Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Friday, 7 November 2008

October 2008

New words falling like leaves
Autumn is upon us, and nothing shakes the neologisms tree like a stiff breeze from the zeitgeist. The month of October has seen a particularly heavy fall, what with a US presidential election and an unprecedented economic meltdown in the headlines. And we at Collins must grab our rakes to sort through the pile...

From the political sphere, we have various soundbite-friendly buzzwords including Obamacons (formerly conservative voters backing Barack Obama), the axis of diesel (used in reference to oil-rich countries perceived as politically opposed to the US), and LIVs (low information voters, a nice way to describe less politically aware members of the electorate). Political candidates were also wary of an October surprise (a revelation or scandal close to the election that could derail a campaign).

The recent economic woes have turned up a baffling array of acronymic oddities such as CDSs (credit default swaps), TARP (the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, as introduced by the US government to stimulate the economy), and the TED spread (me neither). This sort of jargon was limited formerly to the financial world, but is now being pored over in the media, as people try to establish what went wrong. Good luck to them.

Other terrifyingly opaque terms entering the mainstream include stat arb (statistical arbitrage, an equity trading strategy that identifies relative mispricings between stocks) and rehypothecation (When money is lent to hedge funds, the funds must put up collateral. This collateral may in turn be used as security for the hedge fund's loans. Got it? Excellent.) And, if the downturn continues, we should hope for a V-shaped recession (i.e. a short-lived one, from the shape of a brief dip on a plotted graph) rather than one that is L-shaped (again from the shape of a graph, but this time a sharp fall followed by a flat line).

Brand awareness
Collins English Dictionary defines this as "the extent to which consumers are aware of a particular product or service". But what happens when a brand becomes so successful it enters everyday speech? One example is the controversy surrounding Google's objection to the use of their product's name as a verb in common speech. In essence, their preferred use was as a noun, i.e. performing a Google search rather than googling a person or a thing. The process by which a trademark is so successful it becomes synonymous with its associated product is known as genericide, and many have become victims of their own success in this manner. Not only have trademarks become verbs (Hoover, Xerox) but also generic nouns (Kleenex, Frisbee, Viagra). Other less well-known examples are Heroin (originally registered by pharmaceutical company Bayer, since lapsed, as has Aspirin), Swiss Army Knife (a trademark of Victorinox) and Vaseline (trademarked by Unilever).

Building up an established brand is no simple process. It takes time, effort, and expense, and any organisation going to these lengths would not wish to see the results fall into non-proprietary use by the man on the Clapham omnibus. Fair enough. On the other hand, it is an even more difficult task to control language itself, and organisations wishing to protect their intellectual property risk "doing a Canute" in their attempt to hold back the tide. There is some dispute over the intentions behind Canute's tale: was it a deliberate, dramatic demonstration of man's futility (and a King's humility) in the face of matters cosmic, or an exercise in hubris and crushing failure? If the late King's estate had wished to create a Canute brand, I suspect they would be keen to promote it as being associated more with the former (wisdom and knowledge: perhaps Canute life-coaching seminars?) than the latter (a red face and soggy chainmail socks).

Duncan Black - Editor