Searching for the right word

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Sometimes we are confronted with a new phenomenon for which we don’t have a word. In this case it was the recurring pattern of short-term prime ministers which has been a feature of Australian politics of late.

What to call this?  A British pollie, Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, had a go with short let prime minister or Airbnb prime minister. A brave attempt but I think it falls short of the mark. Airbnb prime minister is just puzzling – you don’t book him for an overnight stay. Short let prime minister is better but not particularly appealing.

 We did better in Australia with single-use prime minister. This was the inspiration of Gwen Blake, a packaging designer, and her friend Annabel Crabb. Gwen promptly created canvas bags with the slogan on them BAN THE SINGLE USE PRIME MINISTER.  This is a nice play on the recent efforts to wean us all off single-use plastic bags.

 It remains to be seen whether this is anything more than a joke shared by the community for a short time. Maybe we will stop having single-use prime ministers and won’t need the word.

 It is quite difficult to launch a new word into the lexicon. This one has had a good start with a lot of canvas bags and publicity to send it on its way.  Even so, the path to acceptance is hard.

 But it can be done. There is the success story of phubbing.  In 2013 a group of linguists, lexicographers, crossword writers and students met at the request of an advertising agency. They had decided that they had a social practice that needed a name and had pulled together this group to provide it. The habit that needed a name was that of ignoring the person or people that you are with in favour of checking out your phone for emails, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The word that finally emerged was phubbing, a blend of phone and snubbing. The advertising agency launched this into the media and there was initial enthusiasm. Then it all died down. I thought that phubbing had failed, but three or four years later there were still occasions when it popped up in the press.  It went into the OED in 2016. And this year there have been several articles in Australian media on the scourge of phubbing.  So I think we can declare phubbing to be secure as a word of the English language.

Sue ButlerComment