Lost for words


    What a weekend. A mercenary army shoots down helicopters belonging to their own ministry of defence, capturing a central command post in the middle of an enemy counteroffensive.

    A decade ago, we might have called this an ‘omnishambles’ – the Oxford University Press UK Word of the Year for 2012, made by adding the Latin prefix omni- (meaning ‘all’), to ‘shambles’. ‘Omnishambles’ emerged from The Thick of It, a satirical television series which skewered British politics; the character who first howled it, communications director Malcolm Tucker, added a swearword for emphasis, as in “f****** omnishambles”. ‘Omni-f******-shambles’ also works well, I find.  

    Tucker’s insult, although briefly popular, turned out to be a flash in the linguistic pan. Unlike other Oxford Uni Press Words of the Year, like ‘selfie’, ‘vape’, ‘post-truth’, ‘youthquake’, ‘toxic’, ‘climate emergency’, and ‘vax’, ‘omnishambles’ barely survived the series which spawned it. 

    We can always resort to ‘clusterf***, a potent though geriatric legacy of the Vietnam War, although the built-in swearword makes it harder to use as often as you might like. The 2022 Collins English Dictionary word of the year, ‘permacrisis’, hasn’t caught on. For one thing, it is too bleak. ‘Crisis’ has enough impact on its own; adding ‘perma’ just overeggs it. 

    Even the US Coast Guard gave in to this natural urge to overdramatise when they announced last week a ‘catastrophic implosion’ had killed all five passengers on the submersible Titan; the editor Giovanni Tiso wondered if the ‘implosion’ of a vessel containing humans at a depth of 3,500 metres really needed the word ‘catastrophic’.

    If the rolling disasters of the last few years have made phrases like ‘managed retreat’, ‘social distancing’, ‘rona’, ‘the new normal’ ‘before times’, ‘lockdown’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘bubble’ (in a quarantine sense) part of our lingo, social media has also ignited (and spread) linguistic creativity. Ten years ago, who had heard of ‘troll factories’, ‘doom-scrolling’, ‘photo-bomb’, ‘deepfakes’, ‘soft blocking’, ‘unfriending’, or ‘hot takes’?

    Linguistic nuances can make all the difference to the way an issue is perceived. In 2019, the Guardian updated its style guide to “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the paper began to use the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”, and “climate science denier” instead of “climate sceptic”. Although the science had been clear for decades, the Guardian was one of the first major media outlets to clarify its language this way, and to stop giving crackpots equal space with climate scientists, including the famously cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It marked a turning point for serious media; others followed suit, including New Zealand outlets like Stuff. 

    Without the wit, sadly, of a Malcolm Tucker, Trump has left a reeking crater in the language of American politics. The history of the word ‘woke’ follows the same trajectory as ‘politically correct’, words which once had a different meaning to those who used them among themselves. American Republican politicians appropriated these phrases, retooling them as insults which few of them bother to define. In 2021 Donald Trump warned the Biden administration was “destroying” the US “with woke.”

    Trump often distorts the meaning of words he uses repetitively. “Quick note on vocab,” Guardian columnist Marina Hyde noted this month on the former prez’s legal woes. “Down the rabbit hole we all descended some years ago now, “hoax” is the antidote to “-gate”: a sort of all-purpose bolt-on Trump can use to dismiss any scandal. Once he’s called it a hoax, the true scandal becomes the fact that anyone is trying to tar him with scandal. See also: ‘witch-hunt’”. 

    Although Oxford University Press’s latest Word of the Year, ‘Goblin mode’, sounds like an insult, it turns out to be an empowering phrase for those tired of doing their hair for Zoom meetings. “The hashtag #goblinmode,” writes the Guardian’s Lucy Knight, “is often used as a rebuff of the ‘that girl’ trend, which is all about being the ‘best version of yourself’, ie getting up early to exercise, performing elaborate skincare routines and drinking green smoothies – and posting about it on social media.”

    ‘Goblin mode’, says the Oxford University Press, appeared after the easing of Covid restrictions, and “captured the mood of individuals who rebelled against increasingly unattainable aesthetic standards and unsustainable lifestyles on social media.”

    Like all catchy new phrases, ‘Goblin mode’ captures an idea which would otherwise need a long-winded explanation. Other languages can be mined for useful or life enhancing concepts with no equivalent in English – the German schadenfreude, the Japanese wabi-sabi, the Danish hygge, the Italian sprezzatura, the Spanish te queiro, the te reo Māori manaaki and kaitiakitanga, to name a few.

    One word available to Spanish speaking Waiheke visitors sounds like something the island can embrace. While sobremesa literally means “over the table,” it signifies a relaxed, lazy time chatting after a meal, chilling with family or friends. What could be more Waihekean than that? • Jenny Nicholls

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