Weekly Word Watch: levidrome, ‘Oumuamua, and weaselflood
On this Weekly Word Watch, we travel around the world with Canadian coinages and Subsaharan sobriquets – and around the universe with Hawaiian-hailed asteroids.
Levi Budd, a precocious six-year-old in Canada, noticed there was no name for words that form different words when spelled backwards, as spit makes tips in reverse. So, resourcefully and now virally, he coined his own: a levidrome, a blend of his first name and palindrome, a word or phrase that runs the same backwards and forwards, such as race car.
Another Canadian, William Shatner of Star Trek fame, petitioned Oxford Dictionaries to add Budd’s neologism to the dictionary. Alas, levidrome still needs to demonstrate widespread and sustained use over time before dictionaries can formally add it to its pages, but Shatner, no doubt, helped boost the coinage’s signal.
Budd’s levidrome boasts some additional word-nerd power, as it is also a portmanteau word (blend) and eponym, a word named after a person. Palindrome, for its part, is first attested around 1637 in a collection of poems by Ben Jonson, Underwoods. It comes from the Greek, palindromos, literally ‘running back again’. The root word dromos, ‘a running’, also appears in hippodrome, syndrome, and velodrome.
Astronomers in Hawaii have determined that an unusual, oblong asteroid drifting across the heavens comes from a different solar system. Inspired by their environs and amazed by their finding, the scientists named the interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua. As astronomer Gareth Williams explains in the Minor Planet Electronic Circulars: ‘The name… is of Hawaiian origin and reflects the way this object is like a scout or messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us (ʻou means reach out for, and mua, with the second mua placing emphasis, means first, in advance of)’.
While the word ‘Oumuamua may get logophiles excited, scientists are more interested in the asteroid’s reddish colour, which may indicate organic molecules – and may be a sign of extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe.
The Paris-based Groupe Eurotunnel, which runs the Channel Tunnel between England and France, has rebranded itself Getlink as the company looks to its post-Brexit operations.
According to an official spokesperson, the company directors chose an Anglo-Saxon moniker: ‘It’s Get – go and acquire – and Link. It’s not fancy, it’s not invented. It’s very Anglo-Saxon – and a large part of our customer base and investor base is Anglo-Saxon’.
They also wanted a new name to reflect its other operations, including the rail freight of Europorte and an electrical connector in development called ElecLink. Plus, the company already uses the stock symbol GET, from Groupe Eurotunnel, on the Euronext.
But here’s the rub. Get and link aren’t technically Anglo-Saxon, as etymologists suspect both words were borrowed from the Scandinavian ancestor, Old Norse. While the word is extensively used in our lexicon, English borrowed get from an Old Norse form, geta, by the 1200s. Link comes later in the 15th century, from an Old Norse form such as hlenkr.
What’s more, all lexical roads – er, rail lines – lead back to the continent, for Old Norse, as English, descends from Proto-Germanic, ancient parent of the Germanic languages and daughter of Proto-Indo-European.
More and more prominent men are falling to more and more accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment, as seen in the past week with veteran US journalist Charlie Rose. And many people are wondering what we should call this cultural moment.
In a tweet this Tuesday, Linda Holmes, writer and host of the US National Public Radio programme Pop Culture Happy Hour, may just have provided the word we’re looking for: weaselflood, a flood of weasels, used here as an informal disparagement for a ‘treacherous person’.
Also, we are in no danger of running out of powerful, influential dudes. The culture lost more the day Roger Ebert died than it has in this entire weaselflood.
— Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) November 22, 2017
Author Glen Weldon offered up a number of his own colourful coinages, but concluded Holme’s creation was the mot juste:
What are we calling this cultural moment?
The Grim Creapering?
I like @nprmonkeysee’s Weaselflood, me.
— Glen Weldon (@ghweldon) November 22, 2017
Following the turbulent resignation of Zimbabwe’s longstanding president Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) ruling party is appointing former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa as the country’s new leader.
In keeping with its official socialist ideology, the ZANU-PF refers to its members as comrades, abbreviated to Cde in titles, e.g. Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa. But we’ve been seeing Zimbabwe’s new president commonly referred to by a different title in the headlines: the Crocodile, or Ngwena in the Shona language spoken in the country.
Mnangagwa earned the reptilian nickname thanks to his ruthless political cunning (‘It strikes at the right time’, he once explained). And his supporters in the ZANU-PF dub themselves Team Lacoste after the French clothing company, whose logo is a crocodile.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has banned so-called écriture inclusive, or ‘inclusive writing’, in its official government documents. An effort to make the written French language more gender neutral, écriture inclusive inserts a punctuation point in words to include feminine plural endings rather than just defaulting to masculine plurals.
For example, the French for one, male citizen is a citoyen; two or more male citizens are citoyens. A female citizen is a citoyenne, citoyennes in the plural. Historically, the masculine plural citoyens has been used as the generic form for all citizens regardless of gender. But in écriture inclusive, ‘citizens’ would be written as citoyen·ne·s, the punctuation – called middots or interpuncts – marking out both French grammatical genders.
Some government ministries have already been using écriture inclusive, but Philippe has ordered an end to the practice. As his memo ruled: ‘The masculine is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women.’ He has the backing of the Académie Française – or French Academy, which regulates matters of the French language – which felt écriture inclusive posed a ‘mortal danger’ to their tongue.
Other languages have been grappling with the challenges of gender neutral language. Many Spanish speakers, for instance, are taking to the non-binary Latinx when referring to any person or group of Latin American descent vs. the masculine Latino(s) or feminine Latina(s). And in English, singular they is fast-rising as a pronoun for individuals who don’t identify as he or she – so much so that the American Dialect Society even selected it as its 2015 Word of the Year.
Header image: ESO/M. Kornmesser