Weekly Word Watch: Kwaussie, tribal, and the Silence Breakers
It’s the holidays for word lovers – Word of the Year season, that is, when everyone from columnists to dictionaries pick the words they think best capture the past year lexically and culturally. On this week’s Word Watch, we round up some of the Words of the Year announced so far from across the globe. We suspect you’ll notice a theme.
The Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) picked Kwaussie as its Word of the Year. As their blog defines it, a Kwaussie is a ‘dual citizen of New Zealand and Australia, a New Zealander living in Australia, or a person of New Zealand and Australian descent’.
Kwaussie declared Australia’s 2017 Word of the Year https://t.co/ZzNlOe751d
— ANDC (@ozworders) December 4, 2017
The word blends Kiwi and Aussie, colloquial demonyms for people from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, dating back to at least the 1910s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Kwaussie additionally elides the first vowel in Kiwi for phonetic ease and effect. And as Aussie also goes by Ozzie, a term also found in the 1910s, Kwozzie and Kwozzy are other variants of Kwaussie. The term is variously uppercased and lowercased.
The ANDC first finds Kwaussie in 2002, citing a New Zealand newspaper characterizing actor Russell Crowe as a ‘Kwaussie (what you get when you cross a Kiwi who can’t decide whether they’re a Kiwi or an Aussie)’. But the term came to greater prominence and relevance in 2017, when it was revealed some Australian politicians, notably Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, were Kwaussies: they also held citizenship in New Zealand. Australian law blocks dual citizens from office, sparking the Kwaussie controversy.
Over in the US, noted linguist Geoff Nunberg also homed in on politics for his choice for the 2017 Word of the Year. As he explained on the radio programme Fresh Air, the ‘meme of the moment is to say that American politics has become “tribal”… It’s not a new word in that meaning, but in one form or another, it has become the ubiquitous diagnosis for most of our political ills’.
“The disparate ways in which people use ‘tribal’ obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty, between principled concern and reflexive rage, between the cerebral cortex and the brain stem.” https://t.co/e795FWOU2a
— Geoffrey Nunberg (@GeoffNunberg) December 6, 2017
With the word tribe evoking a ‘more primitive social level’ and ‘primal emotions of fear and rage’, Nunberg argues that Americans are even increasingly tribal about who’s guilty of tribalism. But the real danger of the label tribal, he concludes, is the way it blankly delegitimizes others: ‘People use “tribal” to obliterate the differences between solidarity and blind group loyalty, between principle concern and reflexive rage, between the cerebral cortex and the brain stem.’
Nunberg is right that the use of tribal for ‘group loyalty’ isn’t new. The OED first cites it in political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1951 Burden of Our Time: ‘Tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”’. It’s a timely citation, as the rise of rightwing extremism in the past few years has renewed interest in Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, Nazism, and the banality of evil – a phrase we owe to her.
Meanwhile in Switzerland, linguists at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences announced their Words of the Year – one for the German-speaking parts of the polyglot nation and, for the first time, one for the French-speaking parts.
Its German winner was the viral, and powerful, hashtag, #MeToo, used by tens of thousands of women online sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and violence. And speaking of which, the French winner was harcèlement (roughly, ‘arh-sell-mahn’), or ‘harassment’.
— ZHAW Linguistik (@ZHAWLinguistik) December 1, 2017
As the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation translates the decision, the winner selected from a pool of the twenty words used more frequently in 2017 than in previous years:
Without doubt the word that made the greatest impression throughout 2017. Harassment in the street, by Hollywood producers, in the office or online – the ubiquity of this term reflects simultaneously the terrible acknowledgment of insidious power games and the liberating power of words: finally giving a name to situations where society, until now, has remained silent.
The French harcèlement has a very descriptive, and perhaps instructive, etymology: it evolves from the noun herse, a ‘harrow’, as in the long-toothed tool farmers drag across the ground to break up earth and weeds, hence English’s own harrowing. Herse also supplies English’s rehearse, which originally meant to ‘rake over and over’.
The English equivalent to harcèlement, harassment, also has French roots – and an equally vivid origin. First meaning to ‘lay waste or plunder’ in the early 1600s, harass comes from the French harasser, ‘to vex, exhaust, fatigue’, which is what the word means in French today. Etymologists suspect this harasser emerges out of harer, ‘to set dogs on’, based on Hare!, a hunting cry.
In the same vein as harcèlement, Mary Schmich, longtime columnist for The Chicago Tribune, makes a stirring case for reckoning as the 2017 Word of the Year.
In a reckoning, the past catches up with you. It’s the moment the bill collector breaks down the door. It’s when you learn the delayed cost of what you took for free or for granted, or by force. Today’s column on “reckoning” as my word of the year.https://t.co/SjokkHTPgO
— Mary Schmich (@MarySchmich) December 6, 2017
‘Only a few months ago, “reckoning” wouldn’t have been a contender for the year’s top word,’ she writes. ‘Then came the stories of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged assaults on women in the film industry, quickly followed by other names in other domains, the whole mess colored by the fact that the president of the United States stands accused of sexually predatory behavior.’
Noting the extensive use of reckoning in newspaper headlines and articles, Schmich argues that everyone is being brought to reckon with rampant sexual misconduct: ‘It has forced us to ask ourselves more starkly than ever before: how have we allowed this degrading, predatory, shockingly widespread behavior to go on for so long?’
But for Schmich, this reckoning, which she anchors in the consciousness-raising of the women’s movement in the 1960-70s, is just as much unfolding in the public form of our day, social media, as we’re witnessing with #MeToo. ‘The year of the reckoning will last longer than 2017’, she concludes.
Reckoning is indeed old word with new momentum. The OED first cites it in the 1320s for the ‘act of accounting to God after death for (one’s) conduct in life’, extending by the 1390s to a more general account of one’s actions.
The word is based on reckon, from an Old English verb meaning ‘to recount, count’, rooted in an ancient Germanic root that had the sense of ‘to arrange in order’. The word right is related, and so we might think of reckoning as a ‘making right’.
The Silence Breakers
Finally, we can’t wrap up this Word of the Year roundup without a nod to Time’s selection for Person of the Year: ‘the silence breakers’, as the magazine has memorably titled the brave women (and men) who are ‘breaking the silence’ about sexual harassment and assault, and whose voices helped launch the #MeToo movement in October.
— TIME (@TIME) December 6, 2017
‘This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight,’ Time explains, underscoring Mary Schmich’s winning word. ‘But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries… These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought’.
The phrase silence breaker isn’t original to Time. We can find it in an 1848 literary collection apparently edited by Scottish poet James Hogg, which features a translation of a German poem, ‘Johann, the Basket-Maker’, who sang at all hours of the day. The poem has a neighbor bemoan Johann’s incessant crooning:
‘Confound the bawling silence-breaker!
Plague take ye, noisy basket-maker!
Ne’er will ye cease? Oh would that I
Could sleep, like oysters, nightly buy!’
And anticipating Time’s own phrase, sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel notably uses silence breaker in his 2006 book, The Elephant in the Room, where he examines how we deal with ‘“open secrets” that, although widely known, nevertheless remain unspoken’. He calls these conspiracies of silence and denial, and in one passage writes: ‘Even if none of the conspirators ever actually breaks the silence, there is always the chance that they might, which makes even a potential silence breaker an integral part of any conspiracy of silence’.
As Time magazine shows, 2017 was indeed year of confounding such conspiracies of silence. And we’ll be listening out for how the phrase silence breaker – not to mention the silence breakers themselves – continue to make noise.