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.

Stir-fry parenting

18 12 2011

Sometimes a new word or phrase can capture a concept that earlier defied description. I discovered one such today when I was reading the entry by Kate Hunter on the Mama Mia Blog ( It was stir-fry parenting, the definition for which can be inferred from the following quotation:

“Kids are not cakes; they’re more like stir-fries.You can kind of make it up as you go along. I know people who disagree and slavishly follow the recipe – thinking if they add the correct quantities of organic vegetables, time out and Italian tuition the only possible outcome is a genial Rhodes scholar with Wimbledon potential. These people stress if an ingredient is unavailable or forgotten. They spend their lives checking to see how it’s working and angsting through the oven door.

Those who subscribe to stir-fry parenting work with what they have. Sure, there are a few rules to follow – a hot wok works best, ingredients should be more or less the same size –  but the results are delicious, exciting and the best part is no two stir-fries are ever the same”.

Unless you’re super-confident, the ability to be a stir-fry parent probably doesn’t emerge until you have had your second or third child. By then you’ve come to appreciate that there’s a gap between what you plan and what emerges from the plan, and often what emerges is preferable to the plan. When this happens you start to trust the universe a bit more.

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.

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

STOP PRESS: “heart” is a verb now

29 03 2011


You know those T-shirts that announce I LOVE NEW YORK, except that the “love” is replaced by a red heart?  Like this:  And ever since,  the idea has been propagated successfully with any number of cities, places, pop stars and you-name-its.

Now a new trend has started, a kind of backformation. Instead of being semiotically concise with the red heart symbol, there’s evidence now of people using “heart” as a verb. Essentially, to replace “love”. Thus, I love you becomes I heart you. Hence also:  I heart Sydney or I heart summer.

Yes I know, it’s a replacement of one single syllable by one single syllable, hence saving no one at all any time at all.  But possibly babies being born right now will, in 15 years, be hearting their first boy/girl friend. Maybe sooner, if that story about push-up bras being sold to 8-year old girls is true.

The I + heart + object is the transitive form.  The suggested usage (from the Oxford, no less) is: I heart the fact that this is in the O.E.D. No news yet about the infinitive: it is better to heart and lose than not to heart at all. Nothing about the gerund:  Life is all about hearting. Nor the adjectival participle: He broke my hearting soul.

I’m wondering now if we’re to see a backformation from the backformation: where say, “open-heart surgery” might morph into “open-love surgery”. It’s a waiting game.

Benghazistan – a neologism rich in intertextual resonance

28 03 2011

I remember when the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan was called Russia’s Vietnam. And ever since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the spectre of “another Vietnam” has given Washington ample pause before adventuring forth into “other people’s battles”.  Early in Gulf War One, I remember reading an article that purported to explain why Iraq was not Vietnam (and thinking it a case of “doth protest too much methinks”).

In a sense, the US is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Consider the dilly-dallying that went on before and during the slaughter at Srebrenica. Consider too the consequences of non-intervention in Rawanda: Bill Clinton has many times reiterated that his failure to intervene in Rwanda was, in moral and human terms, the worst decision of his presidency.  Even if the USA did not conceptualize itself as the world’s peace-keeper, many nations habitually expect Western intervention in others’ internal affairs when the spectre of civilian slaughter is too overwhelming. Arguably, Sudan may not have been left alone to suffer for so long were it located closer to Europe.

My eye was caught today by an interesting article, by William Galston, in The New Republic, on the topic of American intervention in Libya.

Galston writes:

“… the endgame is murky at best. There’s a non-trivial possibility that Qaddafi will be able to hang on to power in a substantial part of Libya. If so, we and our allies may have committed ourselves to protecting “Benghazistan” against retribution for the indefinite future. We’ve seen that movie before. Let’s hope this one ends better.

This is a newie – “Benghazistan”. I note Galston uses inverted commas to mark it as a neologism. It’s like an update to the “another Vietnam” syndrome. If Afghanistan is another Vietnam (first for the Russians, then for the US+ Allies), then the Libyan rebel battle to hold on to Benghazi may become so protracted, especially with outside intervention to bolster the rebels, that we have a new sphere of military stagnation – Benghazistan.

With luck, the war in Libya will be over fast enough for the new moniker to be dropped. Time will reveal all – or some, at least.

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.


16 08 2010

When I saw this word – earsight – in a small headline in today’s SMH (p.18), I immediately thought of “hindsight”, that wonderful word for the infuriating moments of insight and understanding that you have when they’re too late to have any impact. Using that association, I leapfrogged to the idea that earsight might mean stuff you come to understand later, after the event, as a result of what you remember hearing. Yeah, I know, bit of a stretch.

Turns out earsight is the subject of a New Scientist report about a scientific development that now allows people to see through their ears – hence “ear”+”sight”. Much more literal than my guess. The device uses a webcam “to send an image to a computer which translates it into a soundscape” that the user’s brain then decodes. After about 15 hours of training, a user can get sufficiently comfortable with the process to be able to see via their ears.

Personally, I don’t quite grasp how one thing gets transformed into another thing, but I’ve read The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge, Scribe, 2009), so I’m a believer that the brain (or bits of it) can learn to do new stuff. Pretty amazing, really, although the reporter in the SMH (Stay in Touch, p.18) can’t help taking the mickey – ending with “Next week: hearing through your nose, drinking through your toes and talking out your…elbow”. Fair enough.