A Little Word Challenge

I’ve always thought that creating a new word would be a great way to achieve immortality. Your word would appear in dictionaries for generations to come, with your name beside it as the inventor, if there were any justice in the world.

The rapid changes in technology in recent years mean that new words are needed now more than ever, to describe the new technology and the new concepts that come with it. One phenomenon that I felt deserved its own word occurs when you meet a person you’ve been chatting to quite regularly on Facebook and Twitter, only to realise you don’t know them. Cue awkward squirming and a rapid exit.

So I set a challenge to the people that I know from Facebook and Twitter, some of whom I know in real life, some not, to see if they could come up for a word which describes this phenomenon. Hopefully one of these words will make its way into the lexicon and ensure immortality for its inventors.

There was a healthy response, with a few noticeable trends in the construction of the words.

Words that combined English with French or German. Words in this category included: FacebookMenschensiewissennichtwirklich, friemd (pun on the German for fremd, or stranger), webconnu and sousreal

Words that combined two existing words and captured the paradox of social media friendships – that people who seem to be friends are actually strangers. These included: franger, strangend, facepal(m), cyberbuddy and alternet.

Words that combined existing words to describe the illusion of social media friendship. These included: sociallusion, realmeet, realreveal, sociofabulation, cyberluded and webmirage,

Some words had slightly different definitions, but were still worthy contenders, including amity-nesia (forgetting you were friends with someone on Facebook) and to e-Frame, meaning only using photoshopped pictures of yoruself online, preferably with an inspirational quote.

A few of my favourites from those lists include the monster German word FacebookMenschensiewissennichtwirklich, friemd, sociallusion and franger.

Which word do you think is a candidate for immortality?

Creative Writing Camps for Kids

I’ve just finished my annual creative writing camps for kids. I always think it’ll be a relief, to know that it went well and to be released from the anxiety that comes from being some way responsible for the wellbeing of small people for a week. In fact, it’s a sad moment, as I become fond of them and saying goodbye triggers a tug of my normally under-used heartstrings.

The camp was for 8-12 year olds and took place in the rather luscious surrounds of an arts centre called the Coastguard in Tramore, Co. Waterford, which overlooks the sea, and which has a cafe that caters beautifully for the sugar cravings that come after a creative-writing class.

Want to know what happened? Here’s a flavour of the shenanigans.

Day 1. Playing with Words

As the children were largely at the younger end of the 8-12 spectrum, I thought I’d break them in gently with some fun word games. The highlight was when they got to make up words of their own, with definitions to go with them. They did lots of activitis that encouraged them to play with words and get to know each other.

Day 2. Creating Characters

This was the day they got to play God and create characters of their own. I gave them a picture of a quirky girl and they gave her an identity, a name, an age, a place to live and other colourful details, including a secret about her that no one else knew. They walked like her, they talked like her and they did her family tree. Turns out children love family trees and are particularly entranced by their own.

Day 3. Travelling to New Worlds

This was a day for travelling through space and time. The children invented their own countries and sent postcards home from them. They also imagined that they were aliens who had just landed at the Coastguard and were sending a report to their spaceship commander, outlining what they saw.

Day 4. Hatching Plots

No story is complete without an event, and the children came up with lots of ideas for action filled stories. They told the stories behind wacky headlines and they did a compiled a story in a group. Each person in the group started a story and the other members in their group had to continue it. They had to do the same for the others in their group. In this activity, stories can go in weird and wonderful directions.

Day 5. The Big Story

Finally, it was time for the children to put their newfound skills to good use and write a full length story. They planned their story using a story spine. This is a series of sentences with blank spaces left in, which you fill. Those details you fill in then form the basis for your story. When they’d done that, they wrote their story.

The template for their story was that their character was charged with finding the treasure stone, to bring it back to their homeland and save their people. To do this, they had to travel through a dangerous land and defeat the monster who was guarding the stone. Despite their young age, the children rose to the challenge and produced stories full of imagination and colour.

Now it’s time to hatch plans for the next camp.

 

 

Does an English Degree Make You a Better Writer?

A couple of years ago, I was doing a reading at the Imagine Festival in Waterford, and I was sharing the bill with a former lecturer of mine, which was a slightly dizzying experience. Afterwards, the audience asked us questions, and then he decided to pelt one at me. How had my English degree helped me become a writer?

It was quite a challenge for me to come up with a diplomatic answer to that question, given that this was one of my former English lecturers. Because although my English degree was very interesting and the lecturers were good, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it helped me become a better writer.

The whole point of an English degree is to learn to analyse text. During my English degree at University College Cork, we poked and prodded at texts ranging from the ancient Beowulf to early Banville novels. We learned to read with greater depth and gained an insight into the techniques used by the greatest writers.

Analysis Kills Writing

But it is that very ability to analyse that can get in the way of the urge to write, because writing is all about hunger and instinct, and sometimes when we try to analyse what creates that urge and how that urge is acted upon, we kill that urge. We kill that passion that drove us towards the written word, both reading and writing.

An English degree won’t manufacture that hunger to write. It can help you master technique, but if you don’t have the passion, you’re not going to put pen to paper. An English degree shows you how writing works, but to become a writer, you need to actually write, and you don’t need a degree for that.

Attributes of Writers

What you need is the desire to write, an ability to trust in your instincts and life experience. You could become a writer just as easily grape picking in Australia or punching tickets at a bus station as you can sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

This doesn’t mean I think my English degree was a waste of time. It helps you to organise your thoughts, so the thought of writing an essay doesn’t seem so overwhelming. This was useful for a career in journalism, which I was aiming for at that time.

Creative Writing Course

It also just so happened that in my third year, UCC was doing an exchange with an American college and that college sent over a creative writing professor for a year. I put my name down for his elective course and it was extremely useful, giving me some basic writing principles which I still use to this day.

The moral of the story is, if you want to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of English literature, by all means do an English degree. But you do not need an English degree to be a writer. Just grab a pen and paper and open your mind.

Did you do an English degree? Did you find it helped you in your quest to become a writer? If you didn’t do one, do you feel you suffered as a result?

Why Buzzwords Drive People Mad

Writing Image

 

 

 

Every time I put up a post on Facebook or Twitter about buzzwords that annoy people, I get a huge reaction. People are delighted to have an opportunity to rant about phrases like “going forward,” “blue-sky thinking” and “no problem.” I tried twisting people’s minds recently by asking them to come up with buzzwords which actually don’t annoy them. But the mere mention of buzzwords was enough to get their dander up.

Why should they be so annoyed? They’re only words. But every time we choose a word, we’re tapping into an emotion. And when people hear buzzwords, they feel they’re being lied to, or that their concerns are being brushed aside. The worst thing about buzzwords is that they are used to give the impression of sincerity, while being completely insincere.

Politics

If you were to strip the statements of politicians of all buzzwords, you’d find nothing there. Buzzwords allow politicians to say nothing while appearing to say something. They’ll start an interview with a journalist by saying “I’m glad you asked me that,” then completely avoid it, using a string of carefully crafted buzzwords. They can cleverly sidestep questions, avoid admitting errors and doge out of making promises to take concrete action.

Customer Service

Buzzwords like, “Bear with me” and “No problem” are also much beloved by customer service representatives at call centres. They give callers the impression the rep will take action on behalf and sort out the problem. But people just feel they’re being fobbed off when they hear phrases like that. They’d rather their query was dealt with promptly and efficiently.

Americanisms

Even in our own conversations, we tend to rely on buzzwords to get our message across. People on the UK and Irish side of the pond have become fond of Americanisms like “my bad,” which aside from being hideously ungrammatical, doesn’t come across as a real apology. When Irish and British people use Americanisms, it can give the impression that they’re trying a bit too hard to be cool. What’s wrong with our own slang, I find myself thinking when I hear them.

What bothers you about buzzwords? Do you find them insincere? Or do you rely on them from time to time?

5 Words About Words

alphabetThe English language is wonderfully complex. That’s why it requires wonderfully complex words to describe how it works. For this week’s blog, I’ve turned the spotlight on five words that describe the quirky ways we use the language. It’s fitting that these words are quirky in themselves.

And here they are, these weird and wonderful words.

 1. Diphthong

No, it’s not a type of undergarment. It’s a string of vowel sounds that are pronounced as one syllable, words like boil or ear. It’s characterised by the fact that your tongue moves up and down as you pronounce them, even though it comes out as a unified sound. It comes from the Greek dipthongos, sound.

 

  1. Oxymoron

An oxymoron is not a remarkably stupid bull. It’s a pair of words that contradict each other. We use the phrase ‘living death’ to describe people with Alzheimer’s. When we argue, we agree to disagree. Even the origin of oxymoron is a contradiction in terms. It comes from a mix of Latin and Greek: oxus, meaning sharp, and moros, meaning stupid.

  1. Plosive

Plosive sounds are satisfying to make. They’re your Bs and your Ps. Your mouth sounds as if it is exploding a little as you say them. The sound is created by an abrupt stop, when your mouth snaps shut as you make it. It comes from the French explosive. Ironic that the word plosive itself creates an explosive sound.

  1. Mondegreen

We’ve all had that experience of discovering that we’ve been singing the wrong song lyrics all along. But there is actually a word for it – a mondegreen. It comes from a Scotswoman called Sylvia Wright, who consistently sang a line from a popular Scottish ballad as “Lady Mondegreen” instead of Lady Mondegreen. The best one I came across recently was that vexed lyric in The Stranglers. It’s “lays me down, with my man she runs, not, as so many thinks, “lays me down, with my mancheerons.”

  1. Aposiopesis

In writing, there’s nothing more tantalising than the sentence left unfinished. And there’s a name for that. Again, we’re in debt to Ancient Greek for this word; it means “becoming silent.” It occurs when a sentence deliberately trails off to create suspense. Something like, “Everything was quiet, but then…” or “Stay still, or else-.”

Can you think of similar quirky words about words? Or examples of the words I have described?

The Manglification of the English Language

A few weeks ago, I heard a member of the Irish Arts Council say that her organisation was “FOI-able,” meaning that it was possible to look up Arts Council documentation under the Freedom of information Act. When I heard it, I shuddered.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the phrase. It’s not grammatically incorrect. It saves you having to say a full sentence. The problem is, it rings false. It’s strangulated, robbed of real meaning or context.  It interrupts the flow of the language. It’s an example of how people shoehorn the English language in an attempt to sound smart and current. In other words, they put the language through a mangle.

Plastic letters - words that ring false.

Plastic letters – words that ring false.

 

 

Here are three more examples of words that mangle the English language in different ways.

1. Stickability

A comedian was heckled for using this word during a routine. Someone shouted up, ‘There’s already a word for that, it’s persistence.’ A word like “stickability” is a classic attempt to reinvent the wheel. In fact, it’s an over simplification. Words like persistence, perseverance and tenacity have a rich context behind them, of striving and overcoming.

2. “Doing” a country

When people recount their adventures in long haul travel, they like to make themselves sound like Genghis Khan. They talk about “doing Thailand” “doing the temples” and even “doing Europe.” Aside from the delusion this gives that they’ve conquered pastures new, it sounds as if they’re ticking off a list. Words like “visit” and “see” show that you’ve taken in and appreciated the places where you’ve been to.

3. Impact (as a verb)

People being interviewed on a radio love to convert nouns into verbs. I imagine this gives them the sensation that they’re current or happening. Instead, they sound a little false. “Impact” is one of the most common examples of this, as in “This impacts hugely on the community.” Ironically, this robs the word of its emotional weight. Changing it back into a noun conveys the idea of a deep effect more accurately.

Have you got any example of what I like to call “mangletronic” words, words that sound all right on the surface, but ring false?

Awesome Blog!

Well, not really.

But in current parlance, anything that’s in any way decent is liable to be described as awesome. Hyperbole, or exaggerated language, has become acceptable in business talk and in life. Words are being stripped of their wonder. If any of you were listening to fantasy author Terry Pratchett on 2FM this week, you’ll have heard his eloquent rant on the subject. A tidal wave coming towards you is awesome – especially if you are a surfer! A cup of coffee is not. It can be described as fragrant, acceptable, pleasant, good. Certainly not awesome.

Consider the definition of awe, supplied by the good people at Collins’ English Dictionary.

An overwhelming feeling of wonder, admiration, respect and dread.

Given that definition, could you ever again consider a cup of coffee to be awesome? It would want to be a mighty fine cup of coffee.

The right word used at the right time is a powerful tool. If you want to make the maximum impact on your audience, whether they’re customers, readers or your family and friends, it’s worth investing a little time to find a word that’s the perfect fit.