WordWatch roundup: austerity, cwtch, republic, colored, and more
This series investigates changes in lookups for words and their meanings across OxfordDictionaries.com. The graphs are based on website data collected over a four-week period, and the accompanying commentary explores how news and other current events have influenced these word trends and sudden peaks in interest.
While refereeing a Rugby Championships cup game between Harlequin F.C. and the London Wasps on 17 January, noted Welsh international rugby union referee Nigel Owens was trying to break up two players wrestling on the field. As they continued to struggle, Owens exasperatedly observed, ‘If you want a cwtch, do it off the field, not on it.’ Known for his humorous one-liners, Owens’s ironic use of the Welsh word cwtch, which can refer to ‘a cuddle or hug’ as well as to ‘cupboard or cubbyhole’, received immediate praise on social media.
Cwtch may strike some English speakers as curious, thanks to an apparent absence of a vowel. However, in the Welsh language the /w/ sound is similar to the /u/ sound. For instance, cwtch rhymes with the word butch. Another notable feature of the Welsh language is the number of digraphs, combinations of two letters representing one sound, such as ll, dd, and ff.
The national Indian holiday of Republic Day is celebrated every year on 26 January, commemorating the day in 1950 when the Constitution of India came into effect. Every year, the celebrations include a special invitation to another head of state, and this year, the 66th Republic Day to be celebrated, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited US President Barack Obama to the event. The participation of the US President has been regarded by many as a mark of India’s arrival on the world’s stage.
According to OxfordDictionaries.com, we can define republic as ‘a state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch’. For those who have forgotten their Latin, republic comes from res (‘thing’ or ‘affair’) + publicus (‘of or belonging to the people’).
Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines this past week with a poor choice of words on a US talk show, as he discussed the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Cumberbatch’s comment on the show came when discussing that ‘as far as colored actors go’, there are far more career opportunities in the US rather than the UK, ‘and that’s something that needs to change’. Cumberbatch later offered an apology in a statement, saying: ‘I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. […] I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive.’
The term colored, referring to people who are ‘wholly or partly of nonwhite descent’, is now considered offensive in the US. The usage note on the OxfordDictionaries.com provides further context for the term:
Colored referring to skin color is first recorded in the early 17th century and was adopted in the US by emancipated slaves as a term of racial pride after the end of the Civil War. In the US, and in Britain (as coloured), it was the accepted term until the 1960s, when it was superseded by black. The term colored lost favor among black people during this period and is now widely regarded as offensive except in historical contexts and in particular as part of the name of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
The ongoing economic woes of Greece continued to make the news this past week, as the new leadership in Greece called for a halt to the privatization deals that were part of the bailout program that had been outlined for the country. The new left-wing government, controlled by the Syriza party, has stoked new concerns over a ‘Grexit’, the exit of Greece from the European Union.
The practice of austerity, or ‘difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure’, has been a controversial policy in Greece. The word austerity ultimately comes from the Latin austerus (‘severe’), sharing that root with the word austere.
Gerrymander is a word always being batted around in political circles, particularly in the US. Meaning ‘to manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class, the word actually has its roots with a specific politician, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who held office from 1810-12. While in office, Gerry signed a bill that adopted new voting districts that had been designed by the Republican-held legislature to favor the party’s control over the state. Thanks to the observation that one strange-looking new district was similar in shape to a salamander, a cartoonist at the Boston Weekly Messenger drew a map reflecting just that, titling it ‘The Gerry-Mander’.
Photo credit: JeremyRichards / Shutterstock.com