The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, November 29, 2021

Words of an Odd Year

At this time of year, dictionaries announce their Words of the Year. It’s a bit of a publicity exercise, to be honest, and not something to set too much store by, but still fun to see what gets chosen. This year’s selections have been a bit of a mixed bag and many of them have left me thinking “hmm, odd choice” - but then maybe that appropriately reflects what an odd, discombobulating sort of year it’s been.


Different dictionary publishers use different criteria to choose their Words of the Year, some of which are clearly stated, some less so. Cambridge’s choice is based (largely) on the most popular word that people have looked up on their dictionary website and this year was announced as perseverance - which at first sight seems an odd choice. It’s popularity was linked to the NASA Mars rover called Perseverance that landed back in February. It saw a huge spike in lookups, likely from two sources - English learners who wanted to know what the word meant and also L1 English speakers who wanted to check the spelling. To me, it feels like a slightly odd choice, regardless of the stats, just because it refers to such a specific moment, quite early in the year, but I guess it does also chime with the perseverance we’ve all had to demonstrate in living through a second year with Covid.

Graphic divided into four squares with a word in each square. 1 Oxford: vax; 2 Cambridge perseverance, 3. Collin NFT, non-fungible token; 4 Australian NDC strollout

Collins, on the other hand, have gone down the new coinages route, choosing novel words and terms that have appeared, or at least gained a foothold, this year. Their shortlist was topped by NFT or non-fungible token - yes, exactly, neither do I! Again, it feels a slightly left-field choice, but their shortlist more generally does reflect some of the themes of the year with several tech-related words (NFT, metaverse and crypto), some pandemic words (double-vaxxed, pingdemic and hybrid working) and miscellaneous others - as I said, it has been a miscellaneous sort of a year, so maybe that’s appropriate.

Oxford went for perhaps the most obvious choice, vax, with an accompanying report into the language of vaccines. American dictionary, Merriam-Webster also went for vaccine. Probably for many of us, it is the word that best reflects the year, but then it doesn’t provoke much debate, does it, or make you read on to find out why.

I think my favourite WOTY comes from the Australian National Dictionary Centre who plumped for strollout - apparently a term to describe the slow pace of the vaccination rollout in Australia. Yes, it’s one of those gimmicky buzzwords that was probably coined by a headline writer, but it does definitely tell you something about a time and a place.

Words of My Year

From a professional point of view, I’ve worked on a mix of projects this year that have had me delving into different types of vocabulary. I started off the year researching idioms and phrasal verbs for new editions of two books - Work on Your Idioms and Work on Your Phrasal Verbs (both for Collins). We were focusing on the most frequently-used items in each group, so not necessarily touching on low-frequency trending words. However, we did add call out to the unit on Reporting in the media, which I think has proved to be quite key this year, with unacceptable behaviour being called out in all kinds of areas of life. Here are a few key collocates I found from recent corpus data.

Examples of usage of the phrasal verb call out, without key collocates highlighted: Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job. It came only after the company was publicly called out by several people on [social media]. This has been rightly called out as hypocritical. This behaviour must be challenged and called out.

Recently, I’ve spent more time than you would think is feasible researching prefixed words for another project. I’m not sure that any of them would be candidates for WOTY, but to continue the ‘odd year’ theme, they’ve definitely sent me off in some peculiar directions, including getting to grips with the philosophical concept behind antirationalism and trying to understand the physics of multipole.

I’ve also spoken about language change - and its relevance to ELT - at a number of events, both this year and last. What struck me when I was putting together my most recent session for TESOL France was the degree to which I needed to update my examples of coronavirus-related vocabulary. Words that had sprung up in the early days of the pandemic when we were all coming to terms with lockdowns - like coronadodging (trying to avoid people on the pavement to maintain social distance) and quarantinis (quarantine cocktails, sometimes shared with friends via Zoom) - already feel quite passé and have instead been replaced by terms that reflect the place of Covid as a mundane reality in our everyday lives - like corona-related and covid-appropriate.

On a more personal note, I think one word I’ve used a lot in 2021 has been hermity - as in, I’m getting quite hermity. (Yes, it’s a made-up word. Apparently, hermitic or hermitical is the adjective from hermit, but doesn’t feel quite the same) After so long staying at home, avoiding crowded places and barely travelling, I’ve definitely got used to a more isolated sort of existence and my re-entry is proving to be a slow one. Although there have been few official restrictions in the UK since the summer, I’ve felt wary about getting back to normal activities and have continued to mostly stay at home - partly out of caution and a sense of social responsibility, but if I’m honest, as much out of habit. I’m still feeling that life is very much 'on pause', so for 2022, I’m hoping that something will prompt me to 'press play' again.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Eco-related language change: an #ELTCanDoECO lesson

Last week, I gave a talk at the 40th TESOL France Colloquium about language change and how it’s relevant (or sometimes not) in the ELT classroom. I mentioned several of the key drivers of language change in recent years, including the pandemic, social change, social media, and technology more generally. I also talked about newly emerging language associated with the climate crisis and reactions to it, and I wanted to share one of my ecoliteracy lesson ideas more widely.

In my session, I mentioned some of the new eco-related coinages that have appeared, such as ecocide, rewilding, degrowth and greenwashing. There has also been a proliferation of new compounds formed from existing words in new combinations; net zero, climate vulnerable, regenerative farming, etc. All of which are fascinating and great lesson fodder, but which I’m going to leave aside for now and maybe return to in another post.

As a part of the eltfootprint community, I was inspired by the recent #ELTCanDoECO initiative that encourages ELT professionals to frame ecoliteracy in terms of the kind of Can-do statements we’re already familiar with in our teaching, from example from the CEFR. The initiative is encouraging people to contribute “examples of Can-do statements that straddle environmental competencies and linguistic learning outcomes” – so here’s mine focused around not completely new words, but perhaps appropriately, words which have been repurposed and given new meanings for a new context:


… can describe everyday sustainable actions

Environmental competency aims:

  • To encourage learners to discuss ways they can reduce waste in their own everyday lives
  • To promote discussion of solutions to reducing waste in the wider community
  • To equip them with the language to express and pass on these ideas in English

Language learning outcomes:

  • To raise learners’ awareness of patterns of word formation, especially the use of the prefix re-
  • To expand their repertoire of re- verbs
  • To focus on and practise typical verb + object collocations

Level: This lesson could be adapted for any class from about A2 upwards. For lower levels, introduce fewer of the re- verbs (maybe the key 3 + 2 or 3 others) and keep the tasks simple. For higher levels, use the full range of verbs and push students to develop, expand on and explain their ideas more fully rather than just creating simple, single-sentence responses.

1. Introduce the topic and three key verbs

Use the graphic to introduce these three key verbs – reduce, reuse, recycle. Elicit their meanings and encourage students to explain/discuss their relevance in this context. The initial discussion about overconsumption and waste, how it harms the environment (depleting resources and causing pollution from waste), and how these actions can help mitigate that harm will depend on the level of the students, their existing level of awareness of the issues, and perhaps, whether it’s a topic that’s been covered in class before. 

Recycling logo + key verbs: reduce, reuse, recycle

Tip: Stretch higher level students by throwing in some of the vocab I just used there, like overconsumption, deplete and mitigate.

2. Re- prefix and word formation

Highlight/underline the re- in the three verbs and ask students what the prefix usually means, i.e. it carries the idea of doing something again, of repeating. Then introduce as many of the additional re- verbs below as appropriate for the level – be careful not to overwhelm lower levels with too much new vocabulary, but higher levels should be able to cope with more as a lot of the words will be at least partially familiar. Either as a class or in groups, get students to explain the meanings of the new verbs and how they’re relevant in this context. 

Recycling logo + redce, reuse, recycle, rethink, refill, recover, repair, refuse, respect, redesign, repurpose, refurbish

NOTE: Reduce, refuse and respect don’t use the re- prefix in the same way as the others. If sharp-eyed students spot this, acknowledge that they don’t fit the pattern, but are, nonetheless, useful for getting across the message in a memorable way. Also recover, repair and refurbish don't work as standalone verbs without the re-, but the re- still has the same meaning.

3. Identify collocating objects

In groups, get students to add possible objects that could follow the different verbs in this context, making notes or mind maps of their ideas, e.g. recycle paper, plastic, glass; repair clothes, electronic devices, household items, etc. etc. Monitor, guide, collect ideas as a class and correct/introduce any relevant vocabulary.

4. Productive practice

The next stage is to get students to expand on some of their ideas in a more productive way. This could be done in class or as homework, with students working individually or in groups. My suggestion would be an individual homework task in which students choose maybe four of the verbs plus four of the objects generated in the groupwork. They then find or take appropriate photos to illustrate the actions and create social media posts with simple text to describe the actions. My examples below are all my own photos of things that either I do or, in the case of redesign, that I see happening in my community. These could, of course, also be hand-drawn/illustrated posters or any other format you choose.

Students then bring their posts to share with the class and explain (either to the whole class as mini presentations with their posts up on screen or in groups sharing their posts on their phones). Again, the length and detail of the explanation/presentation will depend on the level of the students – for lower levels just encourage students to put the ideas into full sentences, maybe a sentence or two about each image, for higher levels, push for more details about the how and why and whether the solution is effective. Again, give feedback on any language points and encourage discussion as appropriate.

© The images in this post were all created by me - feel free to copy and reuse them with your classes if you wish.

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Monday, November 01, 2021

An Eco Audit

With Cop26 all over the news, I’ve been thinking about how sustainable my business is. As a WFH freelancer, it’s quite difficult to separate the environmental footprint of my business from that of me as an individual, so there’s quite a bit of overlap, but here goes anyway.

Eco wins

👣 Working from home means I’m not commuting … which in turn, actually means that as a household, we don’t own a car. My partner is currently working from home for part of the week and commutes into the office on a Vespa when he needs to, which does use petrol but is probably pretty low impact. We haven’t owned a car for more than 15 years now. I mostly walk around locally and to travel further afield, I tend to use trains where I can. We are also members of a car club which allows us to book cars for odd trips that either involve transporting stuff or getting to places that are inaccessible by public transport. Pre-pandemic work travel within the UK was always by train. I haven’t been anywhere for the past 2 years, but I’m already planning how to get to IATEFL in Belfast next year by train and ferry.

🛒 The flexibility of being freelance at home also means I can be more conscious about how I shop. If I had a regular 9-to-5, I’d probably end up doing a couple of big supermarket shops a week with all the excess packaging that tends to entail. As it is, I can plan my days so that they often involve a short walk out to a local shop which not only provides a welcome break from my desk, but also means I can go into various small shops that enable me to cut down, at least to some extent, on waste. I get milk refills from the local deli and a lot of other basic groceries from a local zero waste shop where you take in your own containers for refills – of staples like rice, couscous, oil, spices, nuts as well as cleaning products and recycled loo roll. Working from home also means I can cook my own lunch, so no takeaway, over-packaged lunches or coffees.

In terms of more direct work-related consumption, I do still print stuff out occasionally, but it’s something I do less and less and I get all my stationery – mostly just printer paper nowadays – from another local green stationery company – all recycled and delivered in often ingeniously reused packaging. I used to love my multi-coloured Muji pens, but a few years ago realized I could no longer justify all that single-use plastic, so have switched for the most part to using a fountain pen for which I just need to get ink cartridges. I also use pencils with refillable leads. 

Could do better

🔌 I can probably do a bit better on the small stuff day-to-day - printing a bit less, switching off lights, not leaving my laptop on standby.

Pre-pandemic, I travelled abroad for work, for conferences and workshops, several times a year and that inevitably, involved flying. As someone who spends most of my working life at home on my own, I really value being able to meet ELT colleagues face-to-face. And especially as a materials writer, doing talks and workshops in different countries gives me the chance to meet teachers from different teaching contexts and get a feel for their attitudes to teaching and materials, the kind of context they teach in, the challenges they face, etc. - none of which I get from online events. So I’m loath to give up travelling altogether, but I’d definitely like to try and do much more by train where possible. I know several other ELT writers already do a lot of their European travel by train, so as and when I start getting opportunities to travel again, I’ll be tapping into their experience.


🏠 The biggie for me is probably heating. I live in an old house which is far from well insulated and has an old gas boiler for heating. As a chronic pain sufferer, cold really aggravates my condition, so I don’t scrimp on heating. Right now, it’s still quite mild here in the UK, so the heating is mostly on for a few hours morning and evening, but as soon as it gets colder, I won’t hesitate to leave it on all day. My office is one of the warmest rooms in the house as it’s upstairs, gets the most sun, and also has good double-glazed windows. The rest of the house though undoubtedly leaks heat. Better insulation is an ongoing project as finances allow and definitely a priority for next steps. I’d dearly love to replace the gas boiler with something less damaging. I’m taking a keen interest in the latest push towards air-source heat pumps for domestic heating and possible UK government proposals for funding, but I’m not yet sure whether one would be a practical solution for our house.

I’m sure there are other factors that contribute to my professional carbon footprint that I haven’t factored in - like the costs associated with internet use and, of course, the fact that many of the resources I create are paper-based! At least, though, I hope I’m moving in the right direction towards reducing my environmental impact and I’ll keep looking out for new ways to bring it down further.

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