WordWatch roundup: xenophobia, hustings, sabbatical, and ludic
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.
Following a recent outbreak of violence against foreigners in South Africa, including destruction of stores and homes, as well as several killings, 30,000 people gathered on 23 April to march in protest through Johannesburg, the nation’s largest city. Xenophobia, ‘dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries’, has flared up in the African country of late due to claims by some that the state of South Africa’s economy – government figures place the unemployment rate at around 25% – is due to the influx of foreign nationals.
The word xenophobia is formed from the common combining form -phobia, which ultimately comes from the Greek word ϕοβία, ‘fear’ and the combining form xeno-, which comes from the Greek word ξένος, meaning ‘guest’, ‘stranger’, or ‘foreigner’.
For a list of phobias from A to Z, check out this post.
Hustings refers to a ‘meeting at which candidates in an election address potential voters’. The word is also used to refer more broadly to the campaigning surrounding an election, as in ‘she was out on the hustings, talking to voters. With the UK general election coming up on 7 May, many UK politicians are sure to be participating in hustings over the next two weeks.
The etymology of hustings goes way back – all the way to the Old Norse word hús-þing, which meant ‘house-assembly’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a hús-þing was a council held by a king, earl, or other leader, and was attended by his immediate followers. Reformulated in Old English as hústing and then hustings in Middle English, the word came to refer to the highest court of the City of London, and then simply to the platform at the upper end of the court, where the Mayor of London and other dignitaries would be seated. By the early 18th century, hustings referred to the temporary platform from which candidates for Parliament would be nominated. This association with campaign nominations led to the present-day sense of electoral proceedings.
Interestingly, hustings is not widely used in the US. Instead, US politicians tend to give stump speeches, and go on the stump. The etymology of this use of stump is roughly analogous to that of hustings; ‘stump’ referred to the stump of a felled tree that US politicians would have once used as speaking platforms.
The word sabbatical spiked in searches this week due to the end of Rahul Gandhi’s unexplained ‘sabbatical’ from politics. The 56-day absence from of Gandhi, vice-president of the Indian National Congress, from political circles has been referred to as a ‘sabbatical’, which typically refers to a ‘period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year’, although the word is now frequently used to refer to a period of absence or rest from any occupation or activity.
This sense of sabbatical, or sabbatical year, in which university scholars were given periodical leave, dates from the late 19th century. In Mosaic Law, a sabbatical year referred to the seventh year, which one would observe as ‘Sabbath’, so that the land would not be farmed, and all Israelite slaves released. Sabbath refers to the seventh day of the week (Saturday), which was considered by the Israelites as a day of religious rest.
The play Ludic Proxy opened in New York City on 1 April, receiving several high-profile reviews in outlets such as the New York Times. The play interweaves several storylines, including one that follows a Russian woman as she encounters her Ukrainian home in an unorthodox way – as a setting in the video game Call of Duty, which her nephew is playing. The word ludic means ‘showing spontaneous and undirected playfulness’, and is often used as a more formal synonym for the word playful. Thus, one might understand the title of Ludic Proxy as referring to the woman’s experience of her hometown in the Ukraine via ‘ludic’, or ‘playful’, proxy, i.e. via a video game.
The word comes from the French ludique, which comes from Latin ludĕre, ‘to play’. Ludic shares this Latin root with ludicrous, which means ‘so foolish, unreasonable, or out of place as to be amusing’, and ludology, the ‘study of games and gaming’.