two-word combinations in English are often overlooked by comparison with more inventive neologisms, but compounding is a prolific source of new words, and the OED records their earliest uses just as it does those of any lexical item. The new entry for freak flag, which is used in phrases like ‘let your freak flag fly’ to refer to unconventional traits which are exhibited proudly or defiantly, is first recorded in a song lyric by Jimi Hendrix, which the OED cites from the sleeve of the original 1967 LP archived in the Library of Congress.
hat tip, noun
The phrase hat tip was included in the first edition of the OED as a now-forgotten term in hat-making jargon: it referred to an oval or circular piece of material used to line the crown of a hat. A new meaning of the phrase derived from the verb tip has now been added, denoting the action of tipping or doffing one’s hat in greeting or acknowledgement and hence, figuratively, an expression of gratitude or admiration. The latter sense is nowadays associated especially with Twitter and other social media sites, where hat tip (often abbreviated HT or h/t) is used to acknowledge assistance or inspiration. However, this usage dates back long before the days of social media: the first recorded example of the figurative use is from 1935, and it was popularized in the 1940s by the American cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo, who used it to acknowledge readers who had contributed ideas which inspired his cartoons.
In contemporary use, the verb skitch most often refers to holding on to the back of a moving vehicle so as to be pulled along while riding on a wheeled device like a skateboard or bicycle, making its origin as a blend of ski or skate and hitch somewhat mysterious. However, it was originally used to refer to hitching a ride in this way while sliding on snow or ice, an action more obviously reminiscent of skiing and skating. Skitch is first recorded in Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March, but was likely in oral use before then.
Another new Americanism in this update is 420, used in American slang to refer to marijuana, or the action of smoking marijuana. The term seems to have originated among a small group of friends in California in the early 1970s, originally with reference to 4:20 p.m., the time at which they repeatedly met to try to locate an unattended plot of cannabis plants. Members of this group, who called themselves the Waldos, assisted our researchers by supplying documentation of early use of the term, including the OED’s first citation, from a 1974 article in a San Rafael High School newspaper.
things aren’t what they used to be
English-speakers have been lamenting that things aren’t what they used to be, expressing the idea that circumstances or standards have deteriorated over time, since at least 1847, but the phrase enters the OED for the first time today. The entry’s quotation evidence reveals the term’s contradictory connotations. In literature, this statement of nostalgia for a better time in one’s youth is often put in the mouth of an old-timer depicted as speaking regional or colloquial varieties of English, so the quotation paragraph for OED’s entry includes nonstandard versions of the phrase, such as ‘things ain’t now as they used to was’ and ‘fings ain’t wot they used T’be,’ as well as formal versions like ‘things weren’t what they had once been’. However it was uttered, by 1926 the wistful expression of attachment to bygone days had become such a well-established trope that it began to be used to critique nostalgia rather than express it: ‘Things aren’t what they were!.. They never were!’
To find out more, and for the complete list of new entries, click here.
These days Noam Chomsky is probably most famous for his consistent, outspoken criticism of U.S. foreign policy. Yet before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, Chomsky became internationally famous for proposing a novel solution to an age-old question: what does a baby know?
Plato argued that infants retain memories of past lives and thus come into this world with a grasp of language. John Locke countered that a baby’s mind is a blank slate onto which the world etches its impression. After years of research, Chomsky proposed that newborns have a hard-wired ability to understand grammar. Language acquisition is as elemental to being human as, say, dam building is to a beaver. It’s just what we’re programmed to do. Chomsky’s theories revolutionized the way we understand linguistics and the mind.
A little while ago, film director and music video auteur Michel Gondry interviewed Chomsky and then turned the whole thing into an extended animated documentary called Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (which is currently available on Netflix’s streaming service).
Above is a clip from the film. In his thick French accent, Gondry asks if there is a correlation between language acquisition and early memories. For anyone who’s watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know that memory is one of the director’s major obsessions. Over Gondry’s rough-hewn drawings, Chomsky expounds: “Children know quite a lot of a language, much more than you would expect, before they can exhibit that knowledge.” He goes on to talk about new techniques for teaching deaf-blind children and how a day-old infant interprets the world.
As the father of a toddler who is at the cusp of learning to form thoughts in words, I found the clip to be fascinating. Now, if only Chomsky can explain why my son has taken to shouting the word “bacon” over and over and over again.
To gain a deeper understanding of Chomsky’s thoughts on linguistics, see our previous post: The Ideas of Noam Chomsky: An Introduction to His Theories on Language & Knowledge (1977)
Social media are also thought to be drivers of the latest vocabulary … Donald J Trump at the Grand Opening of Trump Turnberry, his Ayrshire hotel and golf resort.
Donald Trump’s linguistic dexterity may be questionable, but the US president’s lexicon has had an impact on the English language, which is reflected in the latest additions to oxforddictionaries.com, the online reference guide to current English. New coinages that reflect the latest wave of online political activism form a significant section of more than 300 new definitions in the database, which is a sister work to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Additions including “clicktivism” (a pejorative word for armchair activists on social media), “haterade” (excessive negativity, criticism, or resentment), “otherize” (view or treat – a person or group of people – as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself) and “herd mentality” (the tendency for people’s behaviour or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong) all emerged during the 2016 battle for the White House, said head of content development Angus Stevenson.
“We are getting a convergence of high-level politics and online language in quite a new way,” Stevenson said. “We had all the words around Brexit in the last update and we are now starting to see all the words around Trump coming into the dictionary.”
Stevenson said that new terms from Trump, his supporters and opponents were emerging more rapidly than in the past. “We have lots to add all the time. We don’t have ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative fact’ this time, because they have just started gaining currency, but I am sure they will be in the next update,” he added.
As well as political terms, public conversations about diet, fitness and gender were a strong influence on the words included in the latest update. “Superfruit”, a nutrient-rich fruit considered to be especially beneficial for health and wellbeing; HIIT, the acronym for high-intensity interval training; and “third gender”, a category of people who do not identify simply as male or female, all made it into the online database.
Social media were the source for many of the new coinages, though most were the kind of compounds that would have language purists clutching their pearls. “Craptacular” (remarkably poor and disappointing), “bronde” (hair dyed both blond and brunette) and “fitspiration” (a person or thing that serves as motivation for someone to sustain or improve health and fitness) all made the cut.
Stevenson said the need for brevity on Twitter was not responsible for rising numbers of compound words, but it had widened the pool of those inventing new terms. “People feel much freer to coin their own words these days,” he said, advising anyone who wished to make a permanent dent in the English language to make sure that their word sounded attractive. Citing the word “vlog”, he said ugly-sounding words tended not to gain very wide currency. He added: “They have to have a euphonious sound.”
His favourite addition? “Aquafaba”: water in which chickpeas or other pulses have been cooked, used as a substitute for egg whites, particularly in vegan cooking. “As language nerds we were quite pleased by that because it is a compound of Latin words and sounds very nice,” he explained.
A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.
“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”
I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer.
It has been suggested that some people are unaware of the nuances that govern appropriate use of slang
Experts have voiced concern that the slang used by many young – and some not so young – people today is creating a negative impression that ruins their chances of getting a job.
Social media, it has been argued, is responsible for the proliferation of what has been termed ‘multicultural English’ in everyday life. Words such as ‘innit’, ‘bruv’ and ‘bro’ are now being used not just with friends but also to communicate in general.
Some employers have reported receiving messages from applicants replete with slang and emojis; some have even been contacted over social media with friend requests. This immaturity has prompted concerns that young people today are leaving school with no life skills and a mindset that is setting them up for failure.
The concerns are particularly aimed at young people from BAME (black and minority ethnic) groups, which account for nine per cent of unemployment despite only making up three per cent of the population. Even more worryingly, there has been a 50 per cent increase in BAME youth unemployment since 2010.
One youth worker from East London has taken the bull by the horns and decided to launch her own campaign to teach young people appropriate workplace etiquette, including communication skills. We have all seen the adverts for the Barclays Skills for Life scheme, which supports young people from all backgrounds to learn the life skills they may have missed at home and school; now, Rianna Raymond-Williams has become a one-woman mission to extend this kind of initiative to reach certain communities that may be particularly at risk.
Raymond-Williams’s extensive experience in youth work revealed not so much that young people in her area of London were unaware of how to behave appropriately in a professional context but that they did not deem it necessary. Raymond-Williams is setting out to change this attitude and to convince young people on a deep level that how they speak, dress and conduct themselves is critical to their future success.
Raymond-Williams’s scheme has its critics, of course. It has been denounced as anti-ethnic and anti-youth; however, the author has passionately defended her ideas, arguing that her motivation is solely to alleviate the very real disadvantages young urban people are facing in the employment arena.
Professor Paul Kerswill of York University has also entered this debate, arguing that essentially language is fluid and evolving and that multicultural English may well reflect the shape of the future, with many young people setting up their own businesses using social media platforms. To remain relevant, employers need to develop sensitivity towards the use of multicultural English.
The crux of the issue is perhaps that all generations need to develop a greater awareness of linguistic appropriacy. Language is always evolving, of course; for example, many of Shakespeare’s slang words are now accepted as standard.
To stretch the Shakespeare comparison, different modes of speech were used depending upon context and people were easily able to segue between them. Perhaps we would do well to emulate that linguistic flux in our modern world.
- Whether we buy into Linguistic Determinism or Linguistic Reflectionism should make us decide on the usefulness of Political Correctness, and if we can change our language in order to change the way people see the world. Is this a change we should pursue? Either way, it has been a change pursued by society over the last 50 years. Whether we avoid words like “slag” and “slut” because we are no longer sexist, or whether we avoid them to avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes, the point is that there is a change happening here. It is patently disingenuous to even contend that that “slut” is falling out of use for the same reason as “jolly” as an adverb, or “hugger-mugger” (to act in a secretive manner): so what’s happening here? Just as Aitchison parodies prescriptivists as believing in the “Infectious Disease Syndrome”, as it implies that language change spreads like a disease, in that it is both bad and unconscious, we must accept that there is a deal of human agency involved here. People are taking control of their language, and more since the PC movement of the 1990s than ever before. Yes, people in Shakespeare’s time would have been just as likely to use euphemisms to avoid offence, eschewing direct reference to death, sex or using the toilet; however, the last generation or two has been deliberately taking on language, thereby speeding up such change. Words such as “spastic”, “retard” and “chink” are disappearing from our language more quickly now than ever before.
- If our language is merely a reflection of how we think, all efforts to change how we think by changing our language have been fruitless. Nonetheless, such efforts have been successful in changing our language, for example we no longer use “he” as the default pronoun, interchanging it with “she” or “they” because of the misguided belief that we had been perpetuating damaging stereotypes, namely that women weren’t or shouldn’t be involved in academia.
- The political correctness movement got up and going in the 1970s – and concerning the question of how language changes, this movement leads to some very interesting questions, the answers to which can tell us an awful lot about the processes behind language change
- Can we set up and carry through changes to the language we use? – i.e. has the political correctness movement had any quantifiable success? Or is our more tolerant language merely a reflection of our more tolerant society?
- Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language” shows how clichés undermine expression through misleading us: we are using someone else’s words, not expressing ourselves; if this is the case, getting rid of politically incorrect or otherwise harmful expressions, will enable us to avoid thinking racist, sexist or otherwise harmful thoughts.
- How can we affect the ways in which language has changed, is changing and will change in the future? If, as Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language” that the speaker is in danger of becoming a “machine” through using clichés, being mindful of these clichés such as “standing shoulder to shoulder” or “collateral damage” will enable us to improve our language- i.e. make us better able to genuinely express ourselves.
- To some extent in “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell marks himself out as a linguistic prescriptivist. If some language is worse than others, such as “the war on terror”, because of how it is used to mislead us, then language change can be bad (as well as good).
- If we can actually change language through conscious effort – should we? George Orwell in 1984 warned of the dangers of such a process. Warning of a dystopia where euphemism and banishing dangerous words control people’s thinking. When politicians speak of “pacification” rather than murdering villagers, we can see the dangers in language change.
- Should we allow language to change at all, regardless of the good intentions of those who seek to change it? In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell said “the conscious action of a minority” can change our language. Stale metaphors such as “collateral damage” are bad, in the same way as politically incorrect terms such as “retard” and “bitch” are bad, so should we be consciously controlling language change?
- George Orwell seems to support the Strong Sapir Wharf Hypothesis, that language is “a prison house” for our thoughts; if this is the case, a change in our language can be either good or bad, leading to a better or a worse society.
- If we can in fact change our language and control that change, we can stop other changes happening to language, changes which we dislike; but are there such things as good and bad changes?
- The descriptivist approach to language change is to simply describe the current usage and make a note of how language changes – what might the stance of Jean Aitcheson or David Crystal be to consciously changing the language we use?
- Which politically correct terms have become established in the language we use today? What do these new words say about the PC project and about language change in general?
- Of the prescriptivist attitude to language change – the King Canute approach – if King Canute was given the ability not only to allay the advance of the tide (the prescriptivist hope) but to make it dance to his own tune, would he have done so?
- Guy Deutscher supports Roman Jakobson in arguing that if we don’t have a word for an idea, the concept is harder to deal with, for example “schadenfreude” in German: in English we can express this idea, however not as easily, showing that changing our language can affect how we think.
- Because the Tagalog language did not have words for blue and green until the Spanish colonisation it raises the question of whether language does, in some way, shape how we see the world: is there substance to the PC project? Should we be actively changing our language?
- Language doesn’t reflect our society in a straightforward way, but as Korzybski said, it contains “hidden traps that distort reality”: bearing this in mind, we should take the political correctness project seriously and actively seek to change our language.
- Roman Jakobson in 1959 suggested a more reasonable and plausible version of the Sapir Whorf hypothesis – that different languages lead us to speak of the same things in different ways. For example, French and Italian make us refer to a group of people as male even if they contain only one man in a group of one hundred: this is an example of a language leading us to prioritise men. If languages do this, there may be substance to the P C project: we can and should change our language.
Have you ever been called mardy, been mithered, complained of someone being nesh, labelled them a numpty or had people look at you blankly because a word you have used since childhood does not form part of their vocabulary?
If any of the above sounds familiar then congratulations: you are living proof that the death of dialect is greatly exaggerated.
Dialect has been mourned for a while now. It is well over 20 years since the term “estuary English” was first coined, while a more recent report concluded that “talking to machines and listening to Americans” could spell the death of regional accents and much-cherished dialect words within the next 50 years.
This fear does not, however, extend to the British Library where linguists continue to chronicle words used in different places and, where possible, preserve them by recording people using them.
Jonnie Robinson, lead curator of spoken English at the British Library and the author of the Evolving English WordBank, says the exercise – which saw ordinary people across the country “donate” words in special recording booths between 2010 and 2011 – proves that dialect words are far from being extinct.
“A lot of people feel dialect is dwindling but actually, although it’s changing … you can find examples of continuity,” Robinson says. The Evolving English WordBank contains 1,500 contributions to date, many of which are dialect words.
Some have shown incredible longevity. Robinson points to the word “puggle”, a word donated by a woman in Birmingham in 2010 which she defined as having “a poke about” or having “bit of of a look” for something.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” the well-spoken woman in her early 30s said in her contribution. “I always thought it was a real word and it turns out it’s not.”
“The word puggle has been used in the home counties for at least 100 years,” Robinson says, “and here it is being used today, somewhat self-consciously, but used nonetheless by a middle-class young female in the south of England.”
Other submissions are instantly recognisable, either because they are still commonly used or because they have been popularised, or both. “Mardy” (meaning moody or irritable), a word chronicled more than a century ago, is still widely used in the north and Midlands of England. Its further popularisation through the Arctic Monkeys song Mardy Bum helped make it one of the most commonly donated words to the WordBank.
The collection also captures once common words that now survive in just a few geographical pockets. For example “owt” (meaning anything) was widespread in Old English. Now it only persists in certain areas in the north and Midlands, including Yorkshire.
Dialect words can be a way of establishing a person’s shared roots and the basis for unusual social bonds: one woman told the story of a work colleague who, on finding out she was from Grimsby, immediately asked if she knew what “spoggy” meant (chewing gum).
However, words are not necessarily unique to one location – dialect tends to turn up in different locations. A common example is that words and phrases that originated in Scotland often appear in Northern Ireland because of the strong historical connections between the two places.
So children are still being called “thrawn” (difficult or contrary) in Northern Ireland more than 500 years after its first documented use in the Oxford English Dictionary, while the same child might be told to “hold your whisht” (be quiet) over 200 years after Robert Burns used the line in verse.
Of course words do die. The distinguished linguist David Crystal has produced a book and websitechronicling disappearing words, while Bradwell Books’ county series of dialect glossaries features many old word forms that are no longer with us.
Robinson is not blind to the evolution of language, but he does not believe that younger generations not using the words their parents or grandparents did spells the end of dialect.
“It’s very easy to pick up a dialect glossary of the 1950s, give it to a group of teenagers and say: ‘How many of these words from your town do you know?’ Many teenagers might not know them but that would have been the case if you had carried out the same exercise in the 1960s. Language is constantly changing.”
Research shows people are most likely to use dialect in their formative, playground years and again in their later years once they have left the professional sphere. This is partly because, in the work environment, people tend to gravitate to a “very mainstream vocabulary” to ensure they are understood.
He says the growing tendency for people to grow up in one area, then move to another for educational purposes and somewhere different for work also has an impact. “The fact is that people now encounter different social groups and we operate across those dialectal boundaries,” he says.
“But go to a pub where a group of people who all grew up in that town are out and having a non-self-conscious conversation among themselves [and] you’ll capture dialect,” he says, adding that this in itself is evidence that helps unpick the “urban myth that we are all beginning to sound the same”.
What’s the difference between dialect, accent, slang and nonce words?
There is a difference between dialect and accent. “Any word can be pronounced in a number of different ways,” Robinson says, using two versions of the word bath, first with a short flat “a” more common to the north of England and then the more elongated “a” used in London. “Dialect,” Robinson explains, “is an umbrella term for words, pronunciation and grammar whereas accent is simply pronunciation.”
The words that were deposited in the British Library’s WordBank were not only diverse in meaning but in type. Some were nonce words, most typically made-up words whose meaning is recognised by family members but that are not in wider use.
Other people shared slang, which Robinson defines as words used within a particular social or interest group, such as among friends or, for example, in the military.
Dialect, lastly, is words particular to a location or locations.
In late 2015, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland introduced a series of national emojisthat celebrate all aspects of Finnish identity. The first images included Nokia phones, metal heads (Finns famously love the loud music), and naked figures in a sauna. Since then, the Ministry has added new emojis to the collection, including a few illustrating uniquely Finnish terms that we don’t have words for in English. Try using some of them in conversation—and to view and download the whole set of 56 emoji, visit thisisFINLAND, the Finnish government’s promotional website.
1. KALSARIKÄNNIT: “THE FEELING WHEN YOU ARE GOING TO GET DRUNK HOME ALONE IN YOUR UNDERWEAR”
The word quite literally (and delightfully) translates to “underwear drunk.”
2. TORILLA TAVATAAN: “THE FEELING WHEN SOMETHING SO GREAT HAPPENS YOU JUST HAVE TO SHARE IT WITH SOMEBODY”
You’d say “Torilla tavataan!“—which literally means “Let’s meet/see you at the marketplace”—to friends if you wanted to gather together in your city’s public square and celebrate good news—say, your local sports team winning.
3. SUOMI MAINITTU!: “THE FEELING WHEN SOMEONE MENTIONS FINLAND ABROAD”
Finland is home to Nokia, the Angry Birds Land theme park, and even Santa Claus, but the tiny nation still feels like it doesn’t get much international recognition. Suomi mainittu—which literally translates to “Finland mentioned!”—captures the excitement Finns feel when their country is discussed abroad.
4. PERKELE: “THE MOTHER OF ALL FINNISH SWEAR WORDS”
Perkele translates to “the devil,” but like many swear words, it’s not what it means—it’s how you use it. Try rolling the “r” for extra emphasis.
5. SISU: “THE FEELING OF PERSEVERANCE”
Sisu can loosely be translated to “perseverance” or “having guts,” but the word has a deeper meaning in Finland. “The Finns have something they call sisu,” The New York Times wrote in 1940 [PDF]. “It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win. The Finns translate ‘sisu’ as ‘the Finnish spirit,’ but it is a much more gutful word than that.”
6. KAAMOS: “THE FEELING OF SUNLESS DAYS”
Finns use kaamos to describe the sunless period between December and January. Even though we don’t experience polar nights in America, we can still relate with the gloomy feeling of summer being too far away.