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Posts Tagged ‘American Dialect Society’

Each year at the beginning of January, the American Dialect Society announces its Word of the Year (WOTY), based on thousands of submissions from anyone who cares to send them an e-mail. Word junkies  look forward to this and often pitch in with their own suggestions. I thought Gangnam style might well have been in with a chance but I’ve never yet predicted the winner and2012 was no exception. The winner was the hashtag – very familiar to those of us who use Twitter – with Gangnam style at least being in the final six.

Over the pond, the good people of the Oxford English Dictionary announced their WOTY for 2012 as omnishambles. This is a noun defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” To my knowledge, it hasn’t gained any currency in the US – but should! It’s a great little word that was actually modified during the November US elections into “RomneyShambles” by European political pundits who were less than supportive of Mitt.

omnishambles

Clearly it’s a marriage of the Latin prefix omni– meaning “all” and shambles, meaning a great disorder. Omni is also the name of the first writer in the Book of Omni, one of the books that make up the Book of Mormon. Sadly for Omni, his personal contribution to the book that bears his name is three paragraphs, which contains the sum of what we know about him. Basically, he claims to be a bad man, prone to breaking commandments, and fought a lot with the Lamanites, who were descendants of an Israeli family who moved to the US around 600 BC. We also hear in these paragraphs that Omni was the son of Jarom and the father of Amaron, and that he was the keeper of the golden plates that were found by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr., and then translated into the Book of Mormon.

The word shambles is from the Old English sceamel, which was used back in the 9th century to mean a footstool. It’s a wonderful example of how a word can change its meaning over time, piece by piece. By the 10th century it was being used to describe a table used to sell goods of any kind, but this evolved into the 14th century word schamell meaning specifically “a table from which meat was sold.”

meat stall

Meat stall

By the 15th century, it was used to refer to any place where meat was sold – essentially a meat market. Then by the 16th century it was used figuratively to describe a place of carnage, such as a battlefield or any place of mass slaughter. And by now, the word had settled down as shambles.  It then took on its modern meaning of “a scene of chaos and disorder” in the 20th century, with its original sense of a footstool having long been lost.

Tourists to the city of York in England typically visit a street called The Shambles, which is very narrow and contains some buildings that date back to the 14th century. It was originally called The Flesh Shambles because is was full of butchers’ shops. Other places in the UK have streets called The Shambles but the one in York is perhaps the most well known.

The Shambles in York, England

The Shambles

So try slipping omnishambles into your next conversation. As I write, here in the US we’re facing the prospect of swingeing government cuts in the near future and the failure of our elected representatives to sort this one out really will be an omnishambles!

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So what do the following tweets have in common?

Just seen the TV ad for the unauthorised book on me. Yikes! (@SimonCowell)

Being a celebrity has afforded me many opportunities but has also boxed me in creatively (@kanyewest)

The desk is almost clear. Work on memoir, film all but done. Maybe I can allow myself the weekend off before beginning work on my TV series? (@SalmanRushdie)

Well, they are all examples of humblebrags, and a humblebrag is defined by the sporadically accurate but always entertaining Urban Dictionary as;

When you, usually consciously, try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility.

The rise of Twitter has ushered in a golden age of humblebragging, and not only for celebrities. Here are a few examples from ordinary folks, just like you and me;

I gave a speech at TEDx and now it’s on the internet. If you’d like to be uninspired for fifteen minutes, click here:

Great. The same week I lose my fake tooth down a sink, I get asked to be a photoshoot model. I’ll be serving gap-toothed realness.

I hate when people tell me, ‘You’re too pretty for tattoos’ …shut up …it’s art.

As you have probably worked out, the art of the humblebrag is to combining shameless self promotion along with fake humility. In all of the examples above, you’ll see the two basic components; the brag and the self-deprecation. For example, the underlying structure of the statement from Simon Cowell is;

The Deprecate [1]: Yikes, I am the victim of an unauthorized biography.
The Brag: I am so famous people want to write whole books about me.

In the Kanye West example:

The Deprecate: I am stifled by my celebrity status.
The Brag: Hey, I’m a celebrity!

And in the Salman Rushdie tweet:

The Deprecate: I’ve been so busy and need a rest.
The Brag: I’m so busy because I’m so clever and have TV shows and memoirs.

The Brag/Deprecate structure can, I suggest, be applied to any humblebrag. The deprecate also functions to try and give the impression that the braggart is “just a regular person” but is clearly just a smokescreen to allow for the brag.

And even the Merriam-Webster lexicographer Peter Solokowski is not above the occasional humblebrag, as evidence in this recent tweet:

I’m very humbled by the wonderful piece in @slate‘s @browbeatslate blog by @abbyohlheiser: http://slate.me/LOpxCp Thank you!! Welcome all

And the underlying structure?

The Deprecate: How humble I feel.
The Brag: Look, the folks at Slate are writing about me!

It’s possible that some folks unconsciously fall into humblebragging, but in the Twitter environment, one of the major points of the entire system is to allow people to talk about themselves and share their lives with a world that they think cares. Twitter is, by and large, an example par excellence of the “Me Generation,” [2] and is up there with Facebook, its more wordy companion.

Facebook takes humblebragging to extremes. It’s an opportunity to people to post to the world how special they are, how great their lives are, how talented/beautiful/important they are, and indulge in an orgy of mutual appreciation. It’s tailor-made for parent humblebraggers, whose postings are always thinly veiled brags about how smart their kids are.  The subtext for “My 18-month-old won’t stop talking and it is driving me crazy!” is;

The Deprecate: I’m stressed, just like normal parents.
The Brag: Look how smart my kid is! Talking at 18-months. Must be a genius. [3]

A colleague of mine will go for months without posting to Facebook – until she takes a trip abroad and starts the rounds of “OMG, so tired after landing in Sydney” or “Almost fell asleep in the Sydney Opera house because of the jet lag.” Once back home, we never hear “Just got back from Wal-Mart with a new can opener” or “Took the trash out and it was raining.” Nope, it’s only the glamorous world that we hear about.

And that, of course, is what humblebragging is ultimately about; it’s a way of creating the image we want to be, as opposed to displaying the image of what we actually are.  We post the edited highlights of our lives and polish them up just a little because we don’t want to appear – heaven forbid! – boring.

Tweets and Facebook posts therefore take on an air of excitement and drama, which is the purpose behind editing. The film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once famously said;

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

Hence the rise of the humblebrag. We become dramatic; we become interesting; but we also want to be simultaneously special and ordinary. Kanye West may want to sound like “just like an everyday person” but he doesn’t actually want to be one! When celebrity Tila Tequila tweeted;

I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!

..you know she’s trying to sounds “just like one of us who gets pulled over” but she also wants you to know she (a) has a Lamborghini and (b) gets let off because she’s a celebrity.

Tila Tequila's lamborghini

Tila’s lambo: Such a bore

The humblebrag is essentially a form of paralipsis, which is a rhetorical device used by a speaker to bring attention to something by professing to be ignoring it. If a politician says, “Irrespective of my honorable friend having once been charged with tax evasion, I believe there are many reasons for not voting for his being Head of the Treasury,” that’s paralipsis.

Although humblebrag has not yet made it into any of the standard dictionaries, it did make it into the American Dialect Society 2011 Word-of-the-Year list, an although it lost out as WOTY to occupy, it did place first in the “Most Useful” category. It therefore may simply be a matter of time before it becomes a dictionary word.

Clearly it’s a portmanteau word made from humble and brag. The OED defines humble as;

Having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits; marked by the absence of self-assertion or self-exaltation; lowly: the opposite of proud.

It appeared in Middle English as umble, humbul, humbyll, and oumbbylle, originating from the Latin humilem, meaning lowly, small, or insignificant. This, in turn, came from humus meaning earth or ground.

Back in the 16th century, brag meant, “A loud noise, the bray of a trumpet,” and it is that sense of a braying trumpet that lead to the modern meaning of arrogant or boastful language. There’s still uncertainty about the word’s origins but one suggestion is that it derives from the Old Norse brak, which is a “creaking noise.” Another is that it is from Old Norse bragr meaning “the best, the foremost, the boast or toast.”

Whatever the origin may be, I’m betting that humblebrag will slide into the dictionaries within 5 years – unless we all suddenly decide that self-promotion is a bad thing. And my guess is that the world will end before true humility makes a comeback.

Postscript 6/11/12
Remiss of me not to mention the excellent @humblebrag Twitter stream run by Harris Wittels. It’s well worth following for the splendid examples of painfully obvious false humility, or just catch up now and again at http://twitter.com/humblebrag

Notes
[1] I’m using the term deprecate to refer to the element of the sentence (or narrative) structure that is used to convey a sense of “ordinariness.” The word itself derives from the Latin deprecare meaning “to pray away” or “to ward off.”

[2] Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Free Press.

See also Twenge, J.M. (2009) The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York, NY: Free Press.

[3] Sadly, the bitter truth is that although everyone believes their children are above average, statistically that cannot be the case. The odds are that your kiddo is average and no amount of humblebragging will change that. I am, in fact, so confident of my claim that I predict that YOU who is reading this NOW will be convinced I am wrong and that your child is the exception, and although you might grasp the statistical truth, you are psychologically unable to accept that your offspring is anywhere other than at the top end of the bell curve.

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