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.


30 04 2011

It’s odd how you increase your own lexicon. It’s a curious blend of serendipity and conscious exploratory follow-up.

An example, starting with the “conscious exploratory follow-up”.  I have only just discovered the word obliquity, pronounced ur-BLIK-wi-tee, or if you prefer standard IPA, əˈblɪkwɪti. Now, I’ve long known oblique, but had no idea there was a noun or that obliquity was it.   The dictionary predictably (and pretty uselessly) tells me that obliquity means “the state of being oblique”. But something that was useful was the additional sense carried in “oblique”, namely that there may be a hint of deception; and that the adjectival form obliquitous  is very suggestive of such deceit.

If “oblique” means not straight, at an angle, sloping, then it’s easy to see how the deceptive sense taps into one of the metaphorical uses of “straight”  –  upfront, honest, direct. I’m able now to imagine a sentence like the following: “Politicians, used car salesmen and real estate agents are infamous for their obliquities”.

We know that Shakespeare’s Caesar said “Let me have men around me who are fat” (I,ii). He might just as easily have demonised oblique as he did thin.

The fact is that English has a myriad ways to be oblique. A dip into any book on Pragmatics will take you to a section on Negative Politeness whereupon you will be confronted with umpteen ways in which you can avoid being straight up.  I have no reason to think other languages are not equally well equipped – or roughly so, allowing for the fact that languages do vary in how they favour or disfavour directness.

So, back to where I started. The “conscious exploratory follow-up” is the dictionary work I did on encountering obliquity. The serendipity factor was seeing it as the title of a newly released book –  Obliquity. Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. It’s by John Kay (Penguin 2011), who despite being both an academic and an economist, can write reasonably transparently.

The book is all about the concept of obliquity – what it is, how it’s all around us, why solving problems directly is often counter-productive, how an oblique approach can be both helpful and productive. You can draw from it your own conclusions of course,  but it’s good to bear in mind along the way the evidence presented on why the happiest people do not set out to pursue happiness.

My own research has taught me that there are risks both in directness and in obliquity. In neither case are these risks insurmountable, but in both cases they need to be approached pre-emptively and mindfully.

Like much in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

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.

The new verb “to mubarak” – [pron: moo-BAR-ak]

12 03 2011

English has a long tradition of eponymizing – creating ordinary words out of people’s names. Think boycott, sandwich, cardigan, hoover. Political events can be a major impetus to the forging of new eponyms. The recent pro-democracy movement in Egypt is a good example.

Of course, the events in northern Africa are both complex and dynamic and they’re likely to keep on changing for some time yet. However, stripped back to their most basics, what went on in Cairo in recent weeks was a collective message sent by a mass of people to a despised leader. I wouldn’t want to simplify or mock the communication; only to point out that it does contain the fundamental elements: SENDER, MESSAGE, and RECEIVER.

The message was not lacking in clarity. Employing different languages – like, Arabic, English, German, Chinese, as well as plain semiotics eg Mubarak + delete – demonstrators yelled, held up signs, sang, screamed, their wishes to their leader, who for the most part seemed not to be hearing or heeding. Well, that’s what despots do – they hang onto power by their fingernails, at the eleventh hour offering risible concessions that are far too little and far too late.

Little wonder therefore that the verb to mubarak is moving away from the man himself and entering the language with another meaning, one that emerges from the recent events. Loosely, to mubarak looks like becoming a verb with meanings like “to outstay one’s welcome”, “to fail to get the hint”, “to get stuck.”

Only time will tell what further morphs and shifts lie ahead, in the politics as well as the language. If, as I suspect, mubaraking comes to mean something like “digging your heels in”, then Hosni may get to have a very succinct notion of what his legacy will be.

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.