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Words of 2017: charge your shoeys and toast our kidult runchers

Tuesday, 02 January 2018

Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

Before bidding an indifferent farewell to 2017, let us ponder what is meant by “youth-quake”, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, and some of the other ­neologisms of the past 12 months.

A youth-quake, we are told, almost cost the Conservatives power in last year’s British general election when restless millennials voted for Jeremy Corbyn, an ageing muddle-headed mugwump, to borrow Boris Johnson’s sobriquet. There was a small youth-quake in New Zealand in September, after which a 37-year-old woman with ostentatious teeth and a modest degree from the University of Waikato discovered she had become Prime Minister. No one knows how or why.

Despite the many words devoted to the topic, we await a convincing explanation of why the youth of today are quaking or what sort of world they want it to be when the ground settles.

Little has changed, in other words, since James Dean’s 1955 performance of a restless, middle-class teenager in Rebel Without a Cause, apart from their age. Today’s teenagers include people in their 30s. The youth-quake generation’s causes are invariably “First World problems”, to use a phrase added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to describe “a minor annoyance experienced by people in relatively affluent circumstances”.

One First World problem is the price of “smashed avo”, a dish Bernard Salt famously outed in these pages as emblematic of youth-quake. It has entered the Australian National Dictionary as “a cafe meal typically consisting of a thick slice of toast topped with chopped or mashed seasoned avocado”.

We note that Australian lexicographers are considering redefining “cubbyhouse” from a snug place for small children to “a part of a family home organised or designed so that adult children can have privacy from their parents”.

Some suggest, unkindly perhaps, that these “kidults” might learn to smash their own avocados and start saving for a mortgage. Yet this is a generation among whose virtues safety rates higher than prudence. The inappropriate handling of slippery green fruit last year led to a discussion on the inclusion of “avocado hand” by Merriam-Webster. Simon Eccles, from the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, revealed he treats up to four cases every week.

No one would wish to downplay the tendon damage that might be caused by a glancing knife, but it is, undoubtedly, a First World problem, and a recent one at that. Previous generations were exposed to polio and rickets; today they run the gauntlet with “test anxiety”, “safe-space violation” and “screen fatigue”. Encouragingly, screen fatigue, recently identified by Merriam-Webster, is leading to a revival in “books”.

Other concessions to the modern world last year include the verb “binge-watch” — the consumption of episodes of a TV series in a single session beyond the safe limit.

The verb “ghost” describes the act of blocking phone calls or messages from a former close friend. It is the kind of event that is likely to be portrayed in “mumblecore”, a narrative film genre about “the intimate lives of young characters featuring scenes of ample dialogue and minimal action”.

A healthier addition is the noun “snackadium” — “a selection of snack foods arranged in the form of an American football stadium”.

It is not clear, however, why we need “froyo” as shorthand for frozen yoghurt, a modern delicacy enjoyed no doubt by the kind of people who slip on their runners at lunchtime to do “runch”. For truly creative additions to the English tongue, however, we need look no further than Australia, which is once again punching above its lexicographic weight.

From the nation that put a name to the selfie, the OED’s word of the year in 2013, comes the shoey — the consumption of alcohol from an item of footwear to celebrate a sporting or other triumph, and Oxford Australia’s word of the month in July. Also recognised is “lady tradie”, although it comes with a trigger warning that “lady” may appear patronising to contemporary readers. Indeed some may consider it a “micro-aggression”, one of the more dispiriting additions to our vocabulary.

OA’s word of year, Kwaussie, suggests sympathy for the plight of Barnaby Joyce who, after becoming an ex-Kwaussie, managed a spectacular John Farnham, OA’s December word of the month.

Purists are bound to find some recent changes irritating. The inclusion of “worstest” may not be the worstest decision the OED has made but it is hardly the bestest. Merriam-Webster, fortunately, is holding the line against “an improper variant of the superlative worst … little used and widely shunned”. It’s no use blaming the millennials for this one, incidentally. It has been in use since at least 1829 when it appeared in Robert Pearse Gillies’s Tales of a Voyager to the Arctic Ocean.

Merriam-Webster’s consideration of “dad” as an adjective is likely to be less controversial in the era of dad jokes, dad dancing and dad jeans.

Last year’s changes to the dictionary included a hipster-like revival of traditional words and regional dialect that are likely to come in handy.

The OED revived “yampy”, for instance, a word once common in the English Midlands to describe someone who is daft, mad or losing the plot.

The first recorded use of mugwump, which Johnson wrongly ascribes to Roald Dahl, was in the 1663 translation of the Bible into the Algonquian dialect of Native Americans. Puritan missionary John Eliot used it to convey the English words duke, officer and captain. In the late 19th century it was in common use to describe turncoats from the Republican Party, and later a politician who would not make up their mind. None of those definitions fit Corbyn, but the glorious flexibility of the English tongue allows room for reinvention.

So let’s embrace the word in the onomatopoeic sense Johnson intended as we open nominations for 2018’s mugwump of the year. Competition, it can be confidently predicted, will be intense.

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