Weekly Word Watch: PRINO, shame-leave, and well actually’ing
Oh how we’d love to wax lexicographical on some lighter fare on this week’s Word Watch.
Like the Maori-monikered kereru, a pigeon that gets drunk on fruit and won New Zealand’s Bird of the Year. Or the Bagel emoji, which Apple schmeared some cream cheese on after backlash from New Yorkers. Or Tardis, Doctor Who’s Time and Relative Dimension in Space time machine, which got a new look for the programme’s newest Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker. Or even all the weed-y wordplay after Canada’s national wake and bake to legalized cannabis on Wednesday.
But as so often is and should be the case on the Word Watch, it’s the language of politics and gender that grabbed us – and of acronyms and neologisms, too.
We’ll begin with politics and initialisms. In recent years, one productive source of notable, if problematic, new words has been right-wing social media, which has popularized such insults as cuckservative (or simply cuck, a soft, mainstream US Republican) and snowflake and soyboy (deriding liberals as weak and whingy). The latest addition is NPC, a video game acronym for non-playable or non-player character some internet right-wingers or trolls more generally have repurposed as a term of abuse for progressives.
NPC made news earlier this week after Twitter suspended over a thousand accounts connected to an effort – months in the making on the message boards including 4chan and Reddit, according to The New York Times – to spread misinformation online ahead of US midterm elections in November or otherwise troll liberals.
The acronym NPC can be found on gaming Usenet forums in the 1990s and refers to computer-programmed characters in games that advance the plot in some way. Within certain corners of online message boards, NPC was seen as a perfect characterization of liberals as unthinking followers of progressive ideology. On Twitter, NPC accounts, which mocked mockeries of Trump, used avatars based on the so-called Wojak or Feels Guy, a bald-headed cartoon meme used since the early 2010s to make fun of earnest expressions of sadness or empathy online.
With Twitter trying to get ahead of NPC trolling, it remains to be seen if NPC will become a familiar player alongside the likes of a snowflake or cuck. One thing is for sure, though, in the world of the internet: attempts to starve trolls so often only serve to feed them.
In The Telegraph on Tuesday, columnist Allison Pearson offered a new political acronym as she sized up British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit latest negotiations:
You may be familiar with BRINO, Brexit in Name Only. Plunged into deep gloom as I listened to Theresa May hold forth in the Commons on ‘the backstop to the backstop’…I suddenly thought of another acronym: PRINO. Prime Minister in Name Only.
Backstop has proven its own Brexit buzzword, referring to the last-resort protection of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The term, used as a barrier behind home plate in baseball, shows roots in its English bat-and-ball kin, cricket, according to lexicographer Ben Zimmer.
Pearson’s PRINO, meanwhile, is a clear riff on BRINO, Brexit in Name Only, attributed to MP Jacob Rees-Mogg in January this year. BRINO, essentially, means the UK leaves the EU but continues to operate in its single market and all the rules and regulations that come with it, which Brexit in part sought to shake off.
BRINO, in turn, nods to RINO, a Republican in Name Only. Credited to journalist John DiStaso in a 1992 article in The New Hampshire Union Leader, RINO insults US Republicans who are viewed by the right-wing as not being conservative enough. (Cuckservative or cuck, as we saw above, is a sharper rebuke on right-wing social media.) DINO is its sometime Democrat equivalent. INO, for In Name Only, has some broader currency online to discredit any person or effort as nominal or token – and, as we see with Pearson’s PRINO, ineffectual.
Now, to gender and neologisms. A year into the #MeToo movement, we’re witnessing a number of men, such as comedian Louis C.K., who’ve been accused of or have admitted to sexual harassment or assault return to their professions and public life. This has created its own new set of concerns and challenges. Who gets to determine when it is time for a comeback? When has a person done their penance? These returns have posed lexical questions, too, like what should we call this phenomenon?
The New Yorker’s food correspondent, Helen Rosner, has provided a compelling candidate for the latter: shame-leave. For Eater, Caleb Pershan reported on the return of Oakland, California chef Charlie Hallowell to his restaurants after accusations of sexual harassment; plans for his return have included therapy, an all-female board of advisors for his company, and, flippantly, subjection to a once-a-month dunk tank. Rosner commented on the news in a tweet, characterizing it as Hallowell’s ‘return from shame-leave’.
SF chef-restaurateur Charlie Hallowell, accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by 30 women, returns from his shame-leave with a comprehensive 12-point plan for his return to work, including weekly time in a dunk tank https://t.co/z5NVN8WsNH
— your friend Helen (@hels) October 12, 2018
Shame-leave is an effective coinage, so much so that naming expert Nancy Friedman put on her 2018 Word of the Year radar:
— Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) October 12, 2018
First, it joins a number of existing phrases for permitted absences (the noun leave in this sense dates back to Old English, with leave of absence recorded in the 18th century). These include annual leave, maternity leave, parental leave, and sick leave. Second, its use of shame is very forceful: shame-leave does not shy away from the fact that serious allegations against Hallowell lost him face, respect, and standing. And yet third, Rosner’s shame-leave also sounds an ironic note, implying male privilege lets men undergo a perfunctory shame-leave and return, essentially without consequence.
As the #MeToo movement ages, we’ve also witnessed more and more women speak up out mansplaining, a very successful young term dating back to 2008 for when men condescendingly or needlessly explain something to women, typically something they are already experts on.
One hallmark of –splaining are uses of well and actually as discourse markers to introduce a correction or opinion. Well and actually have become such a familiar signature of pedantic patronization – often though not exclusively when it comes to mansplaining – that well actually appears to be increasingly spreading as a verb, to well actually (someone), at least as social media is concerned.
Remembering the random dude who “well, actually”-d me on Silence of the Lambs and then apropos of nothing linked me to his YouTube analysis of Hannibal Lecter and Dante Alighieri. Very cool guy
— Emily (@cosmosofcourse) October 17, 2018
in case you were wondering how early new yorkers become fully intolerable humans, my kid has been “well actually”ing people about the most efficient subway routes since he was 3. pic.twitter.com/IJbGudg9D2
— Jessica Blankenship (@blanketboat) February 17, 2018
Use of well actually, as the above recent examples show, range from sincere to sarcastic. Instances aren’t new. We can find well actually’ing on Twitter as early as 2011 and well actually’d as early as 2009. For such a playful if pointed application of an adverbial phrase as a verb, well actually is proving itself a useful commentary on some prominent linguistic behaviours of our time – and a showcase of that great plasticity of the English word and the cleverness of its speakers.
And don’t worry: I’d fully welcome some smarter readers to well actually me on earlier evidence of a verbal well actually.