Tag Archives: changing language

The OED 2015 Word of the Year

You may be wondering what took the OED so long; to me it seems as if emojis have been around for a very long time. In fact, emojis have supplanted emoticons, those emotions portrayed by punctuation marks, such as ;- ). (That may not come through the way I typed it; apparently, Unicode seeing those punctuation marks strung together automatically translates them into emojis.)

Some facts for you:

Over 80% of smartphone users in Britain use emojis; of those under 25, almost 100% use them. I’m guessing the numbers are similar in America.

Something called the Unicode Consortium processes applications for new emojis. You, too, can enter a request on the Unicode website by writing a detailed proposal. It may take two years for the committee to decide if your emoji is going to fly. Surprisingly (to me), they receive only about 100 proposals a year, so maybe you’ve got a shot.

Linguists seem to agree that emojis are not going away any time soon. In face-to-face conversation, about 70% of communication comes from non-verbal cues such as facial expression, body language, gestures, and intonation. Your spoken words count for approximately only 30%.

Without these non-verbal cues, our words can easily be misinterpreted online. That is where emojis can reinforce your meaning. Bloomberg has found that 8 trillion (!) text messages are sent each year, so that’s a big opportunity for misunderstanding.

But as with everything you write, you need to evaluate whether using emojis is appropriate. Sending a text or email to a business superior? Writing a letter of complaint? It might be a good idea to keep those emojis locked up. Make sure your written words are doing the work you want them to do. Every word counts. Read what you’ve written out loud. Have you been clear? Polite? Forceful? Respectful? Good. Now hold the smiley face. You’ll get plenty of other chances to use it.

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American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society chose as its 2015 Word of the Year—THEY.

Are you wondering what is behind their choice? This linguistic society has chosen “they” to be a singular, gender-neutral pronoun, as in “They and Mary went to the movies.” It is used when a person does not identify as either male or female or when the gender of a person is unknown.

Schools today are dealing with a somewhat new situation. College application forms used to ask students to identify as either male or female. However, “gender fluidity,” in which some people do not identify solely as one gender or the other but may move between them, has prompted colleges to offer far more choices. Traditionally all-female Smith College has now admitted transgender students. The word “cisgender” has been used to mean chromosomally male or chromosomally female. My spellcheck software just underlined that word as I typed it, but it won’t be long before it is recognized as a “real” word.

Surely, 2015 raised people’s awareness of gender variety, including Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner’s transformation, and the wonderful (in my opinion) series on Amazon, “Transparent.” Facebook now offers 50 different choices for gender identity. Fifty.

Obviously, this new awareness has reached the corporate world as well. I imagine human resource departments are scrambling to accommodate the panoply of forms that human beings inhabit.

©Judi Birnberg

©Judi Birnberg

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More on Job Titles

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Is this you?

Before I went to Italy, I wrote a blog post on new job titles. After I returned, I found an article in the New York Times by Sam Slaughter, called “Your Job Title is … What?”

Because of the preponderance of startups, people today are inventing their own titles. No more East Coast Regional Managers. Vice Presidents of Customer Relations? Gone! Now business cards are introducing Wizards, Gurus, Ninjas, Story Strategists, Futurists and Brand Ambassadors. You can be a Thought Leader at a morning meeting and morph into a Customer Happiness Manager in the afternoon.

Slaughter also has met Influencers and Trend Strategists, Story Architects and Culture Hackers, not to mention a person who admits she was greatly influenced by Dr. Seuss when she was young and decided her job description was (wait for it) Thing 2.

Loyal Correspondent (my title for him) Jeff W. sent me the following titles he’s come across:

Director of First Impressions (receptionist)

Creator of Opportunities (business development)

Chief Amazement Officer (founder)

Director of Listening (social media monitoring)

Chief Troublemaker (CEO) and generally, any title with Catalyst, to describe someone who unblocks corporate inertia.

Jeff has also seen Dragonslayer, Gatekeeper, Sorceress, Jedi, Ranger, Rebel, Zen Master, Time Lord, Princess, Queen and, yes, Webslinger (Spiderman?). My personal favorite, however, is the Eternal Harbinger of Spring.

Don’t tell me you are still a Vice President of Customer Relations!

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New Job Titles

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According to an article in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times (9/24/15), it’s becoming somewhat trendy for people in the corporate world to invent their own titles. At Google, employees can give themselves any title they like. Who wants to be a regional general manager or a vice president when you can be the Jolly Good Fellow, the person in charge of Google’s meditation and mindfulness program (and remember, I’m just reporting this, not making it up). Google also has a Chief Extraterrestrial Observer: obviously, that’s the guy who founded the Google Earth Engine.

But it’s not just Google or even Silicon Valley. A designer now calls himself the Head of Touchy-Feely Graphics in an effort to avoid using the words “user experience.”

Need a Certified Thanatologist (and how does one become certified in that field)? Contact Gail Rubin, who helps people deal with all aspects of death. Her business card identifies her as “The Doyenne of Death.” Of course.

A hardware engineer named Mike Savini decided that since he specialized in solving computer glitches, he should be called a Bug Specialist. I have to wonder how many requests he gets to deal with ant or rat infestations.

Troika, a marketing company in Los Angeles, has hired Maya Imberman as Head of the Happiness Committee. Eva Scofield, who works for Graze, is a Snack Huntress for her company.

This seems to be a trend because, in part, these titles are good icebreakers and are thought to make employees more engaged with their work. I happen to see them as adding to the already pervasive jargon in the corporate world. What do you think?

I’ve been called a Grammar Guru as well as a Grammar Nazi. Somehow, I never felt the urge to put one of those on a business card. Right about now, I’m guessing many of you are thinking about what your actual titles should be. Feel free to send me the printable ones.

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The —Ize Have It

I got an email today from Williams-Sonoma advertising a new attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer. It was described as a “Handy multitasker that peels, cores, slices and spiralizes in seconds.” I must confess, I am not a spiralizer. I have made spirals, created spirals, but can’t remember the last time I spiralized anything.

To my eye and ear, many —ize verbs are unnecessary. Can’t we create incentives rather than incentivize? Prioritize? Set priorities. Have you ever bought a utilized car?

However, many verbs ending in —ize are so common that I can’t argue with their use: hospitalize, hypnotize, lionize, legalize, minimize, maximize, idealize, and personalize—among many others.

Stepping off my soapbox, I wonder if you can think of any time utilize conveys any meaning that use doesn’t. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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What Do You Call These Eggs?

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If you take a hardboiled egg, scoop out the yolk and mix it with mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper and perhaps something spicier than the mustard, and put it back into the white part of the egg, I call it a devilled egg. I grew up in New York and moved to California, but the same term followed me to the West.

I have learned, however, that in parts of the South and the Midwest, calling them devilled eggs does not make people happy. The assumed connection to the devil is frightening to some, I suppose, even when describing picnic food. In these regions, this recipe is called stuffed eggs, filled eggs and even angel eggs.

The name deviled eggs has nothing to do with Satan. It recognizes the spiciness of the eggs. That’s all.

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Does “Proper English” Matter?

I am asking you this question seriously. An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this past week raising the question about whether “proper English” matters. It was written by Oliver Kamm, an editor and columnist for the Times of London. Here is the link to his article:
http://on.wsj.com/1CcHQ3V .

Kamm acknowledges errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation but states that if “everyone” is doing it, it’s OK. He says, “…that is what the language is.” To a certain extent, I agree. All languages change because of common usage. In Shakespeare’s day, the word “girl” could refer to a young child, either female or male. That meaning no longer applies, strictly because of common usage. And look at the evolution of the word “gay” in the last 50 years.

But Kamm has no problem with “between you and I.” I do. He would call my attitude snobbish and say I am a pedant. Yet isn’t he being pedantic when stating his views on language?

Some rules of English language are holdovers from Latin syntax. That is why ending sentences with prepositions is still considered a no-no by many. I have no problem with saying or writing, “Who was the person I saw you with?” The alternative is to say, “With whom was that person I saw you?” I doubt many will go for that stuffy option. Splitting infinitives is another so-called error, yet the world’s most famous split infinitive, “to boldly go,” poses no problem. If it sounds all right and makes sense, I am fine with splitting infinitives (the “to —” form of verbs).

We all use different forms of English for different occasions. A formal letter of complaint, a quick email to a friend, a letter to your ancient great-aunt—all will contain a different style of English. If your work involves a field that uses particular lingo, by all means use it among your colleagues. But don’t let that language spill out into the wider world; most people outside your area won’t understand what you mean. And clear communication is the purpose of language, isn’t it? Also realize that spoken English is rarely held to the same standards as is written English. Sometimes the result can be painful to the ears, but casual speech usually seems normal and often even entertaining.

Here’s a big question: Do people judge us by the way we use English? I fear they do. It might not be fair, and it is only one way we are judged daily: by our speech and writing, by our clothing, by our hair and makeup, by the car we drive, by our taste in music and movies—the list is endless. Not fair, but endless.

I have two graduate degrees in English. One class required a very complicated and difficult study of transformational grammar (don’t ask), but it did give me the knowledge and confidence to devote over 20 years to teaching business writing seminars in the corporate world. If “proper” English doesn’t matter, why was I ever hired?

I think the dumbing down of language standards fits in with today’s grade inflation and trophies for everyone on the sports team. In the 1970s, an “anything goes” educational model arose to make students feel good at all costs. A young cousin of mine learned to read in school by using phonetic books; she also learned to write by using phonetic spelling. At some point in later elementary school she had to dich fonetik speling and lurn the mor convenshunl wun. Perhaps some of you were taught the same way.

Daily we are faced with language distortion in politics and advertising. (I urge you to read George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. Well worth your time.)

Since the purpose of language is communication, being precise is of great importance. The rules we learn throughout our lives, particularly in classes, ensure the greatest clarity; we encounter fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

My questions to you are the following: Is it racist or classist to expect people to write using the standards of “proper” English? If people don’t use standard English, will they be considered less intelligent? Will use of substandard English hold people back?

I would love to get your feedback. I will be here all this week. I am disappearing for the following two weeks for vacation. Whenever you write, I will have your emails when I get back (yes, I’m unplugging) and will answer you.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to AW for alerting me to the article that gave rise to this letter.

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