Weekly Word Watch: from Big Ben to the alt-left
Welcome to the Weekly Word Watch, another new series hot off the Oxford Dictionaries presses! Each post, we will be rounding up some of the compelling words that grabbed headlines, turned heads, or otherwise buzzed in the news over the past week across the English-speaking world. Whether big or small, everyday or unusual, these words will always be newsworthy and noteworthy.
British Parliament announced this week that Big Ben will fall silent for the next four years to protect the ears of workers renovating Elizabeth Tower, which houses London’s iconic bell. Yes, Big Ben technically refers to the bell itself, though popular use lumps the bell, clock, and tower all together. Big, of course, is a fitting descriptor for the broad bell, but who is Ben?
Big Ben has long bonged on the hour, but the origin of its nickname isn’t exactly clockwork. The leading theory is that Ben honors Sir Benjamin Hall, a Welsh engineer and politician who oversaw the installation of the nearly 14-tonne ringer in 1856. The Times supports this account, reporting on 22 October that year: ‘All bells, we believe, are christened before they begin to toll and on this occasion it is proposed to call our king of bells “Big Ben” in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall, the President of the Board of Works, during whose tenure of office it was cast’.
On 21 August, a total solar eclipse will span the US from Oregon to South Carolina. Eclipse chasers – or umbraphiles, as some dub themselves – will have their glasses ready for the haunting beauty of the rare astronomical event.
Umbraphile literally means ‘shadow lover’, the shadow here referring to the moon’s, which will darken the skies as the sun, moon, and Earth all align. The word isn’t just a good lesson in astronomy; it also teaches us some Latin and Greek roots. Umbraphile joins the Latin umbra, ‘shadow’, a root also appearing in umbrella and penumbra, while the Greek philos means ‘love’, as an ailurophile loves cats or a logophile, words – including umbraphile.
A different shadow has already befallen the US this past week, though. White supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, at a protest which ultimately claimed the life of a counter-protestor, Heather Heyer. During a nighttime march, ralliers wielded tiki torches, much to the mockery of Twitter – and much to the chagrin of their manufacturer, TIKI, who condemned the association.
We might imagine such denunciations, too, from Pacific Islanders, especially in light of the origin of tiki. Tiki derives from Polynesian sources, like the Maori tiki, which can refer to a ‘carved figure’ or ‘image of a deity’. In some Polynesian cultures, such a tiki is a large wooden image of Tiki, who in certain myths created the first man and in others was himself that first man. Smaller tikis can also be worn around the neck, like the striking green hei-tiki of the Maoris.
In the early 20th century, many Americans became fascinated with the South Pacific, loosely appropriating building materials like palm, exotic fruits, and, apparently, outdoor lighting now stylized as the tiki torch. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests ‘tikki fire-lighting’ in a defining Australian novel, Xavier Herbert’s 1938 Capricornia. The first tiki bar, L.A.’s still-running Don the Beachcomber, meanwhile, opened in 1934, and helped spread Western tiki kitsch, leading up to the familiar backyard torch today.
The white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville are commonly grouped under the self-styled label alt-right, or alternative right, a word that was shortlisted for Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016. The term, though introduced in 2008, rose to prominence during the 2016 US presidential election due to the political movement’s support of Donald Trump. Now, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, some in the alt-right, among others, are loosely using the term alt-left to defame various critics and opponents, whether the mainstream media or the Antifa, a radical leftist political movement short for anti-fascist.
Trump, for one, brought the term to broader attention when he partly blamed the so-called alt-left for the violence in Charlottesville during recent remarks: ‘What about the “alt-left” that came charging at the, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?’ Lexicographers have joined political scholars in pushing back against the label, however, as it refers to no movement and creates a false equivalence between the alt-right and their objectors.
Sometimes it’s the most familiar words than can be the most powerful. Seventy years ago this week, India won its independence from the UK, dividing British India into modern-day India and Pakistan. This is known as the Partition, the use of which the OED first records in 1941 – and the fact of which resulted in a massive, violent refugee crisis whose effects are still felt today.
The word partition is no stranger to geopolitics, however. The division of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (then the Irish Free State) in 1922 was also referred to as a partition. The actual word is much older, of course, borrowed from the French in the 1400s and first used as a ‘division into shares’ before spreading out to all sorts of ‘distinctions’ and ‘separations’. Its ultimate source is the Latin pars, source of and meaning “part”.