WordWatch roundup: fracas, sack, elevator, and shindig
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.
Earlier this week, following a ‘fracas’ with a producer, the BBC suspended Jeremy Clarkson, host of Top Gear, the wildly popular television show about motor vehicles. The show, which is a major source of revenue for the BBC, is one of the world’s most popular television shows, reaching an audience that is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions. Clarkson has long been known for politically incorrect commentary, and has been the subject of controversy more than a few times in his career.
In a statement to the public, the BBC referred to the altercation that Clarkson had with one of the show’s producers as a fracas, or ‘a noisy disturbance or quarrel’. The word is ultimately of Italian origin, from the verb fracassare, ‘to make an uproar’. One thing that makes this word particularly interesting is the differing pronunciation between North American and British English. In North America, the word is pronounced as either /ˈfreɪkəs/ or /ˈfrækəs/, whereas the word is pronounced as /ˈfrakɑː/ in the UK. (Click through to the definition pages to hear the differing pronunciations.)
Although Jeremy Clarkson’s recent job trouble may have contributed to the spike in searches for sack (several have called for Clarkson to be ‘sacked’), the trend began earlier this month. Why the sudden interest in sack? Beyond Clarkson’s newsworthy suspension, rumors have been floating in the international football community that AC Milan may dismiss their current head coach Filippo Inzaghi.
In English, the word sack in the sense of give (someone) the sack, or ‘dismiss from employment’ dates back to as early as the first half of the 19th century. The phrase give someone the sack is attested earlier in other languages, including French and Dutch. One explanation frequently offered for the phrase is the idea that employers would fire employees by handing them back their belongings in a sack; this suggestion, however, is almost certainly false.
An oft-noted different in vocabulary between North American and British English is how speakers refer to the ‘platform or compartment housed in a shaft for raising and lowering people or things to different levels’. While American English refers to this machine as an elevator, from the modern Latin word elevare ‘to raise’, British English uses lift, a word with Germanic roots.
Some of the sudden interest in this word may be thanks to a joke posted on Reddit, which involved a marriage between a woman named ‘Ella’ and ‘Darth Vader’, a principal character in the Star Wars films. (Hence, her married name would be ‘Ella Vader’, or ‘elevator’.) When a British reader expressed confusion on the thread at this joke, another user helpfully observed that British pronunciation of elevator would result in a more pronounced t in elevator than the typical North American pronunciation, which tends to flap the t in elevator so that it sounds more like d. (Click through the above links to the definition pages to hear the differing pronunciations.)
The most common sense of shindig is pretty upbeat, usually referring to ‘a large, lively party, especially one celebrating something’, although there the word also has a negative sense, akin to fracas, referring to a ‘noisy disturbance or quarrel’. The word is of a somewhat mysterious origin, perhaps a compound of shin (the lower part of the leg) and dig (break up and move earth), possibly with the suggestion of dancing. However, the word is definitely influenced by shindy, which also refers to a ‘noisy disturbance’ or a ‘large, lively party’.
Can you figure out who or what had a big enough shindig this past week to incite such interest?
You can discuss word trends in the Oxford Dictionaries Community.