Weekly Word Watch: Brexit dividend, mulligan, and ansible
News-wise, it was a zoo this week. Pope Francis likened fake news to the biblical ‘crafty serpent’. Twelve camels were disqualified from a Saudi Arabian ‘camel beauty contest’ over Botox injections. And Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, the first cloned primates, were born in their namesake Zhonghua, ‘China’. It’s hard to top those specimens, but we’ll give it a go on our latest Weekly Word Watch.
Brexit is the gift that keeps on giving – lexically speaking. One of the latest buzzwords the UK’s historic 2016 vote to leave the EU has inspired is the phrase ‘Brexit dividend’.
Speaking to the Sun on Sunday, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said: ‘Brexit is a great opportunity for the UK to build a new independent trade policy that delivers jobs, cheaper food and clothing – an immediate Brexit dividend for the British people’.
The expression, using dividend as a public payout, caught on among the press and politicians. The Times took to the phrase this past Tuesday when it reported on the row Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson created among fellow conservatives over his ‘call for the “Brexit dividend” – the cash currently used to pay EU contributions – to be spent on the health service’. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox also used the language of ‘dividend’ when he expressed his support for Johnson’s call.
Brexit dividend may be an effective turn of phrase, but David Shariatmadari warns in the Guardian that it’s a bunch of weasel words: ‘There is no “Brexit dividend”, because the net effect of Brexit is to cost the UK money’…the phrase “Brexit dividend” should definitely come with flashing lights and sirens, and at the very least inverted commas’.
Shariatmadari notes that Brexit dividend evokes peace dividend, a late 1960s Washington watchword for the ‘public money that becomes available after the reduction of defence spending’, originally on the Vietnam War.
Elsewhere in weasel words, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, gave US President Donald Trump a ‘mulligan’ for his behavior, including, most recently, the credible allegations he paid off adult-film star Stormy Daniels.
Evangelical leader Tony Perkins: President Trump gets a “mulligan” on an alleged affair because it was 10 years ago and “evangelicals understand what a second chance means” https://t.co/RqrhpHWI3l https://t.co/n2u7PhPNOB
— CNN (@CNN) January 24, 2018
As Perkins put it this week to CNN: ‘Yes, evangelicals, conservatives, they gave him a mulligan. They let him have a do-over. They said we’ll start afresh with you and we’ll give you a second chance’.
By calling it a ‘do-over’ or ‘second chance’, Perkins glosses the extended sense of the golf colloquialism, mulligan, for us. As the Professional Golf Association defines its original meaning, a mulligan is ‘the custom of hitting a second ball – without penalty – on a hole, usually the 1st tee. (Mulligans are not allowed according to the Rules of Golf)’.
Mulligans are apparently allowed for presidents, though, according to Christian conservatives.
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests mulligan in 1938, noting it probably takes its name from one, David Mulligan, ‘Canadian-born hotelier and amateur golfer, who is said to have coined the term at the Winged Foot Golf Club, New York State, in the 1930s’.
In Seattle, tech giant Amazon has given the world Amazon Go, an automated supermarket. It has also given us a basketful of new adjectives: checkout-free, as well as cashier-free and cashier-less for American English speakers and till-free and till-less for the rest of us.
Shoppers enter the store with Amazon Go app, get the items they want, and leave. ‘No lines, no checkout’, Amazon explains. ‘Our checkout-free shopping experience is made possible by the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning. Our Just Walk Out Technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart’.
Checkout-free indeed doesn’t mean checkout is free; Amazon soon after sends you the bill on your phone.
The technology is cutting-edge, but how we talk about it is tried and true. The adjective free, seen in constructions ranging from guilt-free to gluten-free, has long been tacked on to words in English to express a ‘lack’ or ‘exemption’. The OED dates toll-free, for instance, to as early as 1052. The suffix -less, related to lose and loose, is similarly part of the ancient grammar of the English language.
As automation spreads, adjectives like checkout-free will surely be staying with us. We’ll have to see, though, whether Amazon’s so-called Just Walk Out nomenclature will become the next takeout.
In sadder news, we lost a literary luminary week. American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, best known for her powerful science fiction and fantasy, passed away at the age of 88 in Portland, Oregon. She left a mark not just on English literature and letters, but also on the lexicon, which we want to take a moment to honour here.
In her 1966 novel Rocannon’s World, Le Guin coined the term ansible, a fictional device that allows for instantaneous, faster-than-light communication: ‘You remember the ansible, the big machine I showed you in the ship, which can speak instantly to other worlds, with no loss of years – it was that that they were after, I expect’.
Take that, Amazon Go.
Le Guin apparently shortened and altered ansible from answerable, as the device makes messages sent over vast, interstellar distances actually answerable. Other science fiction authors have since adopted the term, notably Orson Scott Card in his 1980s Ender’s Game series – as has the company Ansible, which provides IT automation software.
Finally, a literal war of words? Tens of thousands of Greek protestors rallied in Thessaloniki against the use of word Macedonia in the name of its northerly neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia – or FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as the country was so admitted to the United Nations in 1993.
The dispute has been raging since 1991, when the Republic of Macedonia declared independence from the erstwhile Yugoslavia, and to some political and economic consequence for the country.
Many Greeks object to the use of Macedonia because they see it as claiming ethnic, historical, and territorial ties to the bordering region of Macedonia in Greece, which takes its name from the ancient kingdom and home of Alexander the Great. The Greek root of Macedonia, Μακεδών (Makedon), is said to mean ‘tall’ or ‘high’, apt for a mountainous area.
UN mediator Matthew Nimetz has reportedly proposed five names, which rendered in English are the Republic of: New Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, Upper Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia (ultimately for a major river in the region), and Macedonia-Skopje (the country’s capital).
But Greek hardliners demand no mention of Macedonia in any new name. We might say they’re really, er, Balkan at the UN proposals.