Eponyms, -oriums and “Boaty McBoatface”: A Brief Guide to Naming Research Facilities

Slide1When it comes to linguistic creativity, scientists like to give their humanities colleagues a run for their money. From poetic titles to journal articles and research grants, scientists love a good label – and not least for the various labs and research facilities they work in.

Some of these names – like the Large Hadron Collider and the Swiss Light Source – can be fairly functional, but even the most prosaic are usually converted to acronyms. The largest radio telescope in the world, to be built in South Africa and Australia, will be called the Square Kilometer Array (its acronym “SKA” conjuring up associations with Caribbean rhythms). Perhaps most famous of all, CERN stands for “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”.

Sometimes, the relevant noun phrase can be forced to fit more elegant acronyms. UCL’s Pedestrian Accessibility & Movement Environment Laboratory is affectionately known as “PAMELA”. The last UK national supercomputing facility, the High-End Computing Terascale Resource, was known as “HECTOR”. The current one, ARCHER, is no less heroically named. In the list of the world’s biggest supercomputers – which includes Titan, Sequoia and Stampede – connotations of power and size abound.

As well as acronyms, eponyms honouring famous scientists are also common. The Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research – named after one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA – will open this year in London. In the North of England, the Sir Henry Royce Institute will be a major centre for materials science. Alan Turing, WWII code-breaker and father of modern computing, was pardoned in 2013, shortly before the unveiling of plans for a new national centre for data science fittingly named The Alan Turing Institute.

It’s not just a recent trend. When Imperial College London was established in South Kensington after the Great Exhibition of 1851 the entire area – also home to the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum – was named “Albertopolis” in honour of Queen Victoria’s husband. Via similar application of the Greek suffix -polis (meaning “city”), the site of the London 2012 Olympics is being renamed “Olympicopolis”. The former Olympic Park will become a new cultural quarter in the East End with University College London establishing a new campus there, and the Smithsonian setting up a new museum. Employing another suffix (the Latin -orium denoting “place of”) the UK Government have announced £138M funding for a new UK Collaboratorium for Research in Infrastructure & Cities. This national research centre, called “UKCRIC” for short, will have its headquarters at the Olympicopolis.

As well as UKCRIC, the Alan Turing Institute and the Sir Henry Royce Institute, another major research facility recently announced by the UK Government is a new £200M polar research vessel. The vessel hit the headlines recently when the Natural Environment Research Council launched a public competition to find a suitable name for the ship. The linguistic creativity of the general public being what it is, the most popular name suggested so far is RRS “Boaty McBoatface”. Other popular suggestions include:

RRS Boatimus Prime
RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie
RRS What Iceberg?
RRS Ice Ice Baby
RRS Not the Titanic
RRS Boat Marley and the Whalers
RRS Boatback Mountain

Although it’s not clear whether NERC will ultimately honour the public’s choice, the name Boaty McBoatface has definitely caught the wider imagination. Creative linguistic variations include a racehorse in Australia called “Horsey McHorseface”, a commuter train called “Trainy McTrainface”. There have even been suggestions to name a new ape at Bristol Zoo Gorilla McGorillaface and, on Twitter, there have been calls to forget “Czechia” and rename the Czech Republic “Country McCountryface”.

It’s not just me that has noticed the similarity between the Xy McXface construction and Keep Calm and X (and also Fifty Shades of X) except with some added reduplication and splash more silliness.

So there you have it. From eponyms, acronyms and suffices, there are a number of neat ways to make a research lab seem just that bit more exciting. But if you really want to make a lab or science facility appealing to the general public, then you know what to do.

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From creative writers to creative readers: Why it takes two to build a “hydrogen jukebox”

Hydrogen jukeboxLinguistic creativity, like any other form of creativity, is not a solo activity. For every creative writer there must be, necessarily, at least one creative reader – someone to first recognise, and then to make sense of, their novel use of language, their striking metaphors, neologisms, wordplay, and so on.

Take Howl, for example, Allen Ginsberg’s famous hymn to the “Beat” generation of post-war America. It celebrates all those who:

“[…] sank all night in the submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoons in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,”

This line, like the rest of the poem, is full of language which at first feels complex and obtuse. It is certainly not language which is immediately understood. Granted, anyone who has seen The Hunt For Red October will understand what a “submarine light” looks like. And anyone who has had lunch in a London pub will get a sense of what a “stale beer afternoon” might be like. But what about “hydrogen jukebox”? What on earth is that?

Although we’ve all probably suspected it of poets at one time or another, Ginsberg is rare in actually admitting that he didn’t always know the meaning of what he was writing. In a 1966 interview with The Paris Review, Ginsberg likened the way he juxtaposes seemingly unrelated words in his poetry to the way Cézanne juxtaposed colours against each other in his canvases. He said of combinations of words like “hydrogen” and “jukebox” that, even if he – like Cézanne with his colours – wasn’t consciously aware of what he meant in putting them together his mind over time would eventually find a way to connect them:

“In the moment of composition I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it comes to mean something later, after a year or two, I realise that it meant something clear, unconsciously, which takes on meaning in time, like a photograph developing slowly. Because we’re not always conscious of the entire depths of our minds […]”

Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox” is an example of a compound noun – linguistic units in which a noun is paired up with another one to create a more complex noun phrase, some sort of hybrid of the two. As I have written about before, compound nouns are an example of creativity (defined in terms of novel combinations of concepts or things) in its purest form. They are also a pretty common phenomenon.

The metaphorical kennings of Old Norse epic poetry, for example, were commonly compound nouns (“whale road”, for example, meaning “sea”). In ancient India, compound nouns describing people (like “boy-king”, “man-fish” and “girlfriend”) were common enough for Sanskrit grammarians to gave them a special name: dvandva. And there are plenty of compound nouns in more modern languages too. German, for example, is full of colourful examples (like “hand shoes” for “gloves”). So too is Chinese. The Mandarin for “volcano”, for example, is literally “fire mountain”. And English is not short of a few compound nouns either: think of “workbench”, “calcium carbonate” and – fittingly – “compound noun”.

Compound nouns are also pretty common in literature. In his science fiction classic Dune, for example, Frank Herbert uses a number of them to coin new names for futuristic concepts like “stillsuit” and “filmbook”. And possibly because of his aversion to hyphens and other unnecessary forms of punctuation, compound nouns seem to be a marked feature of Cormac McCarthy’s writing. For example, in Blood Meridian, there is “dramhouse”, “gamingroom”, “walkboard”, “owlcries” “cookfire” and “riverrock”.

And compound nouns are a striking feature of Ginsberg’s poetry in particular. Elsewhere in Howl, Ginsberg coins the creative examples “negro streets”, “Blake-light tragedy”, “paint hotels”, “loveboys”, “madman dawn”, “goldhorn shadow” and “robot apartments”. In one line of the poem alone (not counting “traffic light”), I managed to find at least eleven examples of novel compound nouns:

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind,”

But what do they all mean? As a reader, making sense of compound nouns like these is not a trivial thing. After all, what chance do we have if even the author of them isn’t sure what they’re on about?

Fortunately, just as when we read or hear any new word for the first time, we do usually have a few clues to work from. First of all, we can also look at the context for the compound noun in terms of the other words around it. For example, in making sense of “Peyote solidities”, “of halls” points us towards ornamental cacti in some building or other. And for compound nouns in particular, we can also look at their grammatical structure. Because of the way English grammar works, we understand the initial noun in the compound as being something that modifies the final noun, not the other way around. (It’s for this reason that a doctor’s “casebook” is not the same as a “bookcase”, even if one might be found inside another.) As such, we know at least that “ashcan ranting” is a type of verbal activity, and not a type of bin.

After that, figuring out the meaning of a novel compound noun involves connecting and associating its component nouns in new and novel ways. Wherever these concepts are semantically close to each other (for example, like “wine” and “drunkenness”) it’s pretty easy to figure out what is meant by their juxtaposition (“wine drunkenness”). For example, because “Joyride” and “neon” are related via the concept of cars and streets, it’s relatively easy to construct a mental image of “joyride neon”. But where the two concepts are semantically further apart things get more challenging. Because there’s no obvious semantic link between “sun” and “vibration”, it’s a bit harder to tell what a “sun vibration” is – or a “moon vibration” for that matter.

Understanding compound nouns like these, then, is itself an act of creativity. A poem like Howl, just like any piece of creative writing, doesn’t just require a creative writer – it also requires a creative reader.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, said in a 1969 interview with the BBC that the four most important things a reader should have is: memory, a dictionary, some artistic sense and – perhaps most importantly of all – an imagination. According to Nabokov, a creative reader is a re-reader – someone who will read and re-read a piece of writing in order to make sense of it, just like we might need to look at a Cézanne painting multiple times before we really feel we start to understand its meaning. He said:

“In reading a book we must first have time to acquaint ourselves with it […] at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.”

“Hydrogen” and “jukebox” are, on the face of it, as are far away from each other as concepts could be. When I first read Howl I had no idea what a “hydrogen jukebox” was. But after a while I did start to see some meaning in their juxtaposition. I began to see an allusion to the spectre of the post-war nuclear arms race: the threat of the atomic (“hydrogen”) bomb calling out over the (“jukebox”) radio. Of course, whether or not that’s what Ginsberg was thinking when he wrote it – subconsciously or otherwise – is another matter. But that at least is my creative reading of it.

The point is that, as we stare at a painting or re-read a passage of text in our minds, if we allow ourselves to be creative enough, we will eventually find its meaning. Or, at least, we will eventually find some meaning. Between even the most remote and unconnected concepts and ideas in our brains, we will eventually create new neural pathways that somehow connect them – even if, as Ginsberg says, it takes a year or two.

This creative act, the process of trying to find meaning in the seemingly obscure, is a big part of what makes linguistic creativity so much fun – for the reader, as much as for the writer.

From “CHOAM” to “Chewbacca”: 10 Ways to Create New Words for New Worlds

Imagine you are some deity about to create a new universe from scratch, including all of its stars and planets, mountains and oceans, plants and animals. You’ll probably start with a handful of subatomic particles, a sprinkling of energy, and give it all a good mix together. If, as is more likely, you are a writer trying to build a new universe on your typewriter your building blocks are going to be different. To create a new Star Wars galaxy, or the desert planet of Arrakis, or the island of Westeros, you’re going to need new words – and more than just a few of them…

2015 is quite a year for science fiction fans. This December will see the release of the seventh chapter in the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time – and potentially the most lucrative. 2015 also marks the 60th anniversary of Dune, Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece. Set millennia into our own “future”, Dune tells the tale of a young nobleman who enlists the powers of a strange desert people to avenge the death of his father.

Arguably, George Lucas’ Star Wars borrows more than just a desert setting from Herbert’s 1960s classic. One thing that the two sagas certainly have in common is an abundance of fantastic and exotic words. From Herbert, for example, we have “Paul Atreides”, “Vladimir Harkonnen”, “stillsuits” and “sandworms”. From Lucas and his colleagues, we have “Luke Skywalker”, “Darth Vader”, “lightsabers” and “ewoks”.

But just how did Frank Herbert and George Lucas come up with these wonderful new words?

Lucas and Herbert – just like George R. R Martin – might not be trained linguists. But, in naming the alien things and novel concepts that populate their fantasy worlds, they both demonstrate high levels of sophistication in lexicogenesis – the term linguist Gary Miller uses to describe the processes which give rise to new words. And, as it turns out, they rely on the very same processes of word creation that linguists have identified on our own planet – the very same mechanisms that all of us can use, and which keep English topped up with everyday neologisms like “manspreading”, “contactless” and “binge-watch”.

So, in celebration of a bumper year for science fiction, here are the ten main ways that budding science fiction writers, like Frank Herbert and George Lucas, can create new words for new worlds.

  1. Borrow words (and the concepts they represent)

Of course, new fantasy worlds need to have some commonalities with our own universe or otherwise we’d struggle to connect with them on any sort of level. It’s no surprise that both Dune and Star Wars feature humans (or humanoids at least) – as well as planets, stars, deserts, food, drink, gravity, love, hate, and so on. It’s trivial to say that, for most of these, there’s no need for a new word. It suffices to use the relevant linguistic label (the common noun), like “planet” or “star”, that already exists in English – or whatever language the writer is working in.

But where the word and concept doesn’t exist in English, there’s also the possibility of borrowing common nouns, and the relevant concepts they represent, from other languages too. Herbert does this masterfully in Dune, borrowing heavily from Arabic (“Butlerian jihad”, “erg”, “Mahdi”) and Persian, as well as Turkish, Latin and French. In Dune, the title for the ruler of the galaxy (the “Padishah” Emperor), for example, comes directly from Persian.

In borrowing these words and concepts, Herbert gives us a flavour of “Galach”, the “official language of the Imperium” and the native tongue of Dune’s central characters. In the same way that the English of North America mixes British English together with words and concepts from Spanish, French, and various indigenous languages, Herbert’s fictional language is “hybrid Inglo-Slavic with strong traces of cultural-specialisation terms adopted during the long chain of human migration”. Lucas too, is not afraid of a bit of borrowing either. The word “stormtrooper” (the English translation of “Stosstrupp”), for example, comes from Nazi Germany.

  1. Borrow proper names

In any science fiction universe, people and places need naming too. Proper names can be taken from a variety of source languages, and not just English. Herbert, for example, borrows many first names and family names directly from English (“Jessica”, “Duncan”) as well as Russian (“Vladimir”), Finnish (“Harkonnen”), Chinese (“Yueh”), and ancient Greek (“Leto”). Lucas also derives characters’ names from a variety of sources, including a Moghul emperor (“Admiral Ackbar”) and a 1960s TV character (“Han Solo”). Despite the linguistic diversity, however, it’s perhaps not surprising that the central characters of both Dune and Star Wars still have first names (“Paul” and “Luke”) that are less than alien to English speakers.

Proper names can also be borrowed to name other things too, such as places. Dune’s “Giedi Prime”, for example, is derived from the name of a star in the Capricornus Constellation. Luke Skywalker’s home planet “Tatooine” takes its name from a city in Tunisia.

And, as is the case on our own planet, you can use place names as surnames (Dune’s “Duncan Idaho” or Star Wars’ “Wedge Antilles”), or surnames as first names (“Anakin”, for example, comes from the surname of a British film director). And, likewise, if you want to give familiar names and labels just a whiff of the exotic, you can use an unusual spelling but keep the sound or pronunciation the same. One of Herbert’s minor characters, for example, is called “Piter”. This is something that George R. R. Martin does to even greater effect in A Game of Thrones (think “Robb Stark”, “Jaime Lannister”, “Joffrey” and “Ser Jorah”).

  1. Use existing words for completely unrelated concepts and things

Related to the first two, you can also take existing linguistic labels, from English or otherwise, and apply them to new – seemingly unrelated – concepts or things. In Star Wars, the proper names of characters “Wedge” and “Wicket” are everyday common nouns (the latter being everyday, at least, if you are a fan of cricket). In Dune, Arrakis’ all important spice “melange” borrows its label from the French for “mixture”. The drug “verite”, for example, looks like the French word for “truth”.

  1. Extend the meaning of existing words

In fantasy fiction, it’s not always clear whether there is supposed to be a semantic link, metaphorical or otherwise, between the linguistic label from our own planet and the concept, person or thing it is used to represent – even if you can’t stop yourself as a reader from mentally trying to find one. For example, it’s not clear whether the Dune spice is supposed to be a mixture of various substances, or whether “verite” – a bit like ten pints of lager – is more likely to make you tell the truth.

However, what is certain is that another very good way of naming new concepts and things is to simply take an existing word, and extend its meaning. Herbert, for example, uses this process of semantic extension to come up the word “shield” (some kind of electromagnetic defensive barrier) and “carryall” (a flying vehicle for transporting spice). Famously, Lucas extends the common meaning of “force” to describe the invisible “energy field created by all living things” that gives a Jedi their power.

  1. Extend the function of existing words

Related to this, another way to create new words is the process of conversion – that is, taking an existing word and changing its grammatical function. Verbing, the process of creating a verb from another part of speech, is a very common example of conversion in English (think “to email” and “to text”). Herbert does it, for example, with “weirding room”, creating a verb from the adjective “weird”.

  1. Play with a word’s component sounds

One simple mechanism for creating new words is to take old ones and make small changes to their pronunciation. For example, one of the major cities on Herbert’s Dune planet is “Carthag”, which can be arrived at by changing a phoneme (vowel or consonant) or two of “Carthage” (“Qartaj” in Arabic) – the ancient Tunisian city. Apparently, for Star Wars, Lucas derived the name “Chewbacca” from “sobaka” the Russian word for dog. Interestingly, these sorts of phonological changes often mirror the changes that happen to words on our planet, as languages evolve, or as they are borrowed from one language into another.

  1. Build new words from parts of old ones

In any language – certainly in any Earth language – words are built up from smaller chunks of meaning, called morphemes (themselves built up from phonemes). As a result, new words can be formed by chopping bits off existing words, or by adding adding other bits to them.

In Dune, for example, Herbert creates a name for the galaxy’s currency “Solari” by taking the word “solar” and adding “-i”, which looks suspiciously like the Arabic suffix used to describe people from a particular region (think “Iraqi” or “Pakistani”). He also derives the name of the prevalent language, “Galach”, by chopping the end of the word “galaxy”, in a process which linguists call back-formation. Similarly in Star Wars, to create the gangster “Greedo”, Lucas takes an adjective befitting the character’s penchant for money and adds the suffix “-o”, an English device for creating faux Italian or Spanish names (like “el stinko”).

  1. Combine words in new ways

Perhaps the most common – and most fundamental – way of creating new words is to simply combine old ones together. Both Herbert and Lucas rely heavily on compound nouns, which forge together two or more words – and the concepts which underpin them – to create entirely new ones. In Dune, for example, there are “stillsuits”, “groundcars”, “sandworms” and “battle language”. In Star Wars, famously, there are “star destroyers”, “lightsabers” and “the Death Star”.

On Earth as on more distant planets, wherever compound nouns get too long, especially when describing machines or organisations, it’s not uncommon to substitute them for a suitable acronym. On Arrakis, for example, the “Field CP” is a “command post”. In Star Wars, “ATAT” is an “All Terrain Armoured Transport”.

  1. Use any combination of the above

Of course, if you want to be really creative, you can use pretty much any combination of the processes above. Herbert, in particular, isn’t afraid to mix and match. He forms “lasgun” and “repkit”, for example, by contracting the compounds “laser gun” and “repair kit” to form what linguists call portmanteau words or blends. “CHOAM”, a powerful intra-galactic trading company, stands for “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles”, where “Honnete” and “Ober” are borrowed from French and Old German, respectively.

  1. Create a new word from scratch

Finally, if all else fails, you can simply create a new word from scratch – that is, from some arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. When you do so, you need to make a decision whether the new word you create will fit into the sound system of English – that is, the set of rules which govern which phonemes, and which combination of phonemes, are allowed in English – or whether it will fit into some other, possibly alien, language. For example, while “Han” and “Hoth” are entirely plausible words in English, “pchagavas” and “hrobas” in Herbert’s invented “Chakobsa” language, are definitely not.

It’s actually pretty difficult to invent a new word that doesn’t share at least some similarities with existing ones. But short of asking Frank Herbert or George Lucas directly, it’s really quite difficult to tell if a word is an entirely arbitrary invention, or whether similarities with other words are intended for artistic reasons. For example, is Paul Atreides’ home planet of “Caladan” a complete invention, or is it derived somehow from (the equally watery) “Caledonia”? Is the name for Dune’s native “Fremen” an accidental string of vowels and consonants, or is it a contraction of “Free men”? Because we all love looking for deeper, hidden meanings in words, the fantasy universes of Dune and Star Wars leave plenty of room for folk etymologies about the meaning of things. According to this website, for example, Han Solo’s name means “he who is alone”:

“Solo” means alone, and Han is very much a loner. Also in Swedish, Han means “he”. Combine these two definitions, and the resulting translation is “he [who is] alone.” 

Whether that’s what Lucas had in mind is highly debatable, and the man himself has been known to spread a few myths about how his characters’ names were created.

Just what is it about language?

IMG_5751Just what is it about language that we love so much?

Why do we enjoy a good neologism? Why do we revel in an arcane expression? Why do we admire a good pun, and love a bad one even more? Why are we possessive about words we think hardly anyone else knows? Why do we worship words, as it were, like “discombobulate” and “whimsy” and “gusset”.

And, why do we praise a good phrase? What is it about a good metaphor, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the catchy rhetorical tropes of a dance show judge? Just what is it that makes us bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at even the most everyday of language?

Or to put it another way: why do I write this blog? What is it that language bloggers, book readers, novelists, speech-writers, stand-up comedians, poets, language learners, and lovers of this Fry & Laurie sketch all have in common? Why is it that we humans might feel emotionally drawn to language, beyond its principal function of communication?

By coincidence, the last two novels I read both offered answers. Admittedly, the explanations they offered were as different as the novels themselves.

The first book was Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller; the second was I am China by Xiaolu Guo, the tale of a star-crossed Chinese couple and a young British translator, Iona. Guo’s book is a tremendous read for language lovers (more on that in a later blog). Early in the novel, she describes how Iona is drawn to language, especially foreign ones, and how language offers her a way of connecting with others:

“To delve into words, to live with them circling in her mind, allows her to regain something of her life. Perhaps this, most of all, is what enables her to connect. As a teenager, driven crazy by the boredom of living on a small Scottish island inhabited largely by sheep, she found herself longing for foreign words: the alien sounds, the unknown syllable, the mysterious sign. Learning languages consumed her. She stuffed herself full with them, and went to university for more. Perhaps a foreign language would offer her an escape. At school everyone teased her about acting because of her striking resemblance to Hollywood actress Winona Ryder, but shy Iona never saw herself as an actress. She retreated into words.”

In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller has a different – and characteristically more visceral – explanation for his relationship with words:

“‘I love everything that flows,’ said the great blind Milton of our times. I was thinking of him this morning when I awoke with a great shout of joy: I was thinking of his rivers and trees and all that world of night which he is exploring. Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences.”

As I read the passages, I didn’t think either really summed up what it is that I love about language, although I could see something in what Guo writes about the “mysterious” and exotic sign. But the two books did get me thinking about the question of why we might be emotionally drawn to words and sentences, vowels and consonants, and just what other explanations there might be.

Have we as human beings evolved to “enjoy” language to some degree and, if so, why? For example, does it facilitate or accelerate – or is it even a requisite for – the learning of our first language? Language is a semiotic system. It involves things and signs (such as sounds or scribbles on a page) to represent those things. So, is it really the things we love – the concepts? Or is it the representations of those things? Is our love of spoken language about aural pleasure (or “sound-sex” as Stephen Fry so aptly puts it) like it is for music? And is our love of written language about visual pleasure – enjoying the printed sign like a painted landscape?

Or is our love of language about things that flow, as Miller suggests? Is it something about transience and streams of ideas? Or is it about a taste of the exotic, like it is for Guo’s protagonist? Are words a mean of escape? Or is language something that connects us deeply with other people, and with ourselves?

I’m sure there are many possible answers and, no doubt, an exploration of them all would provide the material for a long and very interesting book.

A book filled, of course, with pages upon pages of wonderful language.

When do you have the right to play with someone else’s language?

IMG_4924Recently, I was in an Oslo bar visiting a friend. A Norwegian colleague of his was talking – in impressively fluent English – about the local nightlife, generously suggesting some bars we should visit while we were in town. As he mentioned one in particular, he paused for a second trying to find the word to describe it.

‘It’s quite…um…rock-y,’ he said.

He suddenly became uncharacteristically self-conscious, almost embarrassed, and laughed apologetically. His girlfriend – also Norwegian and with a similar mastery of English – joined in, mocking him for using (inventing) a word that he didn’t think existed.

‘I mean they play a lot of rock music there,’ he said.

For me, their reaction was striking. Of course, I understood exactly what he meant. He wasn’t referring to the state of the floors in the place (later I found out that they were a little bit sticky, but not uneven), nor to any film starring Sylvester Stallone. Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t include ‘has a rock music vibe’ as a definition, the intended meaning of ‘rocky’ was entirely clear to me.

More importantly, he had only done what English speakers do all the time: That performance was a bit ‘bit-y’. That chicken was a bit ‘turkey-y’. Just last week I saw written on the side of my high-street Americano: ‘Our house espresso is always bold and intense with a chocolatey, caramel-y undertone.’

My friend’s colleague might not have applied a grammatical rule that features in Gwynne’s Grammar. But it’s still one that is a perfectly legitimate part of English. (Actually, it’s a highly productive example of derivational morphology, which I’ve blogged about before). On the spur of the moment, he had been creative with English, just like many English speakers would.

But I suspect the problem was this: as a Norwegian, speaking to an Englishman, he didn’t feel he had the right.

Creative play with words, sentences and phonemes – or language play as linguist David Crystal calls it – is ubiquitous. It might be most well known as something poets do, but language play is not something that is limited to literature and the arts. You only have to look at the tabloid headlines, watch an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, or even spend a night down the pub to find countless examples of everyday linguistic creativity. The use of metaphor and simile (‘she’s as quiet as a mouse’), hyperbole (‘that burger is enormous!’), intertextual references and rehashed clichés (‘keep calm and have a beer’), non-standard vocabulary (‘I’m going to take my automobile for a spin), invented words (‘caramel-y’), and code-switching to other languages (‘mais oui, mais oui Rodney!’) are all part of what linguist Ronald Carter calls ‘the art of common talk’.

In conversation, people might use creative language with an element of performance – to show off, hold other people’s attention, or to make people laugh. Or, they might use creative language more subconsciously, to simply get as close as possible to the meaning they want to convey. This is what my friend’s colleague was doing when he used the word ‘rock-y’. It’s just that, as a non-native English speaker, he wasn’t sure he had the right.

So, when do you have the right to play with a language? Do you have to be a native speaker?

Maybe I have a lack of respect, but I’ve always taken great pleasure in butchering other people’s languages. In my early days of learning Mandarin, I was able to make my Chinese-Canadian partner giggle with joy by calling a ‘sock’ (‘wàzi’), a ‘foot-packet’ (‘jiǎobāo’). It was an entirely invented get-around, and I knew it wasn’t correct. But I also knew it would make me sound silly and childish, as well as gently poke fun at the wonderfully endless number of such compound nouns in Chinese – and that was entirely the point.

Some experts say that playing with language like this can even be beneficial. In his book Language Play, Language Learning, linguist Guy Cook points out the important role, often overlooked by teachers, that language play can have when it comes to learning foreign languages.

On one hand, language play can provide a fun way to draw attention to specific features of a language, in exactly the same way that nursery rhymes and nonsense words (‘Hickory, dickory, dock’) do for children learning their first language. I remember vividly the first time I heard a Swiss 4 year-old at a swimming pool say the charmingly-silly phrasecaca boudin’ (‘poo-poo sausage’). Thanks to him, although I’ve still never eaten one, I’ve never forgotten what a ‘boudin’ is.

On the other hand, language play can also give to students some sense of ownership of that language – as something they can use to whatever ends they need it for.

Picasso once said, ‘the chief enemy of creativity is good sense’. So, perhaps sensible people know better than to play with other people’s language. The rest of us language learners, however, should just carry on having fun.

Has your advertising slogan got ‘it’?

ImageHave you noticed that, in the world of branding, there’s a lot of it about?

By which I mean, of course, the pronoun ‘it’ – the gender neutral, third person pronoun that can stand for just about anything.

Take, for example, Jaguar’s ‘Don’t dream it, drive it’ or L’Oréal’s ‘Because you’re worth it’. Or how about EA Sports’ ‘It’s in the game’. ‘It’ clearly gets around a lot.

But what’s it all about?

At its most basic, ‘it’ can be used as what linguistics call an anaphor, used to refer to something that’s already been introduced. For example:

Ronseal. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
VISA. It’s everywhere you want it to be.
American Express. Don’t leave home without it.
Red Bull. It gives you wings.

Other times, ‘it’ can be used to refer to that culturally-conventional concept of ‘desirability’, ‘sex appeal’ or ‘X-factor’ that people either have, or they don’t:

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.
Virgin Atlantic. You airline’s either got it or it hasn’t.

But in the cleverest cases, ‘it’ doesn’t have a clear reference. Instead, it can mean exactly what the customer wants it to mean.

Ebay. Buy it. Sell it. Love it.
Argos. Don’t just shop for it. Argos it.
Interflora. Say it with flowers.

In the first two cases, ‘it’ neatly stands for pretty much anything you can buy or sell. In the second, ‘it’ becomes any human sentiment.

Three brands stand out as the masters of using ‘it’ in this way.

In Burger King’s ‘Have it your way’, the restrictive sense of ‘have your burger with or without gherkins’ opens out into a more general statement of customer empowerment. In McDonalds’ ‘I’m loving it’, the notion of enjoying ones burger becomes a broader associative statement of happiness and positivity.

Then, of course, there’s Nike’s classic ‘Just do it’. Now more than 25 years old, and inspired by the last words of a death-row criminal, this one phrase most clearly demonstrates the powerful potential of ‘it’. Here, is ‘it’ that 10 mile run you’ve been putting off, or that 5-aside football final your office team is desperate to win. Or does ‘it’ extend to referents outside the sporting world? Is ‘it’ that tricky conversation with you’re boss you’ve been putting off, of that flat-pack shed still waiting to be assembled?

It doesn’t matter, of course. ‘Just do it’ is a slogan that inspires you to do whatever it is you need to do – though not before buying a pair of trainers first.

Finally, if you still don’t believe the powerful potential of ‘it’, try putting that two-letter word into this random slogan generator. Here’s just a few examples it threw back at me – all of them, I’m sure, would make the Mad Men proud:

You’ve always got time for it.
We’re serious about it.
Every kiss begins with it.But I’d rather have a bowl of it.

So next time you need to find that winning slogan for your brand, remember that simple, two-letter, flexible friend.

And just use it.

 

The Story of ‘Bo!’

ImageAs I was walking home the other day, I saw a poster on the side of a bus stop that caught my eye. It was an advert for a new music catalogue service from the BBC, called ‘Playlister’. But it was the text itself that grabbed my attention.

The tagline, ‘be selecta’, is a neat, if obvious, creative linguistic variation on the phrase ‘bo selecta!’. To anyone who doesn’t know the phrase it plays on, the lack of article between verb and noun will still be suitably evocative, accurately or otherwise, of some kind of pidgin or creole relative of English. And its core meaning will still be transparently – in this context at least – ‘you be the DJ!’.

However, to anyone that has had at least one eye on popular culture in the UK throughout the nineties and the noughties will spot the reference immediately.

Like many people, I’ve been familiar with the phrase ‘bo selecta!’ since it first appeared in the UK Number 2 hit ‘Re-rewind’ some 15 years ago. The track, by British garage artists The Artful Dodger, featured vocals by the shortly-to-be-famous Craig David and included the suitably-schwa’d lyrics:

    With Craig David all over your […]
    DJ it’s all up to you
    When the crowd go wild
    Tell me watcha gonna do

    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta-ta!’
    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo! bo! bo!’

The track marked a crossing of the music genre (known simply as ‘garage’) to the mainstream. At the same time, it also brought to the ears of the masses the Jamaican patois infused, urban dialect of English, representative of the predominantly black community in London that UK garage sprang from.

Importantly, to white, middle-class ears the words ‘bo’ and ‘selecta’ had a mystery to them – and an obvious sense of ‘cool’. They weren’t the kind of words you would forget.

And so it was for many more of my generation – not least for comedian Leigh Francis who, between 2002 and 2004, used the phrase as the title of a popular TV sketch-show. One of the programme’s main characters was a less-than-subtle, rubber-masked Craig David pastiche speaking in a broad Northern English dialect. Most of the humour of the sketches the character appeared in arises from the pure incongruity of the character’s Yorkshire accent and its pairing with the vocabulary of London’s garage scene. One particular catch-phrase was, for example:

    ‘It’s proper ‘bo’, I tell thee!’

The thorough lampooning quickly dismantled any sense of cool that ‘bo selecta!’ (and Craig David) had, at least among middle-class British audiences. That, I guess, was the point.

Now, more than ten years later, the BBC are using the phrase – or at least a clever spin on it – to advertise their new music app. But, walking home, I realised I still didn’t know what ‘bo selecta’ means. So I looked it up.

I found the answer in Simon Reynolds’ 1998 book: ‘Energy Flash: a Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture’. In the UK garage club scene, which had its roots in the reggae dancehall culture of the Caribbean, the MC (as in ‘master of ceremonies’) was an important figure who effectively mediated between the crowd and the DJ (the ‘selecta’). If the crowd liked a tune they would cry ‘bo!’ at which point the MC would ask the DJ to ‘rewind’ the tune – that is, play it again. The track conjures up the ritual cleverly, from the narrative in the verses, right down to the electronically stuttered (‘re-rewind’) refrain.

As for ‘bo’ itself, it turns out it’s not the same word as ‘beau’ as some sources on the internet suggest, although in this context it does imply approval of the selecta’s selection. Instead, it’s onomatopoeia: somewhat like ‘boom’, it echoes the celebratory sound of gun fire.

And that’s it. However, there’s one interesting side-note to all this. While I was researching this blog, I found this internet discussion forum about whether non-Jamaican DJs should ever speak in patois at gigs. Should a Swedish DJ, for example, ever shout ‘bo!’ to the writhing crowd? Or, in the terminology of linguist Ben Rampton (1995), should anyone ever ‘cross-over’ to assume someone else’s identity, except perhaps in jest?

Perhaps the best response I read was from someone called Danny Fyah. It read:

‘I would say: each one as best as he can. Means, if one chats a horrible patois creole, along with an European accent, it might be better to just speak Standart English. If one is able to speak the creole fluently why not using it then..?! The question is more: how much percent of the audience in – let’s say – continental Europe or Japan does understand patois? It is not even bad to switch between Standart English and Patois sometimes, if you feel like the crowd is getting a better glue of what you want to express.’

As well as enjoying a taste of his patois, I found Fyah’s comments heart-warmingly balanced (especially since they are framed around proper linguistic notions of ‘creole’ and ‘standard English’). Anyone that advocates code-switching to get the party started is OK with me!

So, that’s the story of ‘bo!’. Given the time of year, I could perhaps also write about the true meaning of ‘Crimbo’, as we like to call Christmas ‘round our way

But that, of course, is a whole different story.

References

Rampton, B. (1995) Language crossing and the problematisation of ethnicity and socialisation. Pragmatics, 5, 485-513.