Virtue signalling

January 7th 2018. At the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, many of Hollywood’s most famous female actors wore plain black dresses instead of the usual extravagant examples of haute couture. Their aim was to show support for the #timesup and #metoo campaigns against sexual harassment. When the same campaign ran during the BAFTAs ceremony in the UK a month later, the Daily Mail newspaper called it ‘virtue signalling: the sequel’.

You may not agree with the Daily Mail’s opinion but it raises an interesting question. It became apparent that many actors were aware of unacceptable behaviour in their industry but almost none of them had spoken out at the time.

shutterstock_129038348That is the essence of ‘virtue signalling’ – publicly expressing a view that demonstrates your good moral character, but not doing anything practical to change the situation. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to join a Twitter campaign with millions of others. It’s much harder to take action when you come across the problem in real life.

The term ‘virtue signalling’ may sound as if it comes from the field of social sciences, but the Oxford New Words Corpus* reveals that it is used mainly by journalists writing opinion pieces in blogs or newspapers, especially those with right-wing sympathies such as Fox News or Breitbart.com. The corpus shows that it is primarily used to denounce politicians who express liberal opinions on issues such as climate change, gun control, Brexit or feminism.

The term is a recent addition to the language with about 150 examples in the corpus since 2015. But if you search for ‘virtue signalling’ on Twitter, you will find hundreds of examples within the last few weeks alone. In fact, on Twitter it seems to have become the new word for ‘political correctness’.

A good example comes from the British journalist, Piers Morgan, who recently wrote: ‘How dare you kill off mankind, Mr Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist.’ This was after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apparently used the term ‘peoplekind’ to replace the word ‘mankind’.

Not all examples of virtue signalling refer to politics. When the physicist Stephen Hawking died recently, #RIPstephenhawking trended on Twitter. Clearly most people had never met Hawking. It’s also unlikely that they could tell you anything about the complex scientific theories that he had developed. So why did so many people use the #RIP hashtag? The accusation is that they hoped to enhance their public image simply by associating themselves with a great person.

There is something quintessentially 21st century about the use and the tone of the term ‘virtue signalling’. If you look through the list of other words that have recently been added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, it’s easy to see the influence of social media. Among these words are, for example: clicktivism, ghosting, lurker, Remoaner. One of the striking things about these new words from social media is that so many of them are pejorative. If you go to the original source and read the full articles or tweets, the tone of the debate is almost relentlessly negative. Maybe it’s time to start a hashtag campaign to treat each other with respect on Twitter. Or would that just be another example of virtue signalling?


*The Oxford New Words Corpus was started in early 2012 and now totals approximately 7 billion words collected from recently published web pages.


Martin Moore is a Managing Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department.

Brexiteers, Remoaners and frenemies

boy-in-union-jack-capThe referendum of 2016 brought about a new division in the UK: between Leavers and Remainers, or put more informally, between Brexiteers and Remoaners. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of both sides – and will try not to reveal my own position! – but want to look instead at some of the new words generated by the discussion around Brexit.

Back in May 2016, we published a blog post on the new word Brexit. That was before the referendum, in which votes in favour of leaving the EU (European Union) outnumbered votes to remain, by a slim margin. Since then, as the British government struggles to negotiate with the EU exactly what Brexit will entail, the split of opinion and passions surrounding this issue continue to be strong. Language has evolved to help convey some of those emotions.

One new word is Brexiteer, defined here by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

brexiteer-definition

Brexiteer has overtaken Brexiter, another new word meaning the same thing but more neutral in connotation.

What does the suffix -eer convey? In some words it simply signifies a person that does something connected to the noun it’s attached to – for example: auctioneer, engineer, mountaineer, puppeteer, volunteer. -eer is also the suffix in some loanwords that have come into English from French – for example: buccaneer (French: boucanier), mutineer (French: mutinier), pioneer (French: pionnier), musketeer (French: mousquetaire). This category of words often describe a daring, dashing (= usually of a man: attractive, confident, elegant) or swashbuckling (= especially of a hero from the past: adventurous, fighting with a sword, etc.) sort of person. Additionally, -eer marks several nouns as pejorative (= disapproving) – for example: profiteer, racketeer.

So which category does Brexiteer belong to? Who uses it about whom?

People in the Leave camp were, particularly at the outset, cautious of the words Brexit and its derivatives Brexiteer/Brexiter. Brexit, at least since the Prime Minister Mrs May insisted after the referendum that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, has established itself as an ordinary term in discussions. It is even used freely in other languages:

Pour comprendre ce qu’est le Brexit, il faut d’abord expliquer ce qu’est le Royaume-Uni. [from Libération, 7 April 2017]

Mit dem Brexit will Großbritannien auch aus dem Europäischen Binnenmarkt ausscheiden. [from Zeit Online, 28 March 2018]

Bruksela odrzuca model pobrexitowych stosunków między UE i Wlk. Brytanią, który premier Theresa May zapopronowała w ub. tygodniu. [from wyborcza.pl, 7 March 2018]

Brexiteer hasn’t gained the same neutral function as Brexit. Whether it has a positive or negative ring (= quality) depends on the speaker. Clearly some Leave supporters are happy to embrace it as a positive description:

‘Brexiteer brings to mind buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer,’ says Michael Gove. ‘It lends a sense of panache (= the quality of being able to do things in a confident and elegant way that other people find attractive) and romance to the argument.’ [from The Spectator, 24 September 2016]

Notice Mr Gove did not add mutineer to his list, as that word carries with it a sense of rebellion without the more attractive attributes of a pioneer, etc. However, Brexiteer is also used by those who oppose Brexit to suggest someone who is recklessly putting the country’s future at risk. One thing a Brexiteer has is a passionate commitment to the cause. Corpus evidence shows Brexiteer used with adjectives such as ardent and convinced. For the more extreme variety of Brexiteer there are adjectives such as hard, hard-line and arch – there are many fewer soft Brexiteers in use.

Three pro-Brexit ministers in Mrs May’s post-referendum cabinet – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox – were dubbed (= to give somebody/something a particular name, often in a humorous or critical way) The Three Brexiteers and portrayed in media illustrations as the legendary Three Musketeers.

Remoaner is a pejorative and humorous new word that Brexit supporters use of their opponents, criticizing them for failing to accept the result of the referendum with their talk of second referendums, and ongoing forecasts of doom (= death or destruction; any terrible event that you cannot avoid) once Brexit is in place. Here is the new entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

remoaner-definition

It replaces -main- in the neutral term Remainer with moan (= to make a long deep sound, e.g. expressing unhappiness or suffering). Remoaner is made even more negative by the addition of adjectives such as miserable, whinging or bleating.

While this play on words started life as a noun, it has given rise to a few derivatives, especially the gerund and present participle:

When will the remoaners stop remoaning and accept the fact that the UK is leaving the EU? [from Yahoo Answers]

… if ‘remoaning’ means standing up for EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK … [from The Mirror]

Remoaner is a blend or portmanteau word in that it combines elements of two separate words, but is different from classic blends in that it sounds more like a distortion of a known word – a distortion of Remainer.

The blend word frenemy will most probably come in handy more and more in discussing post-Brexit relations:

friend + enemy = frenemy

Here is its entry from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online:

frenemy-definition

This word is actually not anywhere near as new as Brexiteer and Remoaner: its first use is recorded as being in 1953. But its usage has increased in recent years.

The big band of Brexiteers includes many frenemies: people united in their wish to leave the EU but otherwise with different political views or social backgrounds. In the situation in which the UK will be cutting at least some ties with old friends, it will need new ones – and will most likely have to make some frenemies too! Which countries will prove to be lifelong friends, and which will become best frenemies remains to be seen.


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.

Catch a cold

shutterstock_511842424How are you? I hope as you read this you’re feeling better than I am as I write it! It’s the time of year when many of us suffer from coughs and colds and so when I realized that catch a cold is a new expression in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, I had to investigate. Of course the main meaning has been around for a long time, but now there’s a second sense that’s been added, one that means having more general difficulties:

catch-a-cold

The context of business and the stock market is typical. In our corpus of English, we find sentences like:

Coop Bank already messed up and caught a cold after the Britannia deal.

The stock caught a cold in February.

We’re very familiar with discussing the state of business in metaphorical ‘health’ terms. Read almost any business report in the newspaper and you will find medical analogies:

Not surprisingly, the major banks are celebrating their clean bill of health.

This time around, both the U.S. and German economies are flatlining, while that of Japan continues its slow downward spiral.

If allowed, market forces would naturally correct this, but few are willing to swallow the medicine needed to fix this mess.

With catch a cold, although many of the examples are from business, the corpus also shows us cases from sporting contexts:

It is tough rugby played on hard, fast grounds and the Lions almost caught a cold.

I assume that this has developed from expressions we’re familiar with along the lines of ‘When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.’

This spawned all sorts of variations:

When Britain caught a cold, the periphery caught pneumonia.

When Apple sneezes, the supply chain shudders.

But now half of the pattern – the other illness – seems to have dropped away:

If China’s economy catches a cold, car sales will inevitably be impacted.

It’s not uncommon for idioms to end up truncated. Just think of ‘People who live in glass houses …

We don’t need to say the end of these expressions because people know what they mean. In fact, the older expressions may no longer be familiar to you in their full form. Can you finish these idioms?

‘What’s sauce for the goose … ’
‘If the cap fits … ’
‘Half a loaf … ’

… which goes to show that half an idiom is not to be sneezed at.


The full forms of the idioms are:

What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
If the cap fits, wear it.
Half a loaf is better than no bread.


Margaret Deuter is a managing editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. She taught English in Germany and the United States before becoming a lexicographer in 1991 to work on monolingual and bilingual learners’ dictionaries.

Banger

A sausage. An old car. A loud firework. A really good song. It seems unlikely that these four things would be connected but connected they are!

They can all be described, in informal British English at least, as bangers.

Did you make the connection?

If you know the meaning of the word bang, you might be able to work out how some of these have earned their nicknames.

When sausages are fried, there’s a good chance they might go bang (= burst open with a loud noise), or at least that was the case in the past. In times when meat was scarce, sausages were bulked out with water and other fillers, making them noisier to cook and liable to burst. There is even a children’s counting song called Ten Fat Sausages, all about sausages sizzling in a pan until they gradually all go ‘pop’ and ‘bang’. While today’s meatier sausages are likely to result in a much more muted sizzle, it seems that this characteristic sound is why sausages became known as bangers. Bangers and mash – sausages with a serving of mashed potato – is as much a classic British meal as fish and chips.

An old car in bad condition might sputter and backfire as it struggles noisily along the road, so it would seem fitting to dub it a banger.

You’re not still driving that old banger, are you?

Americans would use the word beater instead, while a more old-fashioned (and more opaque) term to describe a dilapidated vehicle is jalopy.

And there are no prizes for guessing why noisy fireworks might be nicknamed bangers!

You will already find these three senses of banger in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. But what of the fourth sense, a really good song?

The loud noise denoted by bang can often suggest anger or impatience, or be perceived as an annoying sound, as you might surmise from some of the example sentences given in OALD:

She banged on the door angrily.

The baby was banging the table with his spoon.

A window was banging somewhere.

The door banged shut behind her.

This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider the etymology, or word origin, of bang:

bang_WO

A sound that is imitative of hammering is unlikely to be pleasant. Why then is banger used to describe a good song?

Well, in recent years, banging has come into use as an adjective in informal British English, with a couple of rather more positive meanings, and has been added to Oxford Dictionaries online (although not yet to our own Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website). When used to describe dance music, it means ‘having a loud relentless beat’, and when used more generally, it simply means ‘excellent’. It’s clear then how a banging song might have come to be described as a banger.

shutterstock_257634547

Unsurprisingly, considering its probable origins in banging, it seems that the term banger is primarily applied to dance music, meaning music for dancing to in clubs: there are 1,008 citations for ‘club banger’ in Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, making it the top collocate of all senses of banger. However, a quick Internet search indicates that banger can also be used to express approval of songs from other genres of music – indeed one of my colleagues said he first heard the term when his daughter, a fan of musicals, declared a 1930s show tune to be ‘a banger’.

It is also interesting to note that banging and banger bear no relation to a couple of other informal musical terms you may have heard of – headbanging and headbanger. These words apply to fans of heavy metal, rather than club music, and the way they shake their heads violently up and down in time to music.

So now you know: if you’re ever driving along in an old car, listening to a great song, on your way to a fireworks display where there’ll be sausages on the barbecue, one word is all you’ll need.


Do make sure to look out for the new sense of banger in a future update to OALD online.


Kallah Pridgeon is an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press where she works on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.

Barbacoa

21957549-LLFancy going to that new barbacoa place tonight?

Where?! That might be your reaction, but a few years down the line having barbacoa for your dinner might just be as normal as paella or sushi are today.

As globalization brings English-speaking countries into ever closer contact with other cultures, so English borrows words from these cultures. In fact, it seems the appetite of the English language is becoming ever more voracious. And because we all like to eat, and many of us like to try new foods, these loanwords are particularly common in the world of food.

Recent additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, and words we may consider adding in future updates, include foods such as arancini and pecorino (from Italian), queso and chorizo* (from Spanish), challah (from Hebrew), pad thai (from Thai) and tempeh (from Bahasa Indonesia). And then there are more words related to ways of serving food, like omakase (from Japanese), or barbacoa (from Mexican Spanish).

Let’s look at barbacoa, for example. In Mexican Spanish, and now in English too, this is a slow-cooked meat dish originally cooked in an underground oven, but in the Maya lands of southern Mexico it still refers to the oven itself – a barbacoa is a hole dug in the ground which is used as an oven for cooking.

But does barbacoa remind you of another English word? It wouldn’t be surprising if it does, because the word barbecue has been part of the English language for over three centuries. It has certainly been part of popular culture in English-speaking countries long enough to have morphed into a verb too, as nouns often do in English as they become more common. English grammar is very flexible in its ability to transform itself in this way, and this flexibility certainly helps it to absorb foreign words.

Let’s not forget that many other older words, which are now so familiar that some of us may even think of them as English words, such as restaurant, cafe and sommelier, are also of foreign origin. These older words often came from French, as France was seen as the height of gastronomic sophistication, and was therefore the source of most of our innovations in food. As our horizons have widened, though, more recent introductions are more likely to come from other languages.

But we’re getting distracted… now what’s that delicious smell? Back to the barbecue!

As well as changing their meaning, sometimes these words don’t even come from the language you might expect. Barbacoa, for example, came into Spanish from the language of the Native American Taíno people, who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus and the European colonists. If we look at the Word Origin box in the entry for barbecue in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that in the Caribbean islands of the Arawak-speaking Taínos it was a structure made of sticks used for drying fish or meat, and only when it reached the mainland of the nearby continent was it transformed into a way of cooking the fish and meat, and finally, as the word migrated northwards through Mexico and into Texas, into a specific meat dish not even cooked in a pit.

barbecue_WO

So as you can see, barbacoa is quite a good example of how words can change their meaning over time!


*Read about the confusion surrounding the pronunciation of chorizo and other culinary borrowings in our previous Word of the Month post on biscotti.


Before becoming an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, Mark Temple lived another life as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America. His professional duties included eating barbacoa of all kinds.

Snowflake

As winter and the festive season approach (in the northern hemisphere anyway – apologies to those of you who may instead be enjoying a barbie on the beach), I have chosen snowflake as the Word of the Month. Let us consider what most of us know about snowflakes:

Even to those who hate snow, an individual snowflake is surely a thing of beauty and wonder.

All these qualities have given rise to a new, figurative use of snowflake – to be added at a future update to OALD online. Parents who love their children very much, think they are special and unique, and want to protect them from any possible harm, think of them as precious ‘snowflakes’.

Except they don’t. I can find no evidence of snowflake being used in a loving and positive way by parents. Instead, this new meaning of snowflake seems to date back to the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, later adapted into a film, and containing the line:

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

The concept of the ‘special snowflake’ was negative and ironic from the beginning. If we look at lines containing snowflake in OUP’s New Monitor Corpus, we can see that it is never parents who use the snowflake metaphor about their children, but always other people:

And please can we stop making parents and their unique little snowflakes the single most important thing in Australian society.

the kind of beautiful, unique snowflake your mother always told you you were before you realized she was lying to you

She has a horrendous case of ‘special snowflake syndrome’.

Even the lines that seem to be positive are actually dripping with sarcasm:

You are a perfect snowflake and it’s everyone else who’s wrong.

58009Young people of the ‘snowflake generation’ are often criticized for being very sensitive and easily offended. These are the students who no-platform speakers whose opinions they find offensive (see the WotM for March 2017); and who request trigger warnings (WotM September 2017) when difficult issues are to be discussed in class. One lecturer at Cambridge University has recently vigorously defended his use of a trigger warning (for a lecture discussing rape scenes in Shakespeare and modern drama) after his students were – quite unfairly, he felt – criticized as ‘snowflakes’.

Call me a snowflake, but I also find the term snowflake unsettling, for two main reasons: one, because it has appropriated something innocent and beautiful and turned it into something pejorative and nasty; and two, because it seems to be an intergenerational thing – the older generation insulting the younger. It is undeniably an example of the creativeness of language and metaphor, and the power of culture in spreading memes. However, there is already a backlash against the term – the ‘snowflake generation’ may prove they are not such snowflakes after all.


Diana Lea taught English in Czechoslovakia and Poland before joining Oxford University Press as a dictionary editor in 1994. She has worked on a number of dictionaries for learners of English, including the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English.

Ghosting

Halloween sweetsHave you ever been ghosted? Or perhaps you’ve been the ghoster? If you haven’t come across these terms before, you might think these questions have something to do with the paranormal, especially given that the date of this post coincides with Halloween, the evening when children in the US, Canada and Britain often dress up as ghosts, witches and other spooky characters and go trick or treating. Ghosting in this sense doesn’t in fact relate literally to apparitions and spirits, although that’s not to say that being ghosted won’t leave you haunted by the emotional after-effects. The act of ghosting involves abruptly withdrawing from all communication with a partner or friend, and thereby ending the relationship – with the ghoster in this scenario being the person who purposely ‘disappears’.

As shown in these examples, a ghoster can ghost a relationship as well as a person:

Not only did she leave him, she straight up ghosted him.

… if your bestie has just ghosted you for someone, make sure to tell them, honestly, about your feelings.

I ghosted my last relationship.

Evidence from our corpus (= the language database that we use to track how words are used) reveals that the preposition on is sometimes added in, turning the expression into a phrasal verb:

He complained that girls were ghosting on him and standing him up.

You might be surprised to learn that before this meaning of ghost materialized, the word already had two verb senses. Ghosting a book or written piece means ghostwriting the work (or writing it for someone who then publishes it as their own):

He ghosted the autobiography of a famous pre-war footballer…

In its intransitive form, the verb ghost can also mean to move from one place to another without making a sound:

They ghosted up the smooth waters of the river.

The most recent use of ghost probably derives its meaning from the fact that the ghoster takes on the ghost-like quality of being present yet unreachable. Ghost Mode, a feature that was recently introduced on Snapchat, also plays on this idea. Enabling this mode prevents other users from being able to see your location, which in a sense makes you ‘invisible’.

Of course, as I’m sure anyone over the age of twenty will confirm, the ghosting phenomenon existed long before we started using this word to describe it. However, maybe it’s no coincidence that ghosting has become a hot topic in this digital era, when many daters are using online dating apps and websites that not only make it easier to meet potential mates but perhaps also make it easier to vanish into the ether when it doesn’t work out.

Ghosting is by no means the only word with creepy connotations to come into use with the rise of online and app dating. Take, for example, the verb haunt. As you may already know, when a ghost is said to be haunting someone, the ghost is seen or heard regularly by that person:

He said he would come back to haunt her.

Increasingly though, the verb haunt is being used in the context of relationships. If a ghoster from your romantic past is haunting you, that person has recently reappeared in your life (or has metaphorically ‘come back to haunt you’) via some indirect form of interaction, such as liking a post on one of your social media feeds. This practice is also known as zombieing, drawing a semi-humorous comparison between the ghoster and a zombie – in this sense, a fictional creature often depicted as having come back from the dead.

If all this talk of ghosting, zombieing and haunting hasn’t spooked you, look out for these words in future updates of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. As the world of dating continues to evolve at a somewhat frightening pace, you might well find that these aren’t the only new terms to add to your dating vocabulary list.


Leonie Hey is a Development Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011.

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.