Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 13 February 2012

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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

November 2010

Boom Shellack-a-lack-a!

Earlier this month, the United States held their ‘mid-term’ elections (so called because they occur in the middle of a sitting president’s term of office). The media on both sides of the
Atlantic promised it would be a referendum on the Obama administration so far, and indeed, the
morning after significant Republican gains, President Obama characterized the election as a ‘shellacking’. His use of this word received nearly as much press coverage as the defeat itself, with major news outlets filing pieces on the origin and history of shellacking, and how it came to mean ‘a severe beating’.

For those who missed the news coverage, shellac was originally a noun referring to the yellow resin secreted by the ‘lac’ insect, used in varnishes and polishes, etc. The word entered English in the 18th Century and is in part a translation of the French phrase laque en écailles or 'lac in scales (thin plates)'. In the 20th Century the noun also came to mean a gramophone record made of shellac.

Interestingly, all the verb senses of this word are originally US or North American.  From the 19th Century onward, to shellac meant 'to coat or treat something with shellac varnish'. The sense in which President Obama used the word, i.e. 'to defeat utterly', goes back to the 1930s. Its original meaning was 'to beat or thrash', i.e. to give someone a physical beating, and some early citations come from organized crime or gangster slang. Our Collins corpus has 104 citations of shellacking, almost all of which mean 'a beating’ or ‘a defeat', and quite a few of these come from American sports, such as:

            The Texans haven't forgotten a 38-3 shellacking last year.

In terms of why a word that originally meant 'to varnish' would come to mean 'beat up or utterly defeat', no one really knows. Slang, unfortunately, isn't always logical, and because it is inherently non-standard, slang usages often go unstudied until they break into mainstream language (like, say, when a prominent world leader uses them), at which point their origins are often lost.

However, we can compare shellacking with two other words which have overlapping slang senses. Plaster and paste can both mean 'to beat or thrash' or 'to defeat utterly and completely'.

Of the two, plaster is originally US, while paste is more widely used throughout the English-speaking world. Again, their origins are uncertain, but there is evidence for plaster to mean 'to shell or bombard excessively'. This sense originated in World War I.

In US English, plaster the noun refers to 'plaster of Paris'. Presumably the idea behind the WWI sense of plastering was that the thoroughness of them bombardment spread damage across enemy ranks the way a builder would spread plaster of Paris all over a flat surface. Eventually, plaster came to mean 'pommel someone with your fists', probably echoing the World War I usage (likening the repeated punches to the bombs falling). This sense originated in boxing, and spread from there.

Because plaster of Paris is a kind of paste, it is easy to see how this meaning became transferred to paste the verb, especially in countries like the UK, where plaster usually means ‘bandage’. Varnishing an object with shellac, presumably, also involves spreading the substance over the surface. This may be the link between shellacking, plastering, and pasting. Hypothetically speaking, plastering could have come first, and as it took hold, other nouns indicating a spread of some viscous material over a hard surface also developed ‘beating’ senses by analogy.

But there is a footnote to this story.

The most common form of plaster in US English is the past participle, plastered, which means 'excessively drunk'. Interestingly, there is corpus evidence of shellacked meaning 'drunk' as well. The relationship between being drunk and being beaten up is not entirely clear; however, in both cases the ‘victim’ is liable to stumble about in semi-consciousness. It is interesting to note that the phrase punch-drunk dates from the same period as plastered (early 20th century). 

Robert Groves

Friday, 8 October 2010

October 2010

He's all 'She's like, "Oh my God', and she goes 'Don't talk like that'

On a recent visit to her former school, actress Emma Thompson was apparently offended by use of the word like as a speech filler; at least, that is the usage that attracted the most comments from language experts. However, there is another peculiarly modern use of like that is, ahem, likely to aggravate more conservative speakers: an introduction to speech (always in combination with the verb be). For example:

He's like, 'I don't know'.

As with other slang or informal uses of like, this phrase has a peculiar bouquet of Southern California. Funnily enough, one of the earliest recorded citations of the phrase is a line from Frank Zappa's song 'Valley Girl':

She's like 'Oh my God'.

This is not to say that Frank Zappa invented the phrase; it was certainly in use before 1982 (when the song was released). It is not even guaranteed that the phrase originated in California's San Fernando Valley, though Zappa's use of it would indicate it had indeed become associated with Valspeak.

Is it possible, then to tell where be like as a direct speech introduction did come from? Perhaps not, but it may be related to other informal introductions for direct speech, some of which are logical developments of pre-existing phrases.

One of the oldest of these is the use of go, often in the simple past tense (went). This usage goes back to Dickens, and derives from the earlier sense of go meaning 'to make a noise as specified' (e.g. The gun went bang). This sense of go dates back to the 16th Century. It is interesting that applying it to reported speech took another 300 years to develop; however, as early citations seem to favour non-verbal sounds such as 'yo-yo-yo' or 'chirp'. Go followed by full sentences of reported speech don't become common until the late 20th Century, and are usually considered non-standard.

By contrast, one of the newest of these is be all, as in She's all, 'Ooh, let it out. You can tell me'. This usage was common in US English from at least the late 20th Century, and has been creeping into British English, probably via the usual suspects (imported US films and television programmes). In 2009 we added it to the 30th Anniversary Edition of Collins English Dictionary. One wonders what Ms Thompson would make of that.

The Virus Has Spread

The word viral used to mean 'of, relating to, or caused by a virus'. Of course, it still means that; but it has acquired another meaning in the past 10 to 15 years. The adjective viral, when used with something other than a disease, refers to the spread of something, usually publicity, via word-of-mouth, electronic discussion (emails, blogs, internet chatter, etc), which is metaphorically like the spread of a virus from person to person.
Lexicographers first noticed this sense of viral in the phrase viral marketing, which is an advertising campaign which disseminates its message 'virally'. In some ways this was a great marketing innovation, as it made use of burgeoning technology (the internet and email) and its adherents, and was cheaper than a traditional campaign, as most of the leg-work was done by the targeted consumers.

Word-of-mouth advertising campaigns go back to way before the internet, but the adjective viral doesn't seem to have been applied to them until they started using internet technology. Possibly this is because they emerged at the same time that increased internet access brought computer viruses to mass public awareness. Early viral marketing was spread by email (one of the earliest and simplest examples being Hotmail's tagline automatically added to the end of every email sent by the service, effectively making each email a mini-advert), as were most computer viruses of the time. Also, the irrelevance of spatial and national boundaries in cyberspace allowed viral campaigns to spread more quickly and more widely than previous word-of-mouth or stealth campaigns, creating something that resembled a global epidemic.

The earliest citation of viral marketing in the Bank of English comes from a 1999 newspaper article describing the phenomenon and explicitly likening it to computer viruses. Three years later, in 2002, we get our first citations of viral email. Some citations of this phrase use it as a synonym of viral marketing (much of which was still disseminated through email); others, however, point to a different phenomenon: the circulation of jokes via email, for entertainment, rather than marketing purposes. One person forwards the joke to her or his mates, who then forward it to their mates, and soon the joke ends up in nearly everyone's inbox.

Many of these jokes were long-winded, off-colour stories or rude pictures composed of non-alphanumeric keyboard characters, both of which were, frankly, a pain to read. However, some were brief, downloadable video clips, the famous 'dancing baby' of the late 1990s being an early notable example.
Before the advent of video-sharing website such as YouTube, these videos had to be contained within the email as an attachment. Nowadays, all you need is a link, which can even be contained in the subject field of the message, eliminating the need for superfluous LOLs in the body of the email. Also, the size of the email is smaller, making it less likely to clog recipients' inboxes. Finally, because the video itself is stored on a free website, potential viewers have other ways to search for and find it than just a randomly circulated email message.

The net result of this development is that the focus of these wide-spreading jokes is now on the video rather than the email, and people now speak of viral videos rather than viral emails.

There are no citations of viral video in the Bank of English before 2006 (YouTube was launched in 2005). From 2006 to 2009, there are 100 citations of the phrase (and only 23 of viral email). In fact, in corpus citations from 2005 to 2009, video is the second most likely noun to follow viral (infection being the first and marketing being the third). Email is way down at number 20.

All this is also leading to the emergence of viral as a noun, meaning 'a viral video', as evidenced by the increase in citations of the inflected form virals in the Bank of English. Before 2005 there were 3 citations of virals all misspellings of 'antiretrovirals'. From 2005 to 2009 there are 174 citations, all referring to viral videos. To be fair, most of these citations comes from issues of one men's magazine which seems to have taken the term and run with it. However, virals also generates more than 2 million Google hits, the majority of which link to viral videos. Worryingly, a lot of these are borderline pornographic, which suggest viral as noun may have less-than-savoury connotations.

Robert Groves – Editor

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

September 2010

Thanks A Latte

Last month in New York City, English professor Lynne Rosenthal was forcibly ejected from a Starbucks after refusing to place her order using the established terminology. What makes this altercation surprising is that it did not involve coffee. I suspect most of us quietly avoid ordering a 'venti latte', but Professor Rosenthal's 'faux pas' was to refuse to specify that she didn't want butter or cheese on her multi-grain bagel.

One thing this admittedly fatuous story brings to light is the notable absence of more linguistic disputes in coffee bars, not only because of the silly terminology the chain stores have adopted, but because the history of coffee is replete with misnomers and misconceptions.

In the first place, most coffee drinkers in the West think of coffee as a drink brewed from ground beans, but coffee beans are in fact the seeds of a cherry-like fruit indigenous to Ethiopia. Both the drink and the word were introduced to Europe via the Middle East. The word coffee ultimately derives from Arabic qahwah, though most European languages borrowed it from its Turkish cognate kahveh, which became caffè (Italian), café (French, Spanish, and Portuguese), Kaffee (German), koffie (Dutch), and coffee (English).

Citations of the word coffee in English technically go back to 1598, in descriptions of Turkish and, later, Italian culture. These early citations, however, usually spell the word chaoua (presumably pronounced 'cowva') or cahve. The earliest citation of the spelling coffee comes from 1636. Spellings such as kauhi, cahu, and kauhi persist until the end of the 17th Century.

In the English-speaking world, coffee came into its own during the 18th Century, when Britain expanded its sea power and, through trade, laid down the foundations of what would eventually become the British Empire. It was at this point that things like coffee, tea, and sugar became available in the British Isles – if you had the money. Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock depicts wealthy Brits drinking both tea and coffee, implying the drinks had relatively equal status, though as we all know, tea eventually replaced coffee as the drink of choice in the UK among all social classes.

In North America, however, coffee was king. In the United States especially, this may have resulted from a desire to distance itself culturally from Britain, but may also have been influenced by the number of immigrants from Continental Europe, who would have drunk coffee instead of tea.

The first European coffee houses appeared in the 17th Century, naturally in places where there was contact, through trade, with the Middle East: Hungary, Austria, and Italy. The last of these is still renowned for its coffee, and continues to influence our relationship with the beverage.

In English, coffee used to mean a bitter, black liquid produced in a percolator or a drip-machine. Nowadays it means a shot or two of espresso, some frothy steamed milk, possibly chocolate or a flavoured syrup, perhaps topped with chocolate power or cinnamon, or whipped cream.

Modern coffee tends to fall into one of three variations: the Cappuccino, the Latte, and the Mocha. All three of these drinks start with espresso coffee, which is 'strong coffee made by forcing steam or boiling water through ground coffee beans'. Both the word and the coffee are Italian; espresso means 'pressed', because the boiling water is 'pressed' through the coffee grounds. The Italians developed this technique of making coffee in the early 20th Century, though the earliest citation of espresso in English dates from 1945. Citations of espresso in the Bank of English, our database of over 4 billion words of actual written and spoken English, begin in the 1980s. Many of the earliest citations are from catalogues and refer to the machines that make espresso coffee, suggesting it was a newly popular gadget for the upwardly-mobile to purchase with their disposable income. Interestingly, the word ciao shows a similar date spread, indicating a mid-Eighties trend of affecting Continental manors. Espresso is also a word many English-speakers get completely wrong; Bank of English has 52 citations of 'expresso' (which would presumably mean a rapidly prepared cup of coffee).

A similar history and date spread is found with cappuccino, which is espresso coffee served with steamed milk (in the UK, it is often topped with whipped cream or chocolate powder, though this is rarely done in the US and never in Italy). The cappuccino was developed around the same time as the espresso, using much the same technology to force steam into milk, creating a velvety froth. The name cappuccino comes from the Italian for the capuchin monks, who wear a brown habit with a hood (Italian cappuccio literally means 'hood'). When the steamed milk combines with the espresso, a medium brown colour, similar to the capuchin habit, results; also the froth cap sits above the brown milky coffee like a hood.

Of the three main espresso coffee drinks popular in English-speaking countries the latte has been with us the longest. While citations of latte (as a coffee drink, rather than plain milk) on its own don't begin until 1989, citations of the full phrase caffè latte appear in English from the middle of the 19th Century. It is likely, however, that these early citation refer simply to coffee and with milk, rather than the espresso drink we know today, for espresso coffee would not be developed for another 50 years or so. Latte is Italian for milk, and as a former barista I can testify that a latte differs from a cappuccino in that it has more steamed milk and less froth (usually just a tiny cap of frothed milk on the top).

The interesting thing about latte, though, is that we often misspell the first part. Italian for 'coffee' is caffè. Our 2005 version of Bank of English has 46 citations of caffè latte. There are 55 citations, however, of café latte, incorrectly combining the French name for the coffee with the Italian name for the milk (in France, this drink would be a café au lait). The trend continues in our 2009 corpus, with 67 citations of caffè latte compared with 122 of café latte. The spread is even more telling if you break it down by time period. In the 1990s, there are 40 citations of caffè latte compared with 30 of café latte (i.e. the 'correct' version in the lead). In the first half of the Noughties, though, we get 15 citations of caffè latte versus 45 of café latte; the 'incorrect' version pulls far ahead. And it stays there: from 2005-2009 we have 14 citations of caffè latte compared with 44 of café latte. This indicates that when we first starting talking about caffè lattes, we got it right, but quickly slipped into the 'incorrect' mixed form (probably because café is much more common in English than caffè). In any case, the most frequent way to refer to this drink now is simply to drop the caffè part. In the period from 2005-2009, Bank of English has 59 citations of latte preceded by some form of caffè, as opposed to 757 citations of just latte on its own.

Another modern-day coffee misconception is the meaning of mocha. In most espresso bars, a mocha is basically a latte flavoured with chocolate, often topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles instead of plain milk froth. But this is the second definition in Collins English Dictionary. The first is 'a strongly flavoured dark brown coffee originally imported from Arabia'.

Mocha was originally the name of a port in Yemen, famous for exporting Arabian coffee. The 'Mocha' variety of coffee tended to be rich and dark. Some people suggest its flavour is chocolatey, leading to the association with chocolate. Just as likely, however, is that the name Mocha, being associated with coffee, was used to indicate a coffee flavouring in chocolate dishes such as 'chocolate mocha walnut cake' (cited in the Bank of English), which is a chocolate cake flavoured with coffee. Whatever the explanation, a caf(f)è mocha is now so strongly perceived as a chocolate-flavoured coffee drink, that when the coffee house I used to work at tried serving the original mocha variety as a standard filter coffee, customers complained about the lack of chocolate.

Robert Groves - Editor

Thursday, 19 August 2010

19 August 2010

Writing under sexist rules

After spending days or even weeks in a foreign land, switching back into your mother tongue does not always happen easily and could leave you thinking differently. You might even find yourself hyper-sensitive to points of language you never noticed before like gender in language and grammar.

Consider the French language. In conversation, a female must remember to add an extra -e to certain adjectives. For example, when using the adjective content to mean happy or pleased, the -e must be added so as to produce the female form of the word.

Similarly, for nouns, the correct article le or la must be used to denote the grammatical gender of the word. In French, grammatical gender usually corresponds to natural gender, so nouns that have female referents use the feminine articles une and la; nouns that have male referents use the masculine articles un and le. Nouns that have referents without gender distinctions have to be learned on a case-by-case basis, e.g. la table, le bureau.

For non-native speakers who are trying to speak as fluently as possible, concentration levels are already high so the extra onus of remembering to distinguish yourself as female can be difficult and cumbersome.

Gender specification through language does not pose problems to learners alone. The French authorities are struggling to find accepted, non-sexist forms of nouns to denote certain professions. Following a plan laid down by the French government to combat sexism in the late 1980s, disagreements have arisen with the body governing the use of the French language, l'Académie française.

For professions such as writers and company bosses, the accepted form is a masculine noun, écrivain and chef respectively. The new initiative proposes that the female forms of these nouns should be écrivaine and chefesse. Here enters rhyming embarrassment. Feminizing the word chef with the suffix -esse has created a word which rhymes with the French word for buttocks, fesses. The added -e on to écrivain has created a word which means vain or empty, vaine.

Feminists are protesting at these proposed changes because they actually reinforce sexism. They say these new words promote connotations of weak, vain women or focus attention on physical attributes of the female body altogether making a joke out of a proposal which is supposed to make everyone happy and equal.

So, what about the English equivalents? Slowly and subtly we have been doing the opposite of the French, and replacing our gender-specific nouns. For example, television and newspapers seem to have phased out the word actress to replace it with actor regardless of the sex of the person in question.

Indeed, Collins English Dictionary includes the following note:

'Use of the word actress to refer to a female who acts is old-fashioned. The gender-neutral form is actor.'

Whereas France wishes to separate men and women in language as in other areas arguably keeping the sexism debate alive English opts to ignore this and puts everyone in the same category.

With the centenary of International Women's Day approaching in March next year, the organization is asking women writers to come forward to contribute towards a special global arts initiative for 2011. The question is, however, will they be able to write in their own languages without sexist language flowing through their pens onto paper?

Rachel Hanretty

Monday, 2 August 2010

2 August 2010

Indian English

With David Cameron's visit to India in the news, our attention at Collins Language is drawn to the linguistic variety of the subcontinent. By a conservative count, India has 415 languages. English is one of them. After the United States, India has more English speakers than any other country – more than 90 million of them – who generally use it as a second or even third language. To them may be added many millions in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as millions more in other countries. The British were on the subcontinent from the seventeenth century onward as traders, colonizers, missionaries, soldiers, and administrators, culminating in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Imperial Raj (reign). Even after independence in 1947, the use of English did not decline. In fact, it grew with the rise of the internet, satellite communications, and India-based call centres for foreign companies' telemarketing and technical support.

Statistics are always in flux, and generalizations always hazardous, in the second most populous country on earth. Twenty-two Indian languages have more than a million native speakers. That fact alone guarantees that the Indian English spoken by a bilingual or multilingual person will reflect a native language, whether it be Hindi, the official, most widely spoken one or, in order of population, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, and Gujarati. Though spelling usually follows British English, which also may confer social prestige on its users, Indian English differs in many ways. Its syntax, usages, and pronunciations are rich pickings for comedians though Indians also make fun of themselves, helped by the habit of using seemingly pompous formulations such as beginning a business letter with 'Respected Sir' and ending it with 'Please do the needful', or asking, 'What is your good name, sir?'

Word order may appear wrenched to non-Indian ears. Some short words like also, but, and only may be tagged for emphasis at the end of sentences, or repeated: 'We talked about books only only.' Like only, itself can emphasize time and place: 'Can we discuss the topic next week itself?' A question may end, 'yes?' 'no?' or 'isn't it?' To distinguish between male and female, a cousin may be a cousin brother or a cousin sister: 'He is your cousin brother, isn't it?' Compounding words often occurs: a time-pass is time spent purposelessly or unexcitingly: 'That course was a real time-pass.' Likewise, word-shortening: enthusiasm is enthu, fundamentals are fundas. Though Indians are no more profane than other English-speakers, damn is used much more frequently.

The progressive tense is much used, as in 'Chanda is wearing sari' and 'You have seen?' The definite or indefinite article is often dropped: 'She was often guest.' Rhyming phrases abound, as in the title of a famous Anglo-Indian dictionary, whose shortened form was Hobson-Jobson. A person older than oneself may be respectfully addressed as aunty or uncle, or the suffix –ji or the Urdu-derived sahib tacked on to a name or title: 'Swami-ji', 'Begum Sahib'.

Hindi often intervenes, as in wallah, to denote an occupation or activity, as in tiffin-wallah, a person who delivers snacks or lunches. Indians are expert at mixing or switching from one language or social context to another. Since since and for is the same in Hindi, since is often used for the latter: 'I have been ill since two weeks.' Hindi in fact has fused with English to form the hybrid language Hinglish, one common word of which is yaar, a buddy or companion.

Pronunciation varies much from the north to the south but Indians, like most Canadians, generally pronounce the r before consonants or at the end of words. V and w often sound the same. They often pronounce weak vowels as full ones, and stress the syllable rather than longer rhythmic units, lending speech a sing-song quality.

Outside the country, India has loaned many words to standard English. From Hindi: shampoo. From Malayalam: ginger. From Sanskrit: guru, yoga, pariah. From Tamil: curry. So it goes: bamboo, mango, bungalow, chintz, juggernaut, pundit … Culturally, international enthusiasm for Indian food has made terms for breads and snacks (chapatti, samosas, pakoras), spice mixtures (masala), and tandoori chicken familiar to restaurant-goers and home cooks alike. The fame of the Indian movie industry has also grown mightily, as witness Bollywood, which blends Bombay and Hollywood. Bombay has officially been renamed Mumbai, taken from Sanskrit and Marathi words. The new name may take a while to catch on.

Fraser Sutherland

Monday, 12 July 2010

July 2010

What's in a Name?

Every four years the attention of the world is focused on one summer sporting event: the Summer Olympics. But there is another summer sporting event, also held every four years, which draws the attention of every nation on earth but one: the FIFA World Cup.

Football, in its modern form, was invented in England; or at least, the formal rules which distinguish it from other forms of football were first codified in England in the mid-nineteenth century. Early types of ball-game played primarily with the feet are traceable to the Middle Ages and not necessarily confined to England.

Football has long been one of the most popular sports in the world, uniting Europe (its traditional home), Asia, the Americas, and Africa. In the English-speaking world, the one or two countries that don't really care for it are identifiable by their tendency to call the sport 'soccer'. However, football is significantly less popular than other sports in Australia, where it falls behind cricket and 'Australian Rules Football', and New Zealand, where rugby is the more popular sport; both of these countries, however, avoid the term 'soccer'.

The name 'soccer' is particularly associated with the United States of America, where they refer to complacent middle-class housewives as 'soccer moms' and where the sport is regarded as the province of children and women. Europeans often chastise Americans for choosing to excel in sports which no one else plays, such as baseball, basketball, and American football (though, to be fair, baseball is popular in Canada and Central and South America, and the World Series does involve more than one nation, unlike the Superbowl). Ironically, the name 'soccer', like the sport it refers to, originated in England.

The Football Association was founded in England in 1863 in order to codify a standard set of rules for the game, enabling the various city clubs to compete against each other (they had previously had their own variations of the rules) and to distinguish the sport from other forms of football, especially Rugby. As this sport was officially known as 'Association Football', it was naturally shortened to 'soccer' – just as 'Rugby Football' was and still is shortened to 'rugger' – with the first citation being recorded in 1889.

As the popularity of Association Football grew around the world, it came to be shortened to just football, being the version of the football most commonly referred to, and the name soccer began to die out. Most other languages call the sport football or some derivation of it, such as Fussball in Germany or futbol in Spain. In North America, however, the American and Canadian versions of football reigned, and both of these games were derived from Rugby in the nineteenth century. Therefore, in North American varieties of English, the name soccer is retained, to avoid confusion with the game where two teams try to score points by moving an oval-shaped ball toward the opponents' side of the field. This form of football is sometimes called 'gridiron', especially in Australia and New Zealand, referring to the layout of the playing field (the yard lines create a grid-like impression, especially if you're used to a traditional soccer field).

Incidentally, one of the earliest citations of the word football comes from 1424, when the Parliament of Scotland forbade playing the game and imposing a fine of four pence.

That Vuvu That You Do

If there is one word – and sound – that has come to represent the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it is vuvuzela.

We added this word to the Collins English Dictionary in 2005, for the 7th Edition. There are only 11 corpus citations of vuvuzela in the 2005 version of the Bank of English, however, and chances are most people didn't know what this word meant back then, unless they had happened to attend a football match in Cape Town. There are now 197 corpus citations of this word, and we not only know what it is, we are all (unfortunately) intimately acquainted with its monotonous bellowing. Collins English Dictionary likens the sound to "the trumpeting of an elephant"; personally, I found the horns en masse gave the impression that the poor footballers were playing a match inside a giant beehive. Maybe they sound different in person.

In case you have been lucky enough to escape the thing, a vuvuzela is a long plastic horn, popular among stadium crowds in South Africa. When blown, it emits one loud note, which some people say is B-flat, but in reality has only a casual relationship to music of any description. The word vuvuzela comes from Zulu, but the origin of the actual horn is more controversial. Several people and institutions claim to have invented it, including a plastics company and a Baptist Church…though it probably doesn't take much of a genius to come up with the idea of a plastic horn.

The vuvuzela first began appearing in South African football matches around 2002. Our earliest corpus citation of vuvuzela is from 1998, but it is in reference to the South African Kwaito musician Arthur Mafokate, and there is no mention of football or any other sport. Football-linked citations pick up in in 2003-2004, becoming especially prolific in 2009 (when 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, also held in South Africa, first brought the 'instrument' to the attention international football's audience).

The horn is now so popular and ubiquitous (someone even brought one to the Times UK National Spelling Bee Grand Final), that it has developed a 'nickname': vuvu. This word has yet to appear in our corpus, but it does get 679,000 Google hits. If citations continue now that the competition is over, this short form could find its way into the Collins English Dictionary; however, it is equally likely that the word will turn out to be as ephemeral as the cheap plastic from which it is made.