Monday, December 18, 2017

Why language is a mirror of our times

The Oxford English Dictionary recently named its (prestigious?) Word of the Year winner, along with its fellow short-listers. The words chosen always seem to be accurate indicators of the national mood (which means they are usually forgotten very quickly) and this year was no exception. As usual, I used it with my students for a healthy bit of language debating. 

In case you haven't heard, the winning word was 'youthquake'. The blended neologism has been around for a few years, but really did define the impact made by teenagers and young adults in 2017 - especially in the summer. It describes a fairly seismic shift in social attitudes brought about by a kind of sustained movement of young people who share a common goal or world view. 

"Corbynmania!" yelled the students, smiling broadly. They were right. Corbynmania is the perfect example. It was something that really enthused young voters, and the fact that the election result caught all the experts by surprise underlines how momentous a youthquake can be. Given the current climate, it was an obvious and worthy winner. But we also discussed some of the other words on the list. Here it is in full: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/shortlist-2017

One is 'antifa', a clipping of 'anti-fascist'. Once again, it resonated immediately. My students realised that (relatively) recent political events, such as Brexit and Trump entering the White House, had been complete game changers. For generations, fascist or far-right organisations were so derided that it was easy to ignore them. But not now. Our debate led us to a conclusion that perhaps the western democracies had somehow legitimised (or at least given voice to) some hateful organisations. As a result, the world has seen a youthquake which has necessarily put the antifa movement in the spotlight. See how it all ties together? That's why we love this subject!

Next was 'broflake'. Using the term 'snowflake' (a derogatory reference to the so-called millennials who 'can't take the heat' of real life) against itself was one of those great English Language moments: take the insult, tweak it, and fire it back at your accuser in an improved form. It is used to describe middle-class establishment types (mainly men) who shy away from uncomfortable truths because it would be too difficult to admit that society is not exactly how they perceive it. The go-to reference points for my students were the recent sex scandals engulfing Hollywood and the moral ambiguity of some of our own MPs' behaviour around women. Both demand that the establishment figures ask themselves some awkward questions. Only a complete broflake would shy away from such responsibility. 

Another word on the list (a compound noun, to be precise) was 'milkshake duck'. This was a new one to my students. It's best summed up as describing how fickle we have become in the age of social media. If someone posts a video of a duck drinking a milkshake, it'll probably be loved. Everyone will be talking about the milkshake duck. But days later, we learn that milkshake duck has a dark past and holds some pretty unpopular views. The world feels let down, deceived and hates the milkshake duck!

The penny dropped. My students realised it was a reference to how every aspect of a person's life is there to be consumed on social media. Nothing remains secret and so, unless you're squeaky clean, you can go from hero to villain overnight. They pointed to the recent series of I'm a Celebrity. Although it was played out on TV rather than on social media, people's opinions of Rebekah and Dennis changed overnight after seeing how they were treating Iain. Such a shame 'strawberrygate' came too late to make the shortlist. See also my previous post about Jack Maynard. 

Of course they discussed the rest of the list as well, but it only led them back to the realisation that language is a mirror of the here and now. "Will we still use these words next year?" asked one. What could I say? It depends what's around the next corner. Either way, the OED list always manages to remind us of exactly how we've been feeling that year.