What’s in a Word?


I recently attended the Green Ideas conference in Bury St Edmunds and one particular talk by John Taylor, who works for Suffolk’s Greenest County iniative, stuck in my mind.

He said that trying to change society to use less fossil fuel, to be greener, was not, as many people said, like trying to turn around an ocean-going supertanker. Actually it was more like a murmuration of starlings: when one bird changes direction, the others follow, one after the other so that eventually the whole flock has moved.

Not only is that a beautiful image but it also makes use of a beautiful word. One that is rarely used, partly because starlings have become so rare.

And it got me thinking about words and how they can, in themselves almost, when they become popular, change our behaviour.

For example the words “twerk” and “selfie”. There is nothing new about dancing by waggling your bum, or taking a picture of yourself. I have no doubt people have been doing the first for as long as humans have had bottoms and the second for as long as we have had cameras that are technically capable of it. But because these activities have recently been given words, or at least the words have recently been recognised by newspaper columnists and TV news journalists, more people seem to be doing them.

I had the misfortune recently to catch a few minutes of a rock concert on the telly and after the band had performed the “presenter” Nicki Minaj went into the audience and took a “selfie” with a fan in the audience, she then announced that her fans would then be able to see this “selfie” on Twitter.

But, hang on a minute, we can already see you Nicki, on the TV screen. If I wanted a still of you, I could simply video this concert and take a still off the video. What have you added by doing a “selfie” with an unknown fan? Nothing. But you have made use of a trendy new word.

A bit later the newspapers made a big fuss because someone had “invented” a “selfie stick”: a stick you put your camera on. So now you can take pictures of yourself at a slighter longer distance. But wait. Didn’t we always use to do that? We’d put the camera on timer and rest it on a rock before galloping back to join the group for the group photo. But it wasn’t called a “selfie” back then, so obviously it was not a valued thing to do.

About two years ago I was travelling on the tube in London, something I haven’t done for several years. I was amazed to see that many apparently intelligent passengers were intently reading a free newspaper called “Metro”. What was in this journal that was holding so many people’s rapt attention? I picked up a copy.

Virtually every story was about a young celebrity of one kind or another doing something inane to promote sales of their concert/music/lingerie/deodorant/biography. Page 3, I think it was, had a lead story about how Miley Cyrus  had just visited London and done some “twerking” and then waltzed off.

miley cyrus

I had no idea what twerking was at the time. But obviously a young American pop star doing it was thought worthy of a page three lead in one of London’s apparently best read newspapers. How can this be, I wondered. I assumed twerking was not anything particularly sensational, and I was right when I found out what it meant. It was simply that Taylor Swift had the word for it. So if she did it, all the reporters would have the word for it, and they would be able to use it in their stories about her. And everyone reading it would be able to use it. And the word itself would have its own justification. Taylor Swift, the Metro reporters, the readers of the Metro article: they were all celebrating the verb “to twerk”. Just as Nicki Minaj was celebrating the word “selfie”. The word was the reason.

If only we could celebrate some words with a bit more depth to them, a bit less selfish and self-indulgent. Words like murmuration. Imagine a murmuration of people, changing their behaviour in response to one another.

Robert Macfarlane has written a book “Landmarks” in which he details his search for “the language of landscape and natural phenomena”. I have yet to read it but heard it reviewed on the radio. He discovered the now almost defunct word for the sound long grass makes when it is rustled by the wind – fizmer.  We don’t use that word any more, so we don’t value what it means – the experience of hearing long grass rustled. Because we don’t know the word, we stop valuing the experience. Grass nowadays has to be mown within an inch of its life, regularly, by a noisy, petrol gobbling machine. “You have to keep on top of it” people will tell you. If it’s on the verge, it’s obviously getting in the way of our vision from our car when we’re at a bend or junction. In a field it’s harbouring “weeds” – in other words, wildflowers. But look at old drawings or photos of our village greens. The grass was long, rampant. And people didn’t mind. Hay had a value. But so did the experiences that came with it.

We are losing the words because we no longer experience the landscapes. We are too busy twerking and selfieing and twittering and facebooking; wearing bling and lippie and binge drinking and raving. (We always did those last things as well but we have words for them now, so they are now celebrated.)


The other day I tried to find something on the internet about swifts: the birds that come from Africa to visit us in Britain, including here in Suffolk, for just a few short summer weeks, shrieking past us in yards and alleyways. They are now red-listed because their population has plummeted. This is partly because we no longer value them. New-built houses have sealed up roof spaces which prevent the swifts from nesting. I could find virtually nothing on the web about these charismatic, awesome characters that still define summer for a dwindling minority of us. But guess what took up the first few pages of the Google search for swifts? Yes, a young popstar by the name of Taylor Swift. Some of the stories were about how she had taken up twerking…

Now if swifts could take selfies, perhaps they wouldn’t be endangered.


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