Precariat: new word for a new class?

1 02 2012


I want you to know I’m not an uncritical lover of new words. And it’s not solely because they’re new. I do discriminate, and among my favourites may be found new words for groups of people, whose very labelling tells us something about the world we live in.

One such newie is precariat, clearly a blend of “precarious” and the suffix “–at”, perhaps best characterised in the term the “proletariat”. The use of the definite article (“the”) is a dead giveaway too. I’m thinking of other coinages in this category, like the commentariat.  The category is typified by member nouns, using the suffix “-ian”: proletarian, Rotarian, authoritarian, establishmentarian, totalitarian, libertarian.

I found it in an advertisement for an upcoming lecture at The University of Sydney, where, no doubt, all will be explained.

See below:

The Precariat: A new dangerous underclass

9 February, 6.00pm
A generation of educated people now start their working life in debt,  but many are not offered any job security in the new flexible labour market, and drift towards casual and part-time work. Will they form a new under-class that threaten existing social structures?  Professor Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, has coined a new term for these people and others in social and economic insecurity—the precariat

Millions of people, including many in Australia, are entering a global precariat, part of a class structure shaped by globalisation. This lecture, drawing on a new book, poses five questions. What is the precariat? Why care? Why is it growing? Who is most likely to be in it? And where is it leading us?

The brief answer to the first question is that it consists of millions of people in social and economic insecurity, without occupational identities, drifting in and out of jobs, constantly worried about their incomes, housing and much else. It particularly affects youth, many realising that their certificates and degrees are little more than lottery tickets, leading many into status frustration.

Will the precariat’s growth lead towards an authoritarian politics of inferno, with neo-fascist overtones? Or will a progressive agenda emerge in the squares and cities of protest, responding to Enlightenment values and the aspirations of the educated younger generation being drawn into the precariat?

The lecture will examine the labour market dynamics underpinning the growth of the precariat and outline the new ‘politics of paradise’ taking shape outside the political mainstream.

Globalwarmist, Assangist, Birther

12 04 2011

Three new words being used around and about. Only time will reveal  how successfully they penetrate the lexicon. Linguistically, they follow something of a pattern: each denoting someone who is or does something specific, like teacher, doctor, builder or horticulturalist, anarchist or linguist.

Globalwarmist -a person who subscribes to the belief that global warming, caused by humans’ heavy carbon footprint, is threatening Earth in serious and perhaps irreversible ways. Although the contexts in which I have seen this word being used so far impart a neutral stance, I suspect that globalwarmist may assume some negative connotations, depending on who uses it, to whom, and in what context. If globalwarming is perceived as a new religion of sorts, then a globalwarmist would take on the meaning of a particular kind of zealot.  Used in a sentence: They’re both globalwarmists so you can imagine what they talk about at breakfast.

Assangist –  a person who believes in/follows/subscribes to the belief system/political credo of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, essentially the hacker’s doctrine, that all information wants to be free. At this stage in the uncovering process,  and appreciating that it’s as yet early days, I wonder why so far so much of the leaked information is that which supports the thinking of the enemies of the West. Doesn’t everyone have secrets?  Used  in a sentence: They went to the public lecture but the debate was dominated by Assangists.

Birther – a term used for an apparently growing (?) number of American citizens, among them Donald Trump (he with the hair), who suspect that President Obama may not have been born in the USA as claimed and therefore would not have been eligible for the Presidency.  There’s a quality to this rumour that smells intensely like an urban myth – the apocryphal that never seems to satisfy attempts at authentification. Conspiracy theories are thick on the ground, especially when distrust of government prevails. Used in a sentence: Birthers started out as the lunatic fringe but who knows where they’ll end up.

image courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Spend, Spend, Spend…

21 03 2011

I just received a note in the mail from a clothes label that I tend to buy.

It said:

Dear Ruth,

Your 12-month Loyalty Status anniversary date is coming up soon and our records show that your spend has yet to reach $750.

Yep, that’s right “your spend”.

Well, call me oblivious, but up until this moment, I hadn’t really registered that I was on their Loyalty program, nor what this meant, nor that to maintain my status, I needed to spend $750 before my one-year “anniversary”.

The note included a “Snapshot of (my) Spend” – this showed how much I had spent since 8 May 2010, how much I had to reach ($750) and my “anniversary date” – 8 May 2011. I note they didn’t tell me the gap – how much I still needed to spend, leaving the maths to me. Nice. Politeness through omission or obliqueness.

My point in mentioning all this is to remark on the unusual use of “spend”  which I mostly know as a verb (eg spend money, spend a holiday, spend time). The dictionary agrees with me, but does have one citation for spend as a noun namely, “an amount of money spent, esp regularly, or allocated to be spent”.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that this unusual form of expression masks a certain discomfort. There’s a tension here. On the one hand they have lots of “purr” words – loyalty, rewards, anniversary etc; but the core ugly truth is that I have not spent enough, that I need to spend more if I want to stay on their database of much-loved people.

I imagine they sat around for a few hours, maybe with a bottle of red, brainstorming ways of saying  “You haven’t spent enough” without being too in-your-face; and finally came up with using “spend” as a noun, to take the edge off. Well, it certainly took the edge off for me, because it took me a few moments to work what they were trying to say, all of which is inherent in the politeness process, where you might dither about a bit (linguistically or physically) and that very behaviour is positively decoded as the effort to be polite.

Well of course, I’m not so keen to be part of this elusive Loyalty Program (elusive because even when I was having it I didn’t know I was having it) that I’m prepared to fork out hundreds of dollars that I might not otherwise have spent, just to stay on the cool-people database.

It all reminds me of the well-known slogan at a well-known department store whose signs often announce “You’re Invited to Save”, when what they mean is “You’re Invited to Spend”.

George Orwell, you can come out now from under that rock.


Love is Blinds

19 03 2011

There’s a shop up the road from my place that sells window coverings – like blinds, awnings, venetians etc. I haven’t been in there but from the street it seems that’s what they’re on about.

More than its content,  what attracted my eye, from quite far away actually,  was the name of the shop. It’s called LOVE IS BLINDS.

What a lovely nest of intertexualities and grammatical incongruences, which combined, appeals very nicely to my kind of brain.

Let’s unpack it.

First off, there’s the snowclone –  a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as “a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (from Wikipedia). A good example of a snowclone is “X is the new Y”  eg “grey is the new black”.

Of course much more is available  via Google on this subject, but the basics are that like metaphors, snowclones allow the new to be understood in terms of the already-familiar. Any good teacher knows that the brain is particularly conducive to receiving new information via old (or already-established) information. I like to think of this as the old information opening the gate(secret key?)  to allow the new information in.

Let’s return to LOVE IS BLINDS. Here the snow clone is the construction “Love is…”  There are many of these:  love is blind, love is great, love is kind, love is (means) never having to say you’re sorry… etc etc. There are even  “love is” websites (just Google “love is”).

Now, usually when the template is in its simplest form, we have Noun+Verb”to be” + adjectival complement eg Love is blind. Here, though, the shop owners have come up with a variant – changing “blind” as adjectival complement to “blind” as a noun (ie the thing you hang on your windows), here rendered plural (“blinds”).

This links in to my second point, which is to highlight the numerical incongruence. By now we’re moving a long way from the notion of love as blind (or causing deception or misunderstanding), to love as in lovely, and as associated with the commodity known as “blinds”. It’s clever because while many words could be used to describe blinds, calling  them the equivalent of “love” is a pretty big ask. So it’s an oblique, humorous, and even modest, way of speaking very positively about the product on sale.

Third, the actual grammatical aberration stimulates another snowclone, exemplified in the phrase “Toys are Us”, itself an amazing example of erroneous English that took off and kept on growing (eg Babies are Us, Cars are Us, Bald is Us, Genes are Us, Designs are Us etc etc). Why is it erroneous? Good question – I’ll return to this in another post. For the moment I want to suggest that  the snowclone  (“X are us”) is intimated in the LOVE IS BLINDS epithet, probably because of the format (noun+verb”to be”+noun) and also because of the plurality/agreement issue.

You see, underlying all of this is the fact that we tend in English to want, with copular verbs like “to be”, to ensure that the bit before the verb shows some agreement with the bit after the verb. In Latin this is a sacred rule, and formal English often tries to emulate Latin (eg the rule about not splitting the infinitive). Obviously in LOVE IS BLINDS we lack agreement in number: as an abstract noun, “love” tends to be rendered singular, while “blinds” as a common noun is undeniably plural.

Similarly, with “Toys are Us”, the correct form would more likely be “We are Toys”, or “Toys are We”, the latter probably rejected because of the rather un-seductive homophone “wee” (urine). In any case, appealing to the majority  (less-grammatically literate folk), “us” is far more user-friendly, and conveys the intended message which is:  Trust us,  we know about Toys!

All of these previously absorbed templates are activated to some degree in the process of comprehension, interpretation and inference. This is what makes communication so intensely interesting while also so intensely fraught –  or capable of capsizing at any moment.

In any case, the anomalous non-agreement of LOVE IS BLINDS is likely to fix the name in one’s mind, and arguably, this is the whole purpose of advertising. Disappointingly perhaps, for the shop at least, when I recently decided to buy some venetian blinds for my study, I first did think of the LOVE IS BLINDS shop, but then was seduced by the sale being advertised in a well-known department store. Ultimately, perhaps, the hip pocket will always win out, even over grammatical fascination.

Foreskins – an unusual point of harmony

9 03 2011

There aren’t many topics that bring Jews and Moslems into the unfamiliar territory of agreement. But there is one, and it’s just come up again, in San Francisco, where Jewish and Moslem groups are mobilizing and strategizing about how they will rally against proposed new legislation that will seek to criminalize male circumcision. It’s a topic where both faiths see eye to eye, as the riualized custom has a deeply embedded history, with cultural, community and religious associations.

You may well be thinking – what is my interest here? Am I trying to suggest that if agreement can be so easy on the delicate matter of the foreskin, then surely allegedly intractable points of contention in the Middle East might also be potentially open to agreement?

Short answer: No. In fact, my interest is less political than linguistic. I note that the leader of the anti-circumcision group in San Francisco is a self-described “intactivist”  – an activist in favour of well, staying intact.

It’s a clever word: like the Pro-Life lobby, it harnesses the positives (intact-ness), rather than promoting the contrariness (anti-abortion; anti-anything). It finds a “nice” way (if somewhat indirect, but that comes with the territory of euphemism) to avoid the word “circumcision”, which is very, well,  in-your-face.

It does make you wonder what name the anti-intactivists will come up with, to lend their cause support and energy.


3 03 2011

We’re getting used to –stans. Since the collapse of the Soviet, Communist world over 20 years ago,  what once were parts of a large Russian-controlled empire fractured into a collection of, well,   –stans. Like  Kazakhstan,   Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,  Turkmenistan,  Uzbekistan. The suffix –stan, from Persian, means “place of”. Hence within Iraq we have Kurdistan – place of Kurds.

The proliferation of –stans (remember, we already had Pakistan and Afganistan) inevitably led to word play. There was Londonistan (2006) , a book by Melanie Phillips, UK journalist, concerned about the spread of Islam into the West. And there was Absurdistan (2006), which according to Wikipedia, is a term sometimes used to satirically describe a country in which absurdity is the norm, especially in its public authorities and government. In linguistics, this is sometimes called a placeholder name, functioning rather like a pronoun in that it stands in place of a noun. In this case it stands for mostly former Soviet bloc nations which in the opinion of the user of the term, have descended into a state of the absurd.

So it was not a huge leap, to read in the review by Barry Oakley in The Australian Literary Review of Feb 2011, of a recent book by Jane Miller, Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old (Virago), a review entitled “On the Road to Senilistan”. Following the trend in portable  -stans (see above), Senilistan has to denote a place of old people. The medical dictionary (www. tells us what we already know: Senile: 1. Pertaining to old age. 2. Pertaining to the physical decline associated with old age. 3. Pertaining to the mental decline once  associated with old age….etc etc, all of it depressing.

It derives from Latin senilis, meaning old age, old men, grey hair. Most likely it early on functioned as a euphemism or polite form for “old” (think our “senior citizens”). The meaning “weak or infirm from age” didn’t start to appear until the mid 19th century. And as is the way with euphemisms, sooner or later (usually sooner), the stigma associated with the original word (in this case, being old) starts to infect the new word, and it beging to accrue the earlier  stigmatized associations (senility). According to Barry Oakley, the reviewer,

“Old age is a kind of temporal Albania. Once leaving the civilised 60s, one enters a region where infrastructure starts to break down. A hip or a knee goes, but one shuffles on until, if you’re lucky, the far border is reached. If the 70s are Third World, the 80s are Senilistan: a falling-apart land, unpredictable and chaotic”(see

Clearly the term Senilistan is wryly comic way of laughing at the inevitable (no, not if you join your local Acquarobics)  process of decline, demise, deterioration and any other dismal “d” word you care to think of. Oakley’s review is a very good read, and Jane Miller’s book promises to be a good one too, but where they may come or go, the term Senilistan – certainly in a quickly ageing global population – is likely to be a keeper.


14 07 2010

Diplo-speak – the public language of diplomacy –  is a particular sub-set of language (I hesitate to use the term dialect) that operates on at least two fronts: for those in-the-know; and for the rest of us.  In many ways, it resembles a code, able to be deciphered by some; closed to others. As I’m not in-the-know, I can speculate only on what the terms of diplo-speak might mean.

For example, when relations are said to be “cool”, that’s very different to their being “warm”. Similarly, relations might be said to be “thawing”, and this suggests that earlier, they’d been very much colder. “Chilly” fits in there somewhere, as does “cordial”. I’m not quite at the point of drawing up a gradient with the various terms notched onto it. I’m a little confused about the extreme ends of the gradient for they seem to suggest similarly bad relations – very “chilly”, and very “heated” both seem to be one or two steps from calling off diplomatic relations.

The Middle East is a great site (not exclusively so, of course) for the exploration of these and related terms. Remember when they used to refer to being “on track to peace talks”? And later, those same peace talks were placed “on the horizon”, which is a good deal further away than on the “track”.

It probably bespeaks the current temperature that now the language has moved from cold/chilly/warm to more geological terms like “rift”, “shift” and “fissure”. Recent talks between Obama and Netanyahu appear to be warm-ish, but the very effort displayed by both parties to give this impression somewhat undercuts the impact. Apparently, the meeting between the two heads of state was “almost tainted” in the lead-up by a leak that claimed a “tectonic rift”  separated the two countries. “Rift” was later adjusted to “shift”. Subsequently, US officials added:  “there is no fissure”.

So, we’re out of temperature metaphors for the moment and into geological ones. It would seem, from the gradient implied above, that a “rift” is more serious than a “shift” which is more serious than a “fissure”.

Does any of it matter? Only in so far as we all deploy and react to language to mediate our understandings of events.

Even apparently minor features – such as the seeming disfluency  of a momentary self-correction – may have more significance than we know. Obama is on record as having said:

“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements. .. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

The disfluency occurs in the first sentence:  “.. threats that are levelled against us – against it -…”. This “us” revised into “it” seems like a slip that might suggest that Obama aligns his country’s interests with Israel’s. As such, it’s reminiscent of the famous Kennedy Ich Bin ein Berliner speech. Such a reading would have the amendment – “against it” – serving as a phrase in apposition, adjectival in function, adding non-essential information.

On the other hand, is it in fact what it appears to be – a self-correction? Meaning – don’t think we’re aligned, because we’re not.

Can we know? Do those in-the-know know?

If there’s one abiding feature of diplo-speak, it is its slipperiness,  the wiggle-room factor. Essential for later deniability.