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When words are not what you think they are

Here’s a little test for you: Do you know what gaslighting is?

Gammon on a board - used to illustrate a point about slang language
Gammon – when you hear the word, it might no longer mean what you think…

If you’re of my generation, the word probably conjures up images of Victorian gentlemen tottering around cobbled streets at the crack of dawn to fire up the street lights.

But nowadays, the word is an altogether more sinister beast. It means the emotional manipulation of others, causing the victim to question their own thoughts, emotions and even sanity. Not the sort of thing you’re ever likely to find cosily illustrating the top of a biscuit tin.

What about the word gammon? A piece of ham? Something you chuck a bit of pineapple at when you’re making supper? Not any more. Apparently, gammon is now used as an insult against white, middle-aged Brexit supporters. It’s supposed to reference their typical complexion.

And what about backstop? A fielding position in cricket or rounders? Maybe once upon a time, but you’d have to have been living on a remote island somewhere in the middle of the south Atlantic with only a bunch of penguins for pals not to have heard it used repeatedly in the context of Brexit and the Irish border over the past few months.

All these words make the Collins Dictionary list of new and notable words for 2018.

The overall word of the year is single-use (something to cheer up those penguins out in the South Sandwich islands no doubt). Its use has risen four-fold in the last 12 months, thanks in large part to Sir David Attenborough’s attempts to make us all aware of the damage that disposable plastics are doing to our environment.

It’s clear that language is evolving more quickly than ever before – and it’s never been more important to get your words right when establishing and promoting your brand.

Subway lexicon fail

In May, Subway Canada ran a poll asking Twitter users to vote for their favourite bread. Or, as they put it, their “bread bae.”

They didn’t get a single response. The word bae (an acronym for before anyone else) had already gone out of fashion and its use by a commercial giant trying to ‘get down with the kids’ was the linguistic equivalent of dad-dancing.

Thirty years ago, your biggest linguistic worry was not to use the wrong word when travelling abroad to other English-speaking countries. How we laughed when Americans talked of their fannies or Australians of their thongs.

Now, the linguistic divide is far more likely to be generational. Our children often speak in a language us old fogies simply can’t understand. Look up creps, imma, tea, salty or thirsty if you think I’m exaggerating.

And words which were ‘rad’ a matter of months ago are simply not ‘chill’ anymore. Think swag, YOLO, slick and, of course, bae.

Use them at your peril if you must. But be warned. Get it wrong and you’re likely to suffer the same fate as Subway in Canada.

And that’s far from lit.

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