Archives for category: Language

I was reading an article on the BBC website the other day and came across the ‘backronym’, which I’d never heard of before and which I immediately loved. I looked it up right away on wikipedia.

It is at its heart a reverse acronym, created to echo an original word or acronym. So, to borrow from wikipedia, where Radar is an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging, the Amber Alert program was named after a girl called Amber went missing, but was later changed to stand for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, a backronym.

Cool, eh? We can create any number of our own humorous backronyms and use them to mock our ‘acronymic’ institutions.

Here’s the thing though: the backronym the BBC used in its article was the most interesting of all. Apparently, the word camp in its adjectival meaning is derived from kamp, standing for ‘known as male prostitute’, and harking back to the dingy old days when homosexuality was illegal. Not sure about that, myself, but was delighted to learn of the existence of the word backronym.

Pore over this, if you too are similarly mistaken.

You learn something new every day. It’s always a pleasure for me when I learn something new about the English language.

I’ve often used the term to ‘pore over’ something, meaning to take in all of the detail of something. Finally, a hundred times after I’d used the term or heard it used in conversation, I saw it written down in a story on the BBC website. My initial reaction, arrogantly, was that the writer had made a mistake and that I was right. 15 seconds later I was proved wrong. How could I have doubted the August BBC?

I had always assumed it was to ‘pour’ over something, as in the example of pouring gravy on my roast potatoes, or pouring our eyes over a document or painting. But no, different root word, different etymology, different spelling.

There’s a new-ish kind of road sign on Irish roads. I like it. The sign combines a speed camera and an instruction.

When you’re travelling along a road with a certain speed limit, the sign shows you the speed you’re going. If you’re going in excess of the speed limit, which is also displayed in the sign, the speed shows red. When you dip under the speed, it shows green. Crucially, after it shows you your speed in green it then posts a ‘thank you’, also in green.

These are signs with manners. They thank you for obeying their rules. But, crucially, they remind you about the speed limit in a creative way and also encourage you to drive below the limit. You comply, and you get your reward, someone’s – or something’s – thanks.

I have no data on this, but I would imagine that these new-ish signs are effective, certainly more effective than other kinds. Until, perhaps, we tire of the novelty factor. But will we ever tire of someone using good manners?

What’s the opposite of ‘swimmingly’? What do you say when something’s not going swimmingly? It’s hardly ‘sinkingly’, is it? It doesn’t strike me as having a natural antonym.

We have so many different words to describe what is essentially ‘well’. Many writers and communicators say that an adverb is unnecessary, lazy, superfluous. But sometimes it can also add colour, emotion, or accuracy.

None of which helps with what you say if you want to convey the opposite of swimmingly. The positive implies both buoyancy and movement, so the antonym could be buoyant but not moving – ‘floatingly’? – or neither buoyant nor moving, so perhaps sinkingly or ‘flailingly’.

These are the thoughts that trouble a troubled mind. WordPress at any rate likes none of them, inserting an ugly dashed red line underneath each one to suggest that they’re not words.

Or, that they haven’t been coined yet

I was watching a marketing training video the other day, produced by an American company highly respected in the area of what’s called ‘inbound marketing’ and the speaker used the word ‘ongoingly’.

Ongoingly, meaning – one would assume – in an ongoing fashion – is another great example of human languages adapting and changing all the time.

I was talking to my good lady about this recently, and about how language change spreads, and she wasn’t convinced.

‘So,’ she said, as we were walking through an agricultural show to buy an ice cream, ‘I’m going to call that bunch of stones on the path down here a ‘bubblybeg’. You can’t tell me I’ve created a new word..’ Of course it is, I replied, you just coined a new word. Now I’m going to use it, and we’ll both know what it signifies when we use it again. If we don’t use it anymore, it dies with us.

But, I continued, if you continue using it, and others adopt it, your new word is taking hold one person at a time. Throw in a couple of influencers or broadcasters with access to many more people, and then thousands of people are making that individual decision whether or not to adopt and use it too. All of a sudden the word gains critical mass and eventually becomes accepted. It starts as a verbal thing, then over time becomes enshrined in the written word, and away you go.

The same thing will have happened with ongoingly, like it did with three-peat. Language change is a constant, living thing, and that for me is the constant fascination.

One of the most vivid phrases you hear’ll – mostly in business – is to ‘crash and burn’. An example: let’s do loads of practice for this presentation to the company; we don’t want to crash and burn up there.’

It’s actually a horrifying phrase, especially if you’ve ever been – or known someone who has been – involved in a bad transportation accident. There must be a better phrase.

I have invented – and prefer, for the reason above – the phrase ‘physics and chemistry.’ It’s not as catchy, but it’s certainly less offensive.

When I was at school, we struggled with definitions of the differences between the two vast disciplines of physics and chemistry. Generalising grossly, physics is about movement, sound, weight, dimensions, and sometimes a little bit of heat. Chemistry, on the other hand, is concerned with much more heat, so that things combine, transfer and change into other things.

So a crash is a physical thing, burning is a chemical thing. When we experience physics and chemistry in business – or indeed in life – there is a sudden, shocking noisy event, followed by a major adverse change in our circumstances.

So there you go. Next time, if you’ve got something important going on, make sure you avoid the one-two punch of physics and chemistry.

Hat-trick is an odd word isn’t it? I often think of it as one word, but in fact it’s two. It sounds odd too, when y0u pronounce it as two separate words.

The word is another of those coinages born out of sport, like three-peat which I’ve enthused about recently. It came about a long time ago when a chap managed to get three people out with 3 consecutive balls at cricket and his colleagues stumped up some cash and bought him a hat. Where the trick part comes from I don’t know, unless you could argue that it’s the three-in-a-row trick that gets you the hat.

Hat-trick doesn’t work as well as three-peat for my money, and it’s also evolved in meaning too, since you can score a hat-trick of goals, tries or wins, but they don’t necessarily have to be in a row. Someone from either team could have the effrontery to score before you can convert your brace to a triple, treble or hat-trick.

I wonder why getting four wickets in a row hasn’t become a coat-trick, or something more valuable than a hat as a reward, since they’re a particularly rare beast. Four goals, five, even the ‘double hat-trick’ of 6 goals – does that warrant getting 2 hats? – are more common in football, but alas there is to my knowledge no corresponding new coinage.

Three-peat is an amazing, radical, glorious word. It is at the same time testimony to the malleability of the English language and to the habit of continuous invention and reinvention by the American people.

For some exhibitors of sporting prowess, it’s not enough to win back-to-back victories, to repeat their success. They go one better, winning three-in-a-row, the three-peat.

For me, the fact that three-peat is the addition of a suffix to a word that immediately conveys the meaning of the word while also conveying the root of the inspiration is almost too perfect.

It feels as natural as the progression of billion to trillion, and bigger to biggest. It also illustrates the inventiveness of US sporting journalism, that it can concoct these words and make new additions – like ‘winningest’ for example – to an already vast lexicon of sporting descriptors.

Long may it continue, or repeat.

Subject line signposting is the most decent thing we can do as communicators. It’s a pull thing. You pull interested parties to you rather than pushing stuff to them – or rather at them.

We should do it with all our emails, tweets and advertising. I hope I do it with my blog posts.

With a good subject line you pique the interest of your audience while still signposting them to either read on or move away. After all, what’s the point of encouraging an audience with a poor fit through intrigue or duplicity?

Subject line signposting saves everyone’s time, yours and theirs. After all, we don’t want to be labelled time-wasters.


Beware the time-waster. The person that wastes your time, not theirs. They are the scourge of modern society.

We all know them. We see them at work or at play, they are everywhere. The most heinous individual – barring the bully or the abuser of any kind – is the time-waster. They suck the life-force out of you. They rob you of the most most precious resource you have. They don’t value your time.

The time-waster is the person who can’t see or or doesn’t care that they’re clearly taking up too much of your time. They love to talk, they love to unload. They can’t make their point quickly, succinctly, pointedly. They hog the oxygen at meetings, holding forth yet coming up with nothing of consequence or action. They are often shirkers, stallers, avoiders, prevaricators.

You see, you do know them.

Don’t suffer fools gladly. Be direct. Cut them off. Move on.

And what if they do that to you? Well, examine thyself. Either you’re a time-waster and you need to improve your interactions, or you’re not, in which case you need to find another way.