Today’s post marks our 52nd Weekly Word Watch. That’s an entire year of new and noteworthy, unusual and unlikely, and zeitgeisty and buzzy terms — nearly 240 of them, in fact. My personal favourite, for what it’s worth, is päntsdrunk, a Finnish-inflected word for the Scandinavian lifestyle trend of ‘drinking at home, alone, in your underwear’. What can I say? I think it’s fun to say… among other things.
We can find some themes in our Word Watch word bank, too, notably the changing language of identity, fun with food, political blunders, and the impact of digital technology on our language (and lives). This week’s entries are no exception.
In the latest edition of Philadelphia Magazine, Sandy Hingston penned an elegy to mayonnaise called ‘How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise’. Hingston argued in her essay — with her tongue a bit in her cheek, apparently lapping up those last traces of mayo from some egg salad — that younger people are rejecting the condiment as a ‘boring white food’ of the Baby Boomers.
And what are they favouring instead? Identity condiments, as Hingston dubbed them, like tzatziki or basil pesto on their toasties: ‘My sandwich, my self’. Her article caused a small sensation on social media, with many coming forward in passionate and hilarious defences of mayonnaise.
But it’s that phrase, identity condiment, that is so pitch-perfect, pulling together the buzzwords of identity and millennials into an excitable, if ultimately trivial, lifestyle topic. As far as lexical items go, identity condiment is a one-off, of course, but it shows how the right words can touch a nerve — and offer a welcome reprieve from the heavier news of the day.
Speaking of identity, two writers this past week or so commented on separate instances of what they call woke-washing.
Writing in The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi criticized the betting shop Paddy Power for woke-washing with its Official Bus of Gay Professional Footballers, ‘using progressive values as a marketing ploy and are appropriating social activism as a form of advertising’.
And for The Root, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson denounced a white Brooklyn woman for phoning the police on a black woman taking shelter in the rain, later defending her actions on grounds of autism. To Johnson, woke-washing ‘uses social justice terms to excuse the inexcusable and allows bigots to hide behind irrelevant marginalizations while causing real harm to multiple-marginalized people’.
Woke-washing joins two items very much of our lexical zeitgeist: the adjective woke and the combining form -washing. Woke means as ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism’. It rose to prominence — and later, many would say, mainstream dilution — in the 2010s thanks to #BlackLivesMatter, though it has roots in at least the 1940s. We’ve seen -washing on the Word Watch twice before: whitewashing (here, cast a white actor in a minority role) and sportswashing (using major sporting events to improve a country’s reputation).
While some have decried that overuse and appropriation of woke have sapped the word, Mahdawi and Johnson’s uses of woke-washing proves woke maintains real power and useful meaning for topics of social justice. Their different applications of woke-washing, moreover, show that -washing is not only a productive combining form but also well-established as a polysemous (multiple-sensed) one. It can indict marketing strategies and personal behaviour for a kind of disingenuous righteousness as well as casting decisions that exclude minority representation.
Australian senator Fraser Anning sparked extensive condemnation after a speech in the country’s parliament calling for a ban on Muslim immigration. In it, Anning said: ‘The final solution to the immigration problem is of course a popular vote’.
The phrase final solution, even if not in xenophobic context, immediately conjures up one of history’s most heinous euphemisms: ‘the final solution of the Jewish question’, as Hitler’s right-hand man Hermann Göring wrote. Initiated in 1941, the final solution is the genocide of Jewish people we call the Holocaust but the Nazis called Endlösung, literally ‘final solution’. The Oxford English Dictionary attests a translated final solution in 1947 from the Nuremberg trials.
Anning, for his part, has refused to apologize and objects to his final solution being taken out of context. But that’s not quite how words work. Words are incredibly versatile, yes. Consider, as a hyper-timely example, woke and washing. I woke vs. I am woke mean very different things, and Mahdawi and Johnson both gave us two different senses of the combining form -washing, one advertorial and the other behavioural.
Yet some expressions become ossified, fixed in sense by painful pasts. Take retarded: Most people would think twice before they’d say ‘My progress was retarded’, though retarded once signified ‘slowed’ before slurring persons with mental disabilities. Even if answering a math or science problem, it’s nigh impossible not to hear the historic horrors of that tragic euphemism, final solution, rendering it a kind of taboo better left avoided. Well, in Anning’s case, perhaps taboo avoidance isn’t called for as much a little tact — and a lot of humanity.
Let’s close out this milestone Word Watch with some lighter fare — a light mayo, if you will. One of the latest viral video crazes making the internet rounds has been christened the Matilda Challenge.
In it, people create a scene in which it looks like one person is magically controlling everyday objects, all while dancing to Thurston Harris’s 1957 early rock and roll song ‘Itty Bitty Pretty One’. The inspiration comes from such a scene in the 1996 children’s film Matilda, hence the Matilda Challenge.
The challenge in its name, meanwhile, is another entrant of the growing annals of internet challenges in the 2010s: the Cinnamon Challenge, Ice Bucket Challenge, the Running Man Challenge, the Mannequin Challenge, the Tide Pod Challenge, and just recently the Kiki Challenge. The cinnamon and Tide Pod varieties are meant as hilarious (but very dangerous) stunts, the Ice Bucket Challenge a playful and engaging way to bring attention to a cause, and the others clever, impressive, music-based amusements.
The X Challenge is no doubt an expanding phrasal template born of our digital culture built on accessible recording technology, social media, and viral/memetic content. But while it’s very 21st century, the construction’s sense of challenge is ancient. The challenge, in Matilda Challenge, is an ‘invitation’ for others to partake in the video activity, and we can find evidence for the sense of such a ‘summons’ in the 1300s — though these early challenges, admittedly, involved much more defiant or serious contests. Challenge as verb has so far been attested in the early 1200s and meaning ‘to accuse’ or ‘being a charge against’, coming via French from the same Latin root that yields calumny, or ‘defamation’.