Trigger warning

shutterstock-101581390In March this year, the entertainment company Netflix released the television series 13 Reasons Why. The fictional series, based on a novel by Jay Asher, involved graphic depictions of rape and suicide, prompting viewers to petition Netflix to add clear trigger warnings to the series’ opening credits.

Also in March this year, British prime minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, beginning Britain’s two-year exit process from the European Union.

The link between these two seemingly unrelated events, if you haven’t already worked it out, is the word trigger. First used solely as a noun (‘A movable catch or lever the pulling or pressing of which releases a detent or spring, and sets some force or mechanism in action’), trigger first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1621 as tricker and this form was still commonly used until around 1750. Trigger originates from the Dutch ‘trekken’, which means ‘to pull’. Hence, we pull a trigger.

For a long time, trigger was only used in the literal sense to talk about the trigger of a gun or another mechanism. It wasn’t until around 1978 when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first recognized as an official diagnosis that the figurative sense of the noun trigger became common. In psychological terms, a trigger is a stimulus that causes a PTSD sufferer to be emotionally transported back to their original trauma. It could be a particular sight, sound or smell, for example a song on the radio or the smell of a brand of perfume or aftershave.

The use of trigger in a PTSD context has also helped form the term trigger warning, which was added to oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com early last year. Trigger warning is defined by oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com as a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. that warns readers or viewers that the subsequent media contains material that they may find upsetting. Advisory labels and cautions are not a new phenomenon. We are used to seeing age guidance ratings on films and hearing the words ‘with scenes some viewers may find upsetting’ before a particularly dramatic episode of our favourite soap opera. But the digital age and our increasing reliance on the Internet created the need for a simple term that could preface any social media post containing potentially upsetting content. Step forward trigger warning, or TW for short.

Whilst the term trigger warning originated online, it soon moved offline. Recently there have been calls for trigger warnings before university lecture material, on book covers, and, as highlighted above, at the beginning of television programmes. With such strong demand for the series 13 Reasons Why to carry clearer trigger warnings, Netflix had no choice but to comply. In May 2017 a trigger warning was added to the opening credits of the first episode in the series to caution viewers about the graphic content and to point them towards possible sources of support if necessary. Material can now be described as being ‘triggering’, an adjectival form to describe content that, intentionally or unintentionally, causes emotional distress.

As mentioned above, Article 50 was controversially triggered in March this year. Why was Article 50 triggered rather than activated or launched? I suspect it’s because trigger is the only word that successfully and neatly communicates the idea of the official start of something, much like pulling the trigger of a starting pistol in a race. The most appropriate synonyms tend to be phrasal verbs such as set off, give rise to, and set in motion, all of which would be less succinct than simply trigger, and the latter two would take up extra precious character spaces in tweets, Facebook statuses and news headlines. A cardinal sin in a world where we commonly read articles on six-inch mobile phone screens.

It seems safe to say that over the past 400 or so years trigger has managed to trigger a lot more than just the movable catch of a lever. Who knows what it will trigger in the next 400 years…


Stacey Bateman is a Production Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Spain and worked for a sports and local interest publisher in Derby before joining OUP in 2011.

Heart

Do you heart new words? Even when they are symbols? Or does a heart meaning the word love, but spoken as heart, irritate you as much as it did this writer back in 1983?

I’m delighted to see there’s finally been a revolt against the annoying use of a stylized little red heart in place of the word ‘love’—as in ‘I (heart) New York’.

200px-I_Love_New_York.svgUnfortunately for him/her, the revolt was not successful, and the symbol and verb to heart is now part of everyday speech, particularly popular with designers of mugs, T-shirts, baseball caps, etc.

The use of this symbol for love isn’t new. In the art world the heart has appeared in religious iconography over the centuries, usually as a bleeding or sacred heart of a suffering god or saint, representing sacrificial love. Less artistically, we’ve also seen it as a symbol of romantic love, pierced with an arrow linking two names, as in ‘Romeo 💘 Juliet’, and inscribed on walls, carved in trees and scribbled on notebooks all over the world. Here it’s usually read as loves and not hearts. This simple symbol has moved from fine art through graffiti and now into print, where its use as the verb heart seems to irritate people.

57249English is a very flexible language, and there’s nothing new about nouns being used as verbs. The use of heart as a verb goes back to Old English, and the eleventh century poem of Beowulf, although most of the various meanings are now obsolete. Shakespeare, that most inventive and innovative user of language, used heart as a verb in Othello, though with a different meaning (= being fixed in the heart):

I hate the Moor, my cause is hearted, thine has no less reason.

We’re still making new verbs from nouns. Have you architected, diagrammed or databased anything recently? How did this impact your work? Sometimes these words seem little more than substitutes for other perfectly good verbs, such as build for architect or affect for impact, but there may be good reason for their use. Architect in this sense refers to the making of programs and systems (by a data architect) rather than building physical structures; impact, with its connotations of hit, sounds stronger than affect, or perhaps it’s just simpler to use, when affect can be all too easily confused with effect. The verbs diagram and database are used here as shortcuts for ‘to represent something in a diagram’ and ‘to put something in a database’. Some might call this usage laziness, others might say it’s poetic.

The digital revolution gives almost everyone the opportunity to write and publish online, where websites, blogs, forums, social media are open to all, and so language is changing faster than ever. Readers and writers react quickly, keying (first recorded 1964) or texting (1998) their views, and often language is reworked, abbreviations are used, shortcuts taken. Some changes are passing fads, but others catch on, are copied and become established, entering the ever-expanding lexicon of the English language.


Victoria Bull is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining Oxford University Press in 2004, she taught English in London to adults from many countries.

Fur baby

shutterstock_136164980_croppedMy children are a little different to the children of my friends and colleagues… The most obvious distinction is probably that my two boys both have four legs, a tail and a thick coat of fur. These are not conventional children – these are my fur babies.

Added to Oxford Dictionaries online in 2015 (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website), fur baby is an informal term for ‘a person’s dog, cat, or other furry pet animal’. The phrase has positive connotations, at least in the eyes of animal lovers, and a corpus search reveals that fur baby is often combined with such favourable adjectives as beloved, adorable, precious and beautiful. By employing the term, we devoted pet parents can demonstrate to others just how important a role our animals play in our families and in our lives.

It must be acknowledged that some people will find the notion of fur babies very strange, especially those from cultures where animals are not treated in this way. While they may question whether a direct comparison can (or indeed should) be drawn between one’s biological children and one’s pets, I would argue that fur babies are in many ways very like their less furry, human counterparts. We welcomed a new puppy into our home last October and so ensued many a sleepless night, troubles with toilet-training, teething and picky eating, and tantrums galore, to say nothing of the difficulties we ran into when our little boy hit adolescence. Sibling rivalry is also a concern and we are still trying to reconcile the cat to having a younger canine ‘brother’.

Although fur baby may be a relatively recent coinage, the tendency to attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals is not a new one. We even have a word for this concept: anthropomorphism. Defined in OALD as ‘the practice of treating gods, animals or objects as if they had human qualities’, anthropomorphism and its related adjective anthropomorphic and verb anthropomorphize are derived from the Greek anthrōpomorphos, itself from anthrōpos meaning ‘human being’ and morphē meaning ‘form’.

We don’t only anthropomorphize in everyday life: anthropomorphized animals figure very prominently in literature. Some classic examples from English literature are The Tale of Peter Rabbit (and Beatrix Potter’s other creations), Winnie-the-Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. While anthropomorphism is more prevalent in children’s literature, a famous work aimed at an adult audience, in which the majority of characters are anthropomorphized animals, is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

There are also many examples of stories that anthropomorphize from other traditions. Aesop’s Fables, accredited to the Greek storyteller Aesop, and the Indian Panchatantra are collections of fables (= stories that teach moral lessons) about animals which behave in a human way. Anthropomorphic animals are also commonplace in fairy tales and folk tales, such as the traditional European story Little Red Riding Hood (versions of which were included in the compilations of tales put together by Charles Perrault of France and the Brothers Grimm of Germany), the West African folk tales (which later crossed to the Caribbean) about Anansi the trickster spider, and the Brer Rabbit stories of the southern United States.

Anthropomorphism is a well established linguistic device, with device in this sense being understood to mean ‘a form of words intended to produce a particular effect in speech or a literary work’. The OALD entry for anthropomorphic contains a link to the topic dictionary for Linguistic devices, where you can explore many more such terms, including others also of Greek origin, like chiasmus and zeugma. (Our topic dictionaries are groups of words related to common subject areas. You can browse all of our topic dictionaries here.)

So, whether in life or in literature, it is certainly not uncommon to ascribe human traits to animals and I, for one, am all for promoting our pets to full-blown family members: fur babies.


Kallah Pridgeon is mummy to Ludo the dog and Arthur the cat. When not tending to her fur babies, she works as an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.

Biscotti

Lee Blaylock Food StylistHave you ever found yourself in a restaurant or café, having made your choice but facing the embarrassment of not knowing how to pronounce it? Menus in English are often peppered with words borrowed from different languages; after all, just like our language, our cuisine draws on influences from throughout the world. And like the food itself, the words have become anglicized as our prowess in foreign languages falls a little short of our multilingual neighbours.

To the chagrin (or bemusement) of Italian speakers, ordering a panini is far from the only time we misuse foreign food words. An example soon to be added to OALD online in this category is biscotti – but the Oxford English Corpus quotes ‘I grabbed a latté and a biscotti’, a faux pas not uncommon among native English speakers. Both biscotti and panini are plural nouns in the original Italian, but even English plurals can be a source of inaccuracies, and can be found with a scattering of decorative apostrophes on menus and signs, so it is hardly surprising that we stumble over asking for bruschetta – is it /bruˈʃetə/ or /bruˈsketə/? You’re less likely to be understood in English-speaking countries if you pronounce it correctly, /bruˈsketə/. And what’s worse, you risk looking rather pedantic.

And this risk isn’t limited to ordering food – perhaps at your next coffee klatch with friends you might stumble over what to drink, too. If you search for latte in OALD, it will redirect you to caffè latte, which would be understood in Italy. But in English-speaking countries it has become the norm to ask for a latte (pronounced by most /ˈlɑːteɪ/), which might confuse an Italian. Why would a fully-grown adult just be ordering milk? But not only this; sometimes we go even further in our attempts to be exotic, adding superfluities such as the accent you might have noticed sneaking in above (‘I grabbed a latté…’).

Ironically, we seem to think this lends more authenticity to a foreign word. Here’s another example from the Oxford English Corpus:

There’s a salsa bar of sorts from which you can choose your heat, from mild to habañero. The place feels authentic.

Well, perhaps it feels authentic to those who don’t know that Habanero has no tilde – but maybe the confusion comes from the similarity to jalapeños, which, like fajitas and tacos, English speakers make a good stab at pronouncing authentically. Having taught modern foreign languages to secondary school students, I became more aware of this rather endearing tendency to pop an accent on a word to make it seem less like an English word whose translation has been guessed at. Or we go to the other extreme and treat foreign borrowings as English, such as adding the regular ending to make the French past participle sauté an English one, to make sautéed potatoes.

And speaking of confusion, a recent TV cookery competition in the UK sparked debate (even anger) over the pronunciation of chorizo, with the sausage being pronounced in three different ways: /ʃəˈriːzəʊ/, /tʃəˈriːtsəʊ/ (perhaps because people think it’s Italian?) and /tʃəˈriːθəʊ/. We seem to be able to pronounce churros, so why not the /tʃ/ of chorizo?

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry that languages are not really our forte: the English language is a melting pot of words borrowed and tweaked from others throughout the centuries, why stop adding to the mix now?

(Incidentally, forte comes from French, so why do we pronounce it as though it were Italian?!)


Isabel Tate is Dictionaries Assistant in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Learning languages is her forte and, when not sipping lattes and baking lasagnes, she has taught languages in the UK, France and Italy, and biscotti-making in Peru.

Awks

You know the situation when you and a friend are talking about someone, and that person overhears you?

In the past, you might have described this situation as ‘awkward’, but now you can describe it as ‘awks’, as in ‘OMG, she was standing right behind me! Awks!’ (pronounced /ɔːks/).

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After all, why use a whole word when just half a word will do? It’s fewer letters to write, and a whole syllable shorter to speak, thereby saving valuable nanoseconds in our busy, 21st century lives! It’s also fun to play around with shortening words in this way, and there’s a lot of it about.

As usual, this is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been shortening words for centuries. Contracted words such as bye, phone and exam are so thoroughly entrenched in our everyday vocabulary that we barely notice them as such, although in a formal or technical context we may use the word ‘examination’ instead of exam, and might prefer ‘laboratory’ to lab. One of the earliest recorded examples of word shortening is that of gent (for ‘gentleman’), which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as occurring as early as 1564. And we’ve been happily slicing bits off words left, right and centre ever since, leaving a trail of unwanted syllables and letters. Any part of the word could be rejected in the trimming process:

influenza

omnibus

veterinarian

refrigerator (at least this one gets an extra ‘d’ to compensate for the loss of eight other letters: fridge)

It seems that nowadays we are abbreviating words with a new energy; and we’re no longer just lopping off syllables, we’re modifying those that are left and tweaking spellings accordingly:

So ‘awkward’ becomes awks (/ɔːks/), ‘totally’ becomes totes (/təʊts/), ‘natural’ becomes natch (/næʧ/), and ‘jealous’ becomes jel (/ʤel/). Even ‘emotional’ can become emoshe (/ɪˈməʊʃ/), and ‘casual’ cazh (/kæʒ/).

For now, these truncated words can only be used in informal English – in informal spoken conversation between friends, in light-hearted social media postings, etc. For example:

This is embarrassing but I was totes asleep.

He passed all his exams, natch (= of course).

I’ve got a new phone, my friends are gonna be well jel (= very jealous)!

For now at least, these newer clipped words and others like them have not quite made it into the mainstream, and many people will not be familiar with any of them. There’s actually been an entry for totes in OALD online for a couple of years now; we also have entries for comms and even fam – two more words that can lose their endings in our modern-day, quick-fire language. However, there’s nothing in OALD yet for awks or jel. Will they make it into a future update? And will long, polysyllabic words eventually become a thing of the past? Surely not, at least not for an extremely long time. For now, we can amuse ourselves and each other by cropping some of our words down to just one or two syllables – fab!


Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Before joining OUP, she spent many years teaching students and training teachers.

In silico

57916_2‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is a saying that languages have always ignored. Judging by the number of English words that have been adopted by other languages over the last century or so, its status as one of the top ‘lenders’ must be unchallenged. But a borrower?  Yes, a number of new ‘English’ words are borrowed from other languages, too – Japanese, for example, has given us more than just emoji, kakuro and sashimi – most recently manga and mecha. We even borrow and then refashion words. The Italians have given us many words to do with food (which we mangle grammatically as well as in the pronunciation – think of ‘a panini’) and, enjoying so much good weather, they may like to dine al fresco. We borrowed that expression a long time ago – it sounds so much more exotic than ‘outside’. But even those of us who can’t even make it to the park at lunchtime can console ourselves by giving the expression a humorous twist and eating al desko.

It might seem surprising, though, to import new words from a dead language. And yet there are a number of words queuing up to get into the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that look very much like Latin. Latin hasn’t been spoken as a vernacular for more than a millennium, so why would we want to import new words from it into English? Well, Latin is still around us, e.g. in specialist fields, viz. medicine, science, and so on, ergo if we need a new expression to fit in with terms we already use, yes, we make up some Latin.

We all know from science about in vivo and in vitro but nowadays experiments can be conducted without living creatures or even cultures in Petri dishes. They can be done virtually, using computer simulations, or in silico. When I was at school, ‘dissection’ meant cutting up a smelly fish in a biology lab – now science is so much more sophisticated:

Single-cell sequencing data enables in silico dissection of the drosophila embryo.

Scientists are turning to ‘in silico biology’, building computer models of the intricate processes that take place inside cells, organs, and even people.

Understanding how humans function is not just a matter for biology, but also for economists. In evolution, we are familiar with the progression from Homo habilis through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, but when commentators wanted to define the type of person who would rationally choose the solution which provides the greatest benefit, they called him Homo economicus.  Although the term has been around for about a century, apparently Homo economicus has turned out to be a mythical creature, because modern humans – thankfully – do not typically behave this way. But modern human beings are not totally blameless creatures. In fact we are having such an effect on the planet that a new geological term has been suggested to describe our times, the Anthropocene period. The epoch we are currently in is called the Holocene, which followed the Pleistocene, but it has been suggested that we need a term to reflect the fact that the geology of the world is now more affected by the activities of humans than anything else. So to fit the pattern already established a new word has been made from the Greek anthropos, ‘human being’ and kainos, ‘new’.

In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary we have an example at language:

Why study Latin? It’s a dead language.

But the classical languages haven’t met their nemesis yet!


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. NB she taught languages for ten years before joining OUP and working on learner’s dictionaries e.g. the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary, Das Groβe Oxford Wörterbuch, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, q.v. for an explanation of these abbreviations!

No-platform

shutterstock-9929686In February 2016, equal rights campaigner Peter Tatchell found himself on the receiving end of accusations of racism and bigotry. Fran Cowling, a National Union of Students representative on LGBT issues in Britain, asked for Tatchell to withdraw from a university debate, saying she wouldn’t share a platform with him.

Tatchell defended himself vigorously, mobilizing support from other veterans of radical campaigns from the 1970s and 80s. In the end Ms Cowling was the one to step down, but not before a ferocious debate had been launched about the NUS no-platform policy and the limits of free speech.

So what is no-platforming?

Originating in the 1970s, the no-platform policy was designed to prevent racist, far right organizations from promoting their views on university campuses, and was a feature of student politics in the 70s and 80s.

It has come alive again recently, but this time veteran progressives such as ex-politician George Galloway and feminist writer Germaine Greer have found themselves under scrutiny for their outspoken opinions. New student leaders say that they are simply upholding the no-platform tradition of the 70s and 80s, to prevent social reactionaries (regardless of their past credentials) from spreading hatred and bigotry. The older generations accuse today’s student activists of being part of a ‘snowflake generation’, which is oversensitive and unable to face the challenges of free speech. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the argument between two generations of radicals has been very public and very acrimonious.

The word no-platform is not only of interest for its topicality but also linguistically, because it showcases the way words in English can transition from one part of speech to another. (Notice how I’ve cleverly shoehorned in examples of nouns that are now also used as verbs.)

The possibility of making verbs from nouns is a long-standing feature of English. What’s particularly interesting about no-platform is that it’s not a simple noun, but a two-word phrase that has been transformed into a verb. What’s more, it’s used as a transitive verb – you can ‘no-platform someone’. In fact, corpus data suggests that this use of the verb, and particularly the passive form, is a recent occurrence. See, for example, this headline:

Ignore the excuses – Peter Tatchell has been no-platformed.

This type of transformation isn’t limited to nouns or noun phrases. There are even examples of adverbial phrases being turned into verbs. For example, these two words come from the area of business (which seems to be a particularly rich source of this kind of linguistic change):

offshore: Thousands of these jobs have been offshored.
onboard: My focus has been restructuring how we do things when we onboard a client.

It’s hard sometimes not to wince (inwardly at any rate) when you hear some of these usages. But is that the right reaction? Should we decry their use as a decline in standards among contemporary speakers of English? Or should we embrace these words as a sign of the flexibility and creativity of English? It’s rather like the argument about no-platforming – what is offensive to some is a matter of freedom for others. And like that argument, it’s a debate that is likely to run and run.


Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department. Although he has authored books and online resources for learners of English, this is the first time that he has blogged on grammar.

Eish!

 

eish_main-picWhat do you say when you stub your toe? In English, we exclaim ouch, ow or yeow when we hurt ourselves. The Germans and Dutch say something similar: autsch or au, in the case of German, and au(w) in Dutch. Sudden pain provokes a different sort of sound (variations on /aɪ/) from French, Arabic and Chinese speakers: aïe (/aɪiː/), آيْ (/aɪ/) and 哎哟 (/aɪ jəʊ/). The Japanese word for ouch is even further from the English: 痛い ( /iˈtai/ ).

What about when you’ve escaped something bad? For English speakers, phew can express relief. /u:f/ is the sound several other languages use to express the same emotion – French, Russian, Arabic and Dutch among them.

And how do you express disgust? If we discovered a fly in our soup, we might exclaim yuck, ugh or eww, while the French would say berk, the Germans and Dutch bah, the Russians фу (/fuː/) or брр (/brr/) and the Egyptians خْس (/xs/).

Some exclamations are less like normal words than just sounds that we make: groans, shouts, yelps, snorts and so on. They help us convey a vast range of emotions and reactions to things: surprise, shock, pleasure, excitement, disgust, anger, pain, uncertainty, scepticism, cold … and more! They can be onomatopoeic; and as such their spelling is often tricky and variable.

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The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary lets you know when more than one spelling is possible, as you’ll see with the entry for ugh.

How much exclamations are characteristic of particular languages, and not human sounds generally, is apparent when we compare equivalents in different languages: sometimes they are similar, often not. As well as differences in expressing emotions, we might also express what we hear differently too. While cats sound similar across many languages, words for other animal sounds can be very diverse. Take dogs, for example: they say woof in English, ouah in French, гав (/ɡʌf/) in Russian, عَوْعَوْ (/‘aw ‘aw/) in Arabic, and 汪汪 (/wæŋ wæŋ/) in Chinese.

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And different varieties of English, e.g. North American English, Indian English and Scottish English, also have exclamations that are specific to them. Here are some examples from the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:

US:

eish_3

Irish:

eish_4

Scottish:

eish_5

Indian:

eish_6

South African:

eish_7

Let’s look in detail at another South African exclamation that has gained currency in the last couple of decades: the exclamation eish. It is pronounced /eɪʃ/ and is used to express a range of emotions such as surprise, annoyance and pain.

Exclamations like these that are specific to particular varieties of English, can tell us interesting stories about the places they come from. Eish has come to English via mixed languages that include words from Afrikaans and African languages. And these mixed languages developed as youth and street languages in the townships of South Africa – a township under apartheid being an area in which non-white people lived, e.g. Soweto, near a white-only community where they went to work.

While the word eish started its life as township slang, since the abolition of apartheid in 1991, it has been used more and more widely throughout South Africa, particularly among the younger generations.

It is a versatile word which can be used alone, at the beginning or end of an utterance, or be inserted for emphasis in the middle of a sentence. Here are some citations from the Oxford English Corpus showing something of the word’s richness and range:

Eish ja, we did start off with cold feet, I must be honest.

Eish man, love at first sight.

Is it possible to get a link for the tribute show they did on Monday? I missed it and I soooo wanted to see it eish.

It is really good eish.

I know as a fan I should defend her but eish sometimes it’s hard, cause she does things I don’t agree with.

The variety, versatility and expressiveness of exclamations make them an exciting part of the English language and an interesting point of comparison with other languages. If exploring these words makes you go ‘wow!’, you might want to go and look at the ‘More Like This’ cross references on exclamations and animal sounds. You will find sets of similar expressions, and Premium users can download activities to practise them.

Eish is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but is coming soon.


Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries & Reference Grammar department. She has been editing bilingual dictionaries and grammar reference materials for learners of English for more than 20 years – wowee!

FLOTUS

Earlier this month, Melania Trump became the 45th FLOTUS or First Lady of the United States. Other firsts she can claim include being the first FLOTUS not to speak English as her first language, the first foreign-born FLOTUS since Louisa Adams (FLOTUS from 1825-1829) and the first FLOTUS in quite some time to delay her move to the White House.

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That opening paragraph would have been 25 words longer if I hadn’t used FLOTUS, which partly explains why the word exists. FLOTUS is an abbreviation; the short form of a word, often used to save time, effort or space (particularly in writing). In general, an abbreviation can be formed from any of the letters in a word or phrase. With forms of address, for example, ‘Captain’ can be written as ‘Capt.’ and ‘Mister’ is almost always written as ‘Mr’. We usually pronounce an abbreviation in the same way we would the full form of the word, so /ˈkæptɪn/ and /ˈmɪstə(r)/, not /kæpt/ and /mɜːr/.

One particular type of abbreviation is the initialism. Instead of making a short form from any of the letters in a word or phrase, initialisms are formed from the first letters of other words. To pronounce them, we say each of the letters individually. You might see D.O.B. on official forms, RSVP on invitations or RIP on gravestones. These everyday initialisms are taken from English, French and Latin respectively and have become so much a part of the English language that their origins might well be forgotten.

Related to the initialism, FLOTUS is another type of abbreviation – an acronym. Like initialisms, acronyms are made from the first letters of longer names but unlike initialisms, they’re pronounced as words in their own right. Instead of saying each letter of FLOTUS individually, it’s pronounced to rhyme with lotus.

[British English]

[American English]

This makes FLOTUS easy to use in everyday speech. The word has spread from insider slang used by secret service agents to refer to Nancy Reagan (FLOTUS from 1981-1989) into much wider use in popular TV shows, news reports and general conversation as a way of referring to all subsequent First Ladies of the United States. There’s a mild irreverence to FLOTUS that means it’s used to talk about them rather than to them but it certainly isn’t an offensive slang term. In fact, it is now used by (former) First Ladies to refer to themselves, as can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s mini Twitter biography.

The popularity of FLOTUS has continued to grow so much that the word is now enjoying its latest incarnation as an official Twitter handle, created for Michelle Obama (FLOTUS from 2009-2017 and @FLOTUS from 2013-2017). In fact, FLOTUS has become so well established online, in print and IRL that rather than altering the word itself in anyway, people have humorously speculated what the ‘L’ might be made to stand for if a female President of the United States is ever elected. When it looked like Hillary Clinton might become POTUS, one suggestion was that her husband – former President Bill Clinton – might become ‘First Laddie of the United States’.

Although First Laddie isn’t likely to catch on, other names or phrases created for existing acronyms – rather playfully known as backronyms – have fooled people over the years, along with many examples of folk etymology. As convincing as they might sound though, ADIDAS is not an acronym of all day I dream about sport, posh is not the short form of Port Out, Starboard Home and golf does not stand for gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. To enjoy accurate etymology, we’d recommend using the Word Origin section in OALD entries.

sos

FLOTUS is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Danielle Gee is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP, she gained a BA in English and volunteered for VSO in PNG. 

Fangirls and fandom

Have you ever found yourself ‘fangirling’ over a celebrity? Which ‘fandoms’ do you belong to? Do you ‘ship’ any characters in your favourite TV show?

If the above questions have left you feeling flummoxed, I’m here to decode them for you, with this handy guide to the language of being a fan.

Fandom

The word ‘fandom’ was added to our Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in December 2015, and can be used in two senses:

  1. to refer to the state of being a fan of something (‘25 years of fandom’)
  2. to refer to the fans of something as a community (‘the Twilight fandom’).

fangirl-1In recent years, online forums and social media sites have provided spaces where the fandoms of TV shows, bands, celebrities, books and more can go and enthuse together, whether by ranking their favourite Doctor Who companions, by writing fan fiction (works of which are also known as “fanfics” or just “fics”), or by begging their favourite band members for a retweet.

Among other things, the explosion in fandom culture has led to the creation of several new words and linguistic innovations. One of my personal favourites is the concept of shipping. ‘Ship’ is a shortened form of relationship’, and when used as a verb it means (according to the Oxford English Dictionary – this one hasn’t made it into our Learner’s Dictionaries yet) ‘support or have a particular interest in a romantic pairing between two characters in a fictional series, often when this relationship is one portrayed by fans rather than depicted in the series itself’. From this, we get ‘ship names’, which are names for real or imaginary couples formed by blending the names of the two characters, or sometimes celebrities, in question. The Harry Potter fandom alone has given the world such gifts as ‘Drarry’, ‘Hinny’, ‘Dramione’ and ‘Bellamort’ (I’ll leave you to work out which characters each of those refers to), while ‘Brangelina’ is a more old school – and now obsolete – example.

Fangirls and fanboys

The words ‘fangirl’ and fanboy aren’t technicallyfangirl-2 new – the Oxford English Dictionary records that ‘fanboy’ was first used in 1919 and ‘fangirl’ in 1934. However, these terms have enjoyed something of a cultural renaissance in recent years, as the rise of Internet fandom has spawned a new breed of fans whose passionate commitment to their fandom of choice goes above and beyond the usual admiration from a distance. The revival of the terms ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ seems to reflect a need to label these extreme enthusiasts as something other than mere fans.

While adding -boy or -girl to the end of a word can often just mean that the person being referred to is a child (e.g. schoolgirl, choirboy), in this case the fans being referred to are often adults, and so the suffix could be seen as infantilizing – it suggests that their enthusiasm is immature, and that they are behaving like overexcited children or teenagers. Looking at real-world examples of the usage of both words, I came across many instances where they were used in a very negative and condescending way: fangirl was often preceded by words such as rabid and creepy’, and fanboy by desperate and pathetic’, suggesting that these more extreme fans are often viewed with strong disapproval.

It’s interesting that an originally gender-neutral word, ‘fan’, has come to be assigned suffixes that differentiate fans by their gender. The examples I looked at pointed to a clear difference in the way the two words were used. The word ‘fangirl’ mostly came up in relation to celebrities, especially boy bands, and to TV and book series. ‘Fanboy’, on the other hand, was often used about those expressing strong loyalty to certain software and technology brands (the examples in the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary entry refer to ‘a Nintendo fanboy’ and ‘Linux fanboys’), and about fans of the stereotypically nerdy side of popular culture, such as comics, video games and sci-fi. Interestingly, men expressing excitement about celebrities were sometimes described as ‘fangirling’ rather than ‘fanboying’, suggesting that the object of the fandom or the way it is expressed may matter more than the gender of the fan. ‘Fangirl’ often seems to be used to refer to a more overexcited and frivolous sort of fan than ‘fanboy’ – the kind who speaks in SHOUTY CAPITALS and takes any opportunity to ‘squee’ (‘Squeal in delight or excitement’, according to the OED). Dismissive or derogatory uses of ‘fangirl’ could be seen to carry sexist undertones, reinforcing old stereotypes of women – and especially young women – as hysterical and irrational.

However, there’s evidence to suggest that the connotations of the word are shifting. Some of the more recent examples of usage I found showed ‘fangirl’ being used in a much more positive way (“when I call it the nerdy fangirl network, it’s a compliment”), or simply as a neutral term (“She’s amazing, I’m a huge fangirl of hers”), indicating that many people are now happy to embrace the word and define themselves as fangirls. A young adult novel entitled Fangirl which portrayed a self-proclaimed fangirl in a sympathetic and subtle way was published a few years ago, and may have helped to turn the tide for this much-abused word. I, for one, am all for letting our inner fangirls run wild – after all, a little squeeing never hurt anyone.

Fangirl is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.


Laura Shanahan is Dictionaries Assistant in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP earlier this year, she studied French and Italian at university, and spent a year abroad teaching English in Italy. She has also worked at a translation agency, a bookshop and a library. She can often be found fangirling over fictional characters.