WordWatch roundup: terrorism, father, inshallah, and bastard-trench
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.
The mass shooting on 17 June at Emanuel A.M.E. Church – a historically black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina – generated a great deal of national and international media coverage over the past week and a half. Some of that coverage centered on the question of whether the attack should be called ‘terrorism’. In OxfordDictionaries.com, terrorism is defined as ‘the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims’. Because the actions of the shooter, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, appear to be racially motivated, with the supposed intent of starting a ‘race war’, political motivation for the attack seems present.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), terrorism goes back to the era of the French Revolution (late 18th century), when terrorisme referred to the violent measures taken in order to come to political power or to maintain a government. Eventually, terrorism came to refer broadly to any ‘unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims’ by government or ruling groups, and then finally – in the use most common today – by secret or expatriate organizations or individuals.
The reason behind a spike in look-ups for father should be fairly obvious to most people: 20 June was Father’s Day in many countries around the world! The word father (along with other family terms) offers a cool look into the relationships and shared etymology of several European languages. In English, the word father descends from the Old English fæder, which itself comes from an Indo-European root, shared by Latin pater and Greek patēr. This is why you can see a clear correspondence between the English father and the Spanish and Italian padre, German vater, and Dutch vader, among others. (It turns out that Darth Vader has Dutch roots!)
Given that the Islamic celebration of Ramadan began on 17 June, it’s not too much of a surprise to see some interest in the term inshallah. A common exclamation in the Arabic-speaking world, inshallah means ‘if God (Allah) wills it’ and comes from the Arabic إنْ شاءَ اللهُ. Other exclamations from Arabic that have some presence in English include the three phrases traditionally spoken after prayers: Allahu Akbar (‘God is great’), Subhanallah (‘(all) praise be to God’), and Alhamdulillah (‘(all) praise be to God’).
Outside the world of horticulture, you aren’t likely to encounter the term bastard-trenching, which refers to the gardening practice of ‘digging (ground) by digging over the lower soil with the topsoil temporarily removed’. However, viewers of the BBC morning news programme BBC Breakfast were recently exposed to this niche term when guest Alan Titchmarsh, appearing in order to promote his own TV programme Love Your Garden, was asked to elaborate on the term ‘double digging’.
Titchmarsh acquiesced, going on to explain, to the sudden horror of the presenters and producers,
‘Double digging’ is digging to two depths of a spade’s blades length depth. There’s also another name for it, which sounds dreadful, it’s called ‘bastard trenching’ and by the end of it you realize it’s a very fitting name for it.
The presenters were quick to offer an apology for the ‘offensive language’. Given that the term is fairly well known in the gardening world, the preemptive apology was roundly mocked on social media and by several prominent outlets.