Are we living through a golden age of linguistic inventiveness? Buzzwords and neologisms – from office jargon to the lexicons of democratic chaos in Britain and the US, as well as the ever-expanding culture wars – rain down on us every day, and can gain global currency at the speed of fibre-optic cable. Many, of course, fail – like “Brixit”, an early rival to Brexit, or “Generation Me”, one proposed label for what we now call millennials. Others rapidly become part of the modern conversation. Why, for example, do critics call young, supposedly over sensitive and easily triggered people “snowflakes”? Because in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, Tyler Durden says: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”
Palahniuk’s contribution, however, was accidental. He later explained: “Back in 1994, when I was writing my book, I wasn’t insulting anyone but myself… My use of the term ‘snowflake’ never had anything to do with fragility or sensitivity.” Instead, he was using it as a means of “deprogramming himself”, so he didn’t believe in his own praise. But the point is that you can’t control what usage will do once it’s out of your hands: a much wider uptake can shift the meaning. The term “woke”, for example, is now used mockingly for a kind of overrighteous liberalism; but its first recorded use, by the African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley, was meant to indicate an awareness of political issues, especially those around race, a positive usage that still also persists.
Some people coin words for the sheer fun of it – and if the rhythm and pleasure of the sound are sufficient, they might be lucky enough to see it go viral. This is how we got “fashionista” – coined by Stephen Freid in a 1993 biography of the supermodel Gia – and “amazeballs”, first used publicly by the fashion blogger Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson in 2008. It’s easy to forget that every word in the English language has had a first use; a language is the record of innumerable creative decisions. Most of those responsible are lost to lexicographical history, but in our online age, it is easier to identify the culprit or heroine.
I tracked some of them down. What is it like to see a word you invented get into the dictionary? And how does it feel if it spirals out of control, in ways you never intended?
The word Brexit was a tragically unintentional success in verbal invention: coined as a warning, it became a rallying call. In early 2012, the possibility that crisis-stricken Greece might have to leave the Eurozone was labelled “Grexit”, for Greek exit. Then Peter Wilding, a former adviser to David Cameron, left his job as European director of BSkyB in order to set up a thinktank called British Influence, which was designed to celebrate and encourage Britain’s role as a leader in the EU. On 15 May 2012, he published an article on a European blog platform, in which he argued that if Britain’s leaders did not set out a positive vision for membership, “then the portmanteau for Greek euro exit might be followed by another sad word, Brexit.”
Between 2005 and 2008, Wilding had worked in Brussels as media and policy director of the Conservative party in Europe. “I found,” he recalls now, “Britain was running the show. It had all the most powerful portfolios in the European commission. The penny dropped for me: here was Britain as the leading power.”
In 2016, Wilding went to see Cameron in Downing Street, brandishing the results of a poll that showed the majority of Britons wanted the country to lead in Europe. “I said to him, ‘You could be the new Churchill here: you could say Britain is a leader in Europe and we’ve achieved all these things.’ He said, ‘No, we just don’t have enough time to roll out this message. We won the Scottish referendum and the general election through fear and the economy, and we’ll win this one the same way.’ I said, ‘You will lose.’”
And lose they did. Was part of the problem the sheer energy and brio of the word Brexit itself? In 2012, alternatives had been flying around: both the Economist and the Daily Mail referred to a possible “Brixit”, while others suggested UKExit; but Brexit was clearly the most satisfying to pronounce. Wilding says it came to indicate “a stamp of rage: exit, leave, we’ve had enough of it”.
Remain is “not a sexy word”, he points out; it is partly a result of the successful lobbying by anti-Europe conservatives to avoid having a referendum question that invited the positive answer “Yes” as to whether Britain should stay in the EU. Brexit is now in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), defined as “The (proposed) withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the political process associated with it.”
When it was named Word of the Year in 2016 by Collins dictionaries, Wilding says, “It was a surprise. It had only recently gone crazy in public discourse. I felt shocked that that would be my footnote in the Brexit saga.” And now? The word Brexit, he thinks, “could go down in history, like Vichy or Versailles, as an epitaph for a nation in decline”.
For a long time, the “gig economy” sounded like a glamorous euphemism for a world of zero-hours contracts and piecework. Why worry that giant corporations such as Uber don’t want to class their drivers as employees? If we’re all doing “gigs”, we’re all hip jazzers. (The word “gig” – “etymology unknown”, remarks the OED – has meant a musical engagement since the 1920s.) But the phrase was originally coined as a criticism.
On 12 January 2009, the journalist and editor Tina Brown wrote an article for the Daily Beast website, observing: “No one I know has a job anymore. They’ve got Gigs.”
Increasingly, people she knew who used to have staff jobs in the media were working in two or three part-time positions, or freelance. “To people I know in the bottom income brackets, living paycheck to paycheck, the Gig Economy has been old news for years,” she added. “What’s new, is the way it’s hit the demographic that used to assume that a college degree from an elite school was the passport to job security.” Now everyone was a member of “the hustling class”, and company managers were “mesmerised by the notion that everyone can now be hired cheap – that everyone is slave labour”.
That was 10 years ago, and it looks awfully prophetic. When people began to use the word “gig” in this context, Brown says now, it worked to project “a subterfuge coolness over a predicament caused by an economic downshift. It’s cool to say, ‘I’ve got these gigs’ rather than to say, ‘My main job has disappeared.’ Because of its cool sound, it helped to familiarise people with the phenomenon.”
Does she regret helping to make precariousness sound cool? She laughs. “My only regret is that if I’d had a book called The Gig Economy I would have made a lot of money. I feel rather proud when I see conferences called Managing the Gig Economy – it’s my baby.” Of late, the euphemistic sheen of the phrase seems to have worn off, in any case. When questions are asked in parliament about the gig economy, it is in the context of protecting its vulnerable workers rather than celebrating their freedoms.
The gig economy, Brown points out, leaves US workers without healthcare, and might have harmed social cohesion: “I think everybody became so desperate scrabbling around doing their three jobs that the last thing they cared about was other people.”
It’s not as though everything was perfect before. “Those jobs people depended on turned out to be treacherous things,” she says, adding that at least these days, “if you get sacked from one gig you still have two others”.
Millennials, eh? They are everywhere, with their selfies and their avocado toast and their feckless refusal to save for a house deposit. The Urban Dictionary has it right that millennial is the “name an old person gives a young person they don’t like”.
From the 17th century, “millennial” could be used as a synonym for “millenarian”: associated with the belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent and would usher in a 1,000-year era of peace. But it was first used to describe a specific cohort of people – those who would come of age in the year 2000 – in a 1991 book by Neil Howe and William Strauss entitled Generations: The History Of America’s Future, 1584 To 2069.
Howe explains they were looking for a name for “the high-school class of 2000, coming of age in the new millennium”, and wanted an upbeat label, so millennials it was. Chuckling, Howe notes that the name for the previous cohort, Generation X, had not yet been coined while they were writing the book. (Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X was published in the same year.) “So to make Gen Xers feel even worse about themselves,” he says, “the generation that came after them was named before they were.” Gen Xers won’t mind, of course, he adds: “They have that self-deprecating sense of humour.”
The term millennials did not really explode in popularity until well into the new millennium. For much of the 1990s, Howe points out, it did battle with rival labels such as Generation Y. That name, he says, “was almost always the more derogatory alternative. People used it to make the point that this new generation was everything the Xers were, but more extreme. More commercial, more risk-taking, totally over the top. You know, like ‘Gen Xers are a little bit alienated from family life, but these kids are just off the charts.’” By contrast, he and Strauss were forecasting that millennials would be “closer to their family, more into community, more optimistic about the future”.
Talking about the differences between generations, Howe says now, is “like a Rorschach test. You’re talking about politics, culture, demography, social science, epidemiology. It acquires the colour of the emotion that the person who uses it wants it to have.” If millennials mainly has a mocking or derogatory sense now, that says more about the older generations who use it that way than about millennials themselves.
“Naming a generation is like shooting a bullet into a cave and watching it ricochet everywhere,” Howe says. “You never know where it’s going to come out.”
For more than a decade, the hot buzzword for companies who want to profit from people’s talent without paying for it has been crowdsourcing. This is a clever play on outsourcing (moving jobs to external contractors, or overseas), combined with an allusion to James Surowiecki’s 2004 bestseller The Wisdom O f Crowds, which celebrated collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia, and the surprising accuracy of prediction markets, where aggregate betting on events such as elections can forecast outcomes better than experts.
The word crowdsourcing was coined in June 2006, in an article for Wired by Jeff Howe. “Industries as disparate as pharmaceuticals and television [are discovering] ways to tap the latent talent of the crowd,” he wrote. “The labour isn’t always free, but it costs a lot less than paying traditional employees. It’s not outsourcing; it’s crowdsourcing.” It was an elegant, snappy introduction to a very successful coinage. Did Howe know he was doing that at the time? “You know, we actually kind of did, yeah,” he says now.
Two years previously, Wired’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, had coined the phrase “the Long Tail” to describe the potential longterm viability of niche products on services such as Amazon or Netflix (then a DVD-rental business), and that had become a hit book. “So the term crowdsourcing was, in the very beginning, half meant to parody the emergence of such buzzwords,” Howe says.
At the same time, he was interested in the possibilities of the new collaborative model of creativity. “One thing about being at Wired in those days,” he recalls, “was that we really did have our ear to the rail in terms of the tech industry and culture. So we knew the timing was right, that there was this thing starting to happen and no one knew what to call it.”
The word took off with amazing rapidity. “Within two weeks, there were 600,000 mentions on Google. And it never slowed down.” He published a bestselling book of the same name in 2008, and is now a journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “One thing I’d say is that we really did need a word at the time,” Howe adds. “It wasn’t one of those bullshit marketing words that get adopted by management-consultant types. There was something really exciting taking place in the mid-2000s, and we didn’t have a language for it yet.”
Indeed. Crowdsourcing might have been used since in cynical ways, and appropriated by huge brands such as Starbucks (which, since 2008 has solicited customer improvements through its My Starbucks Idea website) and McDonald’s (which in 2014 sold “crowdsourced” burgers), but it can also describe the kind of global altruistic effort that only the internet makes possible.
According to Google Trends, the word’s peak search popularity occurred in March 2014, when eight million people around the world used their computer skills to search for Malaysia Airlines plane Flight MH370, which vanished after taking off and was presumed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean. They didn’t find the plane, but this kind of effort, as well as the collaborative news investigations of outlets such as Bellingcat, is what gives crowdsourcing a good name.
There’s something about the phrase binge-watching that sums up not only modern modes of media consumption but our whole culture. It’s the perfect metaphor for Netflix-era humans, whom Aristotle would have called “incontinent” in their desires: wanting more and more of the same, with no patience or self-control. We are all the toddlers who fail the notorious (and lately disputed) marshmallow test, according to which a child who is able to wait for a sweet at a tender age will turn out to be more self-reliant and successful as an adult.
In northern English dialect, to binge meant to soak a wooden barrel, and so a binge came to mean, from the 19th century, a drinking spree, as it is defined in a Northamptonshire dictionary of the time: “A man goes to the alehouse to get a good binge, or to binge himself.”
The word binge-watching, too, dates from more innocent times: still long before the advent of online streaming. It is first recorded in 1996, when to watch all the episodes of a series in a row meant acquiring a set of VHS tapes. That is what a science graduate student in New England named Bob Donahue was looking for when he posted the following to a local Usenet discussion group that year: “I’ve just become hooked on The X-Files, so I’m a little behind… Does anyone by ANY chance have tapes of this show back to season 1 they’d be willing to lend me so I can effectively catch up? I’d be more than happy to travel out to wherever to get them and then bring them back (actually there are three of us who all got hooked at the same time, so I’d predict that there’d be some MASSIVE binge-watching right away! :-)”.
“What a cool revelation!” Donahue says now, when I tell him that he probably coined the phrase. “But, to be honest, I have zero recollection as to whether I made up the phrase off-the-cuff, or if I was using something I had heard before. I’m afraid I’ve had no thoughts about it over the years because, honestly, I don’t remember doing it.”
After a career as an astrophysicist and now a web developer for an educational foundation, Donahue still occasionally does the thing he named: “Some shows – like Game Of Thrones – are just too irresistible.”
After he coined binge-watching as a gerund (or verbal noun), the verb “to binge-watch” followed. It is also first recorded on Usenet, where someone in 1998 asked in a post: “Do you ever binge watch (marathon)?” This was also in the context of The X-Files, so really, it was Scully and Mulder who started it all. In online lexicographical history, the truth is out there. “I suppose that’s one of the cool things about the internet,” Donahue says. “You never know what sort of reach something you say will have.”
On 8 June 2017, the British children’s author Ben Davis was drunkenly hate-watching Question Time on BBC One. Fed up, he tweeted a picture of various red-faced older men who had been speaking from the audience, and wrote: “Whatever happens, hopefully politicians will start listening to young ppl after this. This Great Wall of gammon has had its way long enough.”
“When I sent out that tweet, even in my drunken state, I had no inkling it would have any impact,” Davis says. “I thought it would get lost in the ether. When I started getting requests from serious news organisations to discuss gammon, my conviction that the world had gone irrevocably insane only deepened.”
Gammon, it turned out, had legs: it was joyously adopted by the left to describe flushed, middle-aged white people with reactionary views and, in time, anyone pro-Brexit. A year later, baffled Americans were discussing how Brits were now having a serious debate about whether gammon was a racist word.
This was in part because a Northern Irish MP, Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP, had tweeted: “I’m appalled by the term ‘gammon’ now frequently entering the lexicon of so many (mainly on the left) & seemingly be [sic] accepted. This is a term based on skin colour & age – stereotyping by colour or age is wrong no matter what race, age or community. It’s just wrong.”
Other commentators retorted that gammon could not possibly be racist and was fine as a word with which to abuse, you know, gammons. In more sedate corners of the media, some devotees of philology explored the historical context: in 18th-century thieves’ jargon, a gammon was someone who distracted the mark’s attention; in the 19th century, gammon could also mean stuff and nonsense, of the kind a modern gammon might perhaps spout. The journalist Caitlin Moran deserves some share of the originating credit, too, for having described David Cameron in 2012 as “a slightly camp gammon robot”.
“I’m in two minds about the gammon thing,” Davis says now. “When it’s used against genuine bigots, I’m fine with it. When I see it used as shorthand for a working-class person, I’m not so keen. I’m also not exactly proud of creating another weapon in the online culture war, which shows no signs of stopping.”
Is there a message in this story, too, about how social media and alcohol are perhaps not the safest bedfellows? “I’m pretty sure that was my only foray into drunk-tweeting and I’m certain it will be my last,” Davis says. “In fact, I think all electronic-communications devices should be fitted with breathalysers.”
• Steven Poole’s A Word For Every Day Of The Year is published by Quercus at £14.99.
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