9 02 2012

I saw a word in The Sydney Morning Herald today that has probably been around before but not noted by me. It was “thugby league”. Clearly this is a blend of “thug” and “rugby” and a  very clever way to highlight the glorified violence that some kinds of contact sports entail. Such blends resonate with accrued meanings and giver the user of a language a strong feeling of embeddedness with the culture underpinning the language. They may or may not survive in the long run. Many do eg “smog”, “brunch”, naturalizing to the point that their “blending” origins are almost forgotten.

Top New Words 2011 – an early peep

1 01 2012

New Year. New words. I thought it an apt way to begin January 2012.

This time of year is when lexicographers the world over get their knickers in a knot seeking to decide on the best new words of the past year. I’m writing a piece on this for The Sydney Morning Herald, to be published in a few weeks.

Here are some early hopefuls:

devo  – shortened form of “devastated”

brill – shortened form of “brilliant”

occupy – as in “Occupy Wall Street”

dairyness – a measurement of a cow’s overall productivity in terms of milk.

slashy – a person who holds down more than one job eg actor/waiter/construction worker.

japas – tapas-style Japanese food

PIGS – acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – seen as weak economies in the Eurozone.

soy cap intelligensia – a more contemporary version of “chardonnay socialist”, a collective derogatory term  for a group of people with socio-economic views unlikely to impact on their own lifestyles.

This is merely a random sampling. Be prepared for the onslaught of published new words in the media through Jan/Feb 2012.

The Birth of Rebirth

21 06 2011

I love new words. Especially those that seem to have emerged spontaneously from who-knows-where.

Listening to the news this morning, I heard mention of the word “rebirthing” in relation to cars and seemingly (on first inference) illegal activity. This interpretation came less from “rebirth” than from  words like “racket”, “illegal” and the giveaway,  “crooks”. I discovered more on the ABC website

Professional car thieves around Australia are now running a lucrative racket based on what’s called ‘car rebirthing’. It’s a practice which involves making a stolen vehicle appear legitimate by using the identification number from another vehicle.

A bit more investigation (aka Google) revealed  326,000 hits. I’m amazed. Where has this word been all this time? I know it’s relatively new because its use in the print media is still accompanied by inverted commas eg the headline: States struggle to combat car “rebirthing”. But if the racket continues, we’re sure to lose the quote marks.

Again with Google, I sought to discover how flexible it has become, grammatically speaking, in its presumably short life.  Already we have the gerund – rebirthing. And the adjective rebirthed (eg a number of rebirthed cars…). There’s the infinitive form to rebirth (eg it’s still possible to rebirth a stolen vehicle in South Australia using a NSW identity). And the passive infinitive   (eg They must know that some of these cars… are going to some unscrupulous…characters to be rebirthed.)  And finally, there’s the simple common noun – rebirths (eg there’s an estimated 5000 rebirths a year), which like many common nouns, gives one the feeling of a well-established practice.

I predict new forms coming along any day now, like the agent noun rebirther:  eg What do you do? I’m a car rebirther. How about you? Or the present participle form eg What time will you be home, honey? Late, I’m afraid, I’ll be rebirthing all day.

One thing that I find quite curious is the actual choice of word. Of course, we’ve seen/heard rebirth used before, in the context of certain religious beliefs and also of fringe health remedies – where a person’s crippling mental problems are tracked back to an allegedly difficult birth, and through a guided mediation, that person is allowed to rebirth, and in doing so successfully, allegedly casts away all the heavy baggage and can start again, fresh and innocent. (All in all, this sounds a lot “cleaner” than years of psychoanalysis.).

But such a process is quite removed from the illegal racket of car rebirthing. All of which suggests to me that it was likely to have been someone within the automobile racket who came up with the name, much as used furniture might be called “pre-loved” or designer clothes “recycled” or “vintage(d)”.

It’s a nice example of how words don’t drop off the backs of trucks, without heritage or provenance. They arrive with meaningful connections and then proceed to develop in ways that speak volumes about  the work they do and the societies they live in.

Noses and the Pinocchio Effect

3 05 2011

I have a great interest in lying, while also being a hopeless liar. I discovered the full extent of this interest only recently when sorting through my bookshelves in the futile (but ongoing attempt) to create order and harmony. I was putting like-with-like and discovered that I had at least a dozen books on lying.

Long before human language evolved, communication still happened. Today, messages sent non-verbally – typically via facial movements, gesture etc – are still hugely important, either in supporting the verbal message or more ominously, in contradicting it. For a pretty ridiculous pop culture extension of this, one need go no further than the TV show Lie to Me.

The truth probably is that some people are more accomplished liars than others, and some people are more accomplished at detecting lies than others.  The truth probably also is that the cues that help you detect lies are less than immediately obvious, happen in clusters rather than singly, and happen very fast. In other words, you have to be sufficiently interested in this area of human endeavour to learn about and practise it.

Some jobs no doubt provide de facto training eg police work, counselling, primary school teaching… to name a few. I’ve used a few such strategies – for detecting, not for lying – such as the commonly mentioned eye gaze – up to the left means fabrication; up to the right means memory recall. This can be helpful when asking  (interrogating) teenagers about the previous night.

The point to bear in mind is that when a person lies, they undergo physiological changes: some invisible (like an elevated heart rate), some visible – being jittery, sweaty, restless. On the other hand, people can exhibit jittery, restless, sweaty signs but not because they’re lying. They could be unwell or suffering from social anxiety. Likewise, the accomplished liar no doubt is able to dissemble as required – in fact, this is part of the accomplishment. The whole topic is rendered more complex by the simple fact that what constitutes a lie is far from clear-cut. And that the same lie, told repeatedly, can become a kind of truth in the mind of the liar.

Tradition and myth have it that the nose plays a big part in lies, both the commission and the detection.  Rubbing or touching the nose is said to be a dead give-away. I’m not sure about that – but remember Pinnocchio, whose nose elongated along with his lies?  Apparently, there’s some science  behind the myth. In Chicago, the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation has allegedly reported that chemicals (called “catecholamines”) are released during lying, causing swelling in the nasal tissue. Lying apparently increases the blood pressure and causes an expansion of the nose as a result. This is called “the Pinocchio Effect”, for obvious (if cute) reasons. While the expansion may not be visible to the human eye, it is this that causes the itching that causes the nose touching.

It all sounds very plausible to me, but check it out for yourself. I certainly don’t want to be caught out lying, even if (or, especially if) not trying to.