In Which I Forego My Maiden Name

Naming and Identity

Naming and identity are deeply entwined. Our names are so subjectively powerful that we can distinguish them from otherwise unintended and unimportant noise as early as 5 months old (known as the Cocktail Effect). They are the linguistic representation of identity, and they offer a lot of information about us, often indicating our gender, age, and socioeconomic background. In fact, some people go so far as to argue for nominative determinism; that is, names as an indicator of future socioeconomic wellbeing. Certainly, some research reveals the surprising statistic that more seashell shops are owned by Sheryls and Cheryls than other names, that alphabetic order has been found to correspond with success, and that people with unusual names are more likely to commit crimes.*

As such, changing names is an important personal undertaking that is often connected with broader culturally significant events. The changing of a generic title alone carries great significance, whether through marriage (Miss to Mrs), professional development (Miss to Dr) or recognition of achievement (Miss to Dame). While people have many and varied reasons for changing their personal name, the most common name change in Anglophone society is a woman’s adoption of her husband’s surname upon marriage.

Unusually, in my case, marriage had nothing to do it.

Indeed, when the conversation of names first became relevant, I vaguely assumed that I would one day adopt some future husband’s name, as I had assumed my whole life.

Rather, the prospect of publishing (which for my media-savvy generation is connected with a sense of personal branding) forced me to sit down and consider what name I would use for academia. This consideration of a publishing name is remarkable in academia only in how unremarkable it is – even males need to decide whether they are First Name Surname, Initial Surname, First Name Second Name Surname, or any other combination of their available names.† Inconsistency in publishing is not catastrophic – we can acquire an ORCID number that is associated with our publications forever, and can trace changes in our publishing name – but it does make everything easier. So the name that I would publish under for the rest of my life seemed worthy of proper deliberation.


Although marriage had nothing to do with this initial prompt to think about the issue, it immediately became the crucial concern. Talking with fellow female academics about the problem I found that they had various solutions: get married and change your name before you publish anything, publish and continue publishing under your maiden name even after you change your legal name post marriage (to maintain publishing consistency), or publish under your maiden name and then publish under your married name, and just learn to deal with your references being tied to two different names. Yet perhaps what struck me most was that no one that I personally talked with, and indeed very few women who I had ever met, had kept their maiden names.

This sort of thing really interests me, so I started to explore the issue in earnest. Turns out that it is increasingly normal for women to take their husband’s surnames at marriage in Anglophone countries. A study of New York newspaper announcements shows that the number of women keeping their own surname peaked in the 1990s at 23%, having risen from 9% in the 1980s and slumping back to 18% in the 2000s. Of course, New York is statistically more affluent and educated than the rest of American, which are strong correlates for name-keeping in women, and according to a much larger (though self-sampled) survey by wedding website The Knot in 2011 the percentage of women keeping their own surname is only at 8%.

Even in Norway, where gender equality is part of the official ideology, the percentage of women keeping their surnames has barely changed from the 1980s: from 16% to 22%. The authors of the study suggest that perhaps in a country with high cohabitation such as Norway, the tradition of women adopting the husband’s surname helps to symbolically demarcate marriage from de facto. They also suggest that as gender equality increases, the importance of signalling equality and autonomy through name-keeping has decreased.

There are other cultures, however, where this patriarchal surname trend is avoided or even reversed. For more information, see my fun Appendix!

What does it all mean?

Well, that depends on who you ask. The surname debate provokes strong responses from people both for and against the dominant tradition, as demonstrated by the decision of Amal Alamuddin’s to become Amal Clooney upon marriage. The Internet howled in response, some furious that she had seemingly betrayed her progressive feminist agenda, some furious that anyone would ever contemplate not taking a husband’s surname. Most of the comment threads went in circles as they talked over each other, but what the fury did draw out are some of the recurring justifications both for and against adopting a husband’s surname.


Arguments For and Against Taking a Husband’s Name

Commitment and New Identity
This article from the Telegraph illustrates the logic of changing her name nicely: “the biggest reason is love… When you share a surname with someone, it makes it clear that you’re on the same team.” For the author there, and for many people, the act of taking on a shared name is symbolic of commitment, and allows the couple to go forward into the future as a couple.
Yet, on the flip side, we do not assume that men are less committed to marriage on the basis of not adopting their wife’s name, so we cannot therefore assume that name adoption is a good indicator of commitment.

The Anglophone western culture has a very strong tradition of women adopting their husband’s name upon marriage. Of course, tradition for the sake of tradition is not a strong argument, as traditions always continue to change to remain relevant. Even within the traditional institution of marriage there is considerable change: mixed race marriage was forbidden until 1967 in America, and homosexual marriages are being legalised in an increasing number of countries.
But perhaps most telling is the history of the surname tradition within Anglophone culture. Brought with the Norman conquest of England was also coverture, whereby upon marriage a woman becomes the property of the husband, and so takes on his name rather than her father’s name (see this BBC article for more about this history).
It is problematic and even a little absurd to argue that the history of a tradition should dictate its current and future usage – after all, the gay marriage debate is making marriage more relevant and modern than ever – but if the history of the tradition cannot be used against it, then the mere fact of it being a tradition should not be an argument in its favour.

Heritage and Legacy
The heritage argument is that by carrying on a surname one carries forward a family legacy, maintaining continuity with previous generations and demonstrating pride and solidarity with one’s family past. This is all well and good except for the obvious, which is that it only carries on the paternal legacy. Every argument in favour of a paternal surname can also be used against it: The more one emphasises the significance of a surname with regards to heritage, the more one must discount any maternal heritage. The more one emphasises connection with continuity, the more one must discard half the family.

Very few people actually think this way of course – most people do not feel detached from their maternal grandparents just because their names do not match. I like hearing about the women in my family history, and in every direction they have different surnames every generation, without actually disappearing from a line of maternal heritage. Moreover, most women do not feel that they are abandoning or cutting ties with their immediate family when they adopt their partner’s surname. Yet this argument is one of the most common ones made. Somehow we are convinced that carrying on a paternal surname is important, without attaching any particular importance to the discarding of a maternal surname.


Cultural Pressure and Choice

While these arguments are interesting, and they should be debated rigorously, I also think that they distract us from the bigger issue: cultural pressure. No one is persuaded in either direction by the arguments above, for if people really did think that commitment and shared identity was the most important thing, then more men would be likely to take a woman’s surname when the woman was closer with her family, or if her surname was more convenient. Instead, self-sampled opinion surveys in Mens Health suggest that over 90% of men are strongly against taking a woman’s surname, even if she requested it. This suggests that these arguments are merely superficial coverings on the actual reasons behind name changing or maintaining behaviour.

Consciously or not, there is a pressure to conform to the societal norms, and in surname changing behaviours, we are actually becoming more conservative. In a study of 1990 and 2006 surveys of college students, students in the 2006 survey were three times more likely to say that if a woman didn’t take her husband’s last name upon marriage, she was less committed to him and their future together. This cultural pressure means that a decision to adopt a husband’s name is relatively unremarked upon, whereas any other decision goes against the grain. It is, in spite of the logistics of changing names, actually culturally easier for a woman to adopt her husband’s surname than keep her own.

Yet before jumping to any conclusions about how the opposite decision, of maintaining a maiden name, is a moral choice made in a cultural vacuum, it is worth remembering that there is a competing pressure for certain women not to change their names. After all, the Internet response at Amal Clooney was not all directed at her having made the right decision. As a left-leaning and highly educated woman, I am in a sub-culture that is more likely to promote name-keeping behaviour, and I do not think that my decisions are free from equivalent cultural pressures on those who do change their name just because the pressure comes from the opposite direction.

Of course, because of my political and tertiary trained tendencies, I do find feminist arguments genuinely compelling. After all, the weight of “commitment” is clearly unequal, and the history of the tradition deeply problematic.

Then there are the very sobering disadvantages of adopting a partner’s name with regards to domestic problems. Men who marry, divorce and remarry do so with logistical ease, with no need to declare anything: they are the same person through each process, by name. On the other end of the gender spectrum, most women adopt the surname of her husband upon marriage, when one in three marriages ends in divorce. At the end of that divorce, she is tied to the name of a husband she is no longer married to. Even worse (and here I am referring to the real scenario an acquaintance of mine found herself in), a woman can be trapped with the name of the man who has committed domestic violence upon her and from whom she has been forced to flee. We all shudder at the thought of forcing a girl to marry her rapist, but through the cultural practice of adopting a husband’s surname, some women are indeed left in the scenario of bearing the name of their rapist or their abuser. Even in the more common case of a somewhat mutual divorce, a woman is left with the identity of the man who is no longer her husband.

These arguments about the inequality of surname traditions are important, but they are no less the product of culture than arguments for name changing, and neither side is necessarily “right” – they just see things from different perspectives.


Naming and Identity

Ultimately, then, naming practices are dominated by cultural norms. Seemingly individual choices are deeply influenced by our preconceived ideas, and although I had once assumed that I would take a partner’s name (as per the norm in Australia), years of immersion in tertiary culture and much reading of opinion pieces about gender late at night have influenced me to reconsider (which, while still a minority decision even in higher education, makes this position more likely than for those not exposed to that culture).

Yet a lifetime of assuming that I would lose my maiden name is not without effect, and so while I am strongly attached to the name as an indicator of my family, it is a name that I had always assumed would not always be a part of my identity. Academic concerns about being cited hadn’t persuaded me to retain my birth surname either, since it is so common as to get lost within Google Scholar.  I am Jessica, certainly (and Rose, thanks to my cousin), but I had always been waiting to find a new surname.

So I just went out and found one.

Hewenn is an old and archaic Middle English word, which appears briefly in that form in Orm’s 12th century manuscript (the Ormulum – see, names were important then too!) before disappearing. With roots in hewe, which denoted a household, Orm paused over this word twice in his text to differentiate it from hus, meaning house. Rather, hewenn meant what a surname has always meant: family.‡ Indeed, Hewe was an archaic surname for precisely this reason.

This family name which means family name came with other advantages too. Hewenn sounds like a surname because it already is one, homophonically, through existing surnames: the French Huon, and the Scottish Hughan (although Hewenn, being an entirely Anglophone word, actually has the most intuitive English spelling). Best of all, this homophonic relationship came with pre-existing connotations, for the Huon Valley in Tasmania was a special place for me, and Huon also featured in the topography of my childhood countryside. The word is entirely Anglophone, which is my language and cultural heritage, but representative of the landscape that I feel connected with.

Topping it all off, the word is not used as a surname in that spelling (spelling variations and a few individuals scattered through history aside), leaving it largely free from associations with other families, and leaving even the bottomless Internet with only a few entries. I would be Google Scholar searchable! And it felt… right. Just as some women who keep their own surnames do so because it feels right, and most women who adopt their partner’s surname do so because it feels right. Conversations about surnames and identity are important – the highly gendered responsibility for commitment is problematic and should at least be opened discussed – but ultimately individuals will make a choice that feels right to them at the time.

I started this discussion with the musing that names are indicators of identity. By taking on a new name I am embodying a new identity, as well as reflecting aspects of my left, educated, millennial, individualistic outlook. And I’m okay with that. After all, I am the person who cares about symbolism enough to go fossicking for the diamonds for my wedding ring!


* I would not personally argue for nominative determinism, since those trends are more likely to be correlational than causational, but they are interesting even so. However, recent research has demonstrated the surprising result that people subconsciously adapt their appearance for cultural assumptions about their name, resulting in statistically significant demonstrations that, say, a Jessica looks like we would expect a Jessica to look.

† Some males with common surnames go through processes more similar to me, whereby they consider changing their name.

‡ Hewenn has also been used to denote rascals and household domestics. But in its short period of usage, it usually denoted family and household.

I would like to thank all of the many people in my life who have been made to suffer through my surname philosophising for the last few years. My conversations with friends from both ends of the political spectrum have given me perspective on my own decision, and respect for the strongly held and varying positions one can take on this issue. Most of all, I would just like to emphasise that this decision is one made by me and for me, and is in no way a judgment of any other decision that could have been made.

Appendix: Anglophone and European Surname Practices

In most Spanish speaking countries, children formally have two surnames: the father’s surname and the mother’s. This allows easy identification of generational differences, even when children are given first names that are the same as a parent or grandparent. In marriage a woman may choose to add her husband’s surname to her name, but she will always keep her family name. This tradition also explains why such a high proportion of Hispanic women in America don’t change their surname when they marry. (Indeed, in the “Women’s Marital Naming Choices in a Nationally Representative Sample” study of 2009, women of Latin American origin were excluded because their cultural norm was so far removed from the non-Hispanic population’s naming preference.)

Iceland, such is the national pride in the purism of their language, bucks the European trend of fixed surnames and has maintained its ancient Nordic patronymic system. This was even put into law in 1925, when the adoption of new surnames was forbidden, and as a result less than 7% of the population possesses a fixed surname. As such, when a child is born, they are given a first name (their central identity, indexed in the Icelandic phone book) followed by their father’s name and the suffix -son or -dóttir (while matronymic surnames are accepted they are rarer). This has its own problems, and the Personal Name Committee is widely unpopular in Iceland (criticised for both lenience and rigidity). Most curious is the strict rule of unambiguous gender in naming, which although mocked, does reflect the Icelandic practice of feminism, which emphasises equal rights without necessarily questioning sexual difference.

And in perhaps the most divergent example, in 1983 a law was passed in Greece that legally required individuals of both sexes to keep their maiden names! (See this article.) The law was laxed in 2008, when couples were allowed to add their partner’s name to their birth name. Children can be given the surname of either parent. As the article linked above points out, however, a similar system has been in place in Iran for a century, and brings both benefits and disadvantages.

A broad look at European naming practices is in Valetas’ “The surname of married women in the European Union”, which brilliantly compared practiced and preferences across the EU. A particularly interesting example is that of France. Since the French Revolution in 18th century, all individuals may only legally be known by their birth name (except in certain circumstances, such as unfortunate names, which one can apply to change). However, at the time of the 2001 study, most women adopted their husbands name as “usage” names. Yet this created the biggest discrepancy between practice and satisfaction within the EU in the study, with 91% of women adopting their husbands surname for usage, and yet with 40% of women report wishing to use both their maiden and their husbands name. Valetas argued that this disparity could be attributed to dissatisfaction with a legal prohibition of transmitting the mother’s surname to children, because in desiring to have the same surname as their children, women were implicitly forced to take on the surname of the children’s father. Since 2005, this law has been lifted to be more in line with EU equality rights in the transmission of names.

The connection of parents to children through surname is not just important to the mother, but is arguably even more important to the father. On the Guardian podcast What would a Feminist Do? the guest academic Laurie Scheuble points out that while women can be certain they are the biological parent of their offspring, for men, a continuity of surname makes them more likely to be invested in their (particularly male) children.


Word Crimes and Ass Hats

Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, Word Crimes, is the equivalent of saying “You are an ass hat.”

Some Cunning Linguist

Now, let’s step back a bit and analyse this.

Weird Al, best known for his parody songs, has a new album, Mandatory Fun. In promoting this album, Weird Al has released eight of the music videos online, including the song Word Crimes. This song is a parody of the 2013 single Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, although unlike the hoard of parodies about sex and rape culture prompted by the original song, Weird Al’s parody is on grammar misuse in English.

It starts out optimistically, addressing itself to those without knowledge of the grammarian’s version of English.

…maybe now you find
That people mock you online
Okay, now here’s the deal
I’ll try to educate ya

But soon descends into the purpose of the parody: comedic hyperbole, against the various pet peeves of grammarians.

You should know when
It’s “less” or it’s “fewer”
Like people who were
Never raised in a sewer

Of course, in the confines of a short song one could not explore complexities of grammar, and so the song understandably opts for a swift succession of rules. For instance, one of the favourite frustrations of Grammar Nazis is the use of the word literally to mean figuratively, the exact opposite of the original meaning. Actually, the historical usage of the word literally to mean figuratively dates back to the 1790s (following a common trend called semantic bleaching), and has only retrospectively been considered incorrect, but Weird Al’s response to this usage suggests that perhaps he is not interested in the etymology anyway.

Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head

This raises two issues that have been picked up on in other blogs. The first is prescriptivism, and has been railed against by the very people Weird Al calls in for assistance: linguists.

I hate these word crimes
You really need a
Full-time proofreader
You dumb mouthbreather
Well, you should hire
Some cunning linguist
To help you distinguish
What is proper English

I’ve previously written about the prescriptive/descriptive divide within dictionary culture, which can simply be summarised as: descriptive is an approach to grammar that records the existing language without imposing norms, and prescriptive is an approach that establishes norms of usage through rules about grammar. Take an example from within the song:

B C R U, are words not letters
You should never write words using numbers
Unless you’re 7
Or your name is Prince
I hate these word crimes

Prescriptivists call this incorrect usage. Now, there must be some legitimate language change over time, since otherwise we’d still be speaking Old English (and I know that I certainly find the Old English Beowulf hard to read). This is hinted at in the song with the use of the word “unless”, which basically says that words are acceptable in certain circumstances, even within a rule system. On the other hand, linguists record and describe changes within the language that occur naturally, rather than restricting or defining what is correct usage. (I discuss this further in my rant about squee and other words recently added to the Oxford Dictionary Online.) Other blogs have also already discussed this quite well., for instance, has a wonderfully considered response precisely concerning precriptive/descriptive approaches.

I agree with these analyses, but as a recovering Grammar Nazi myself, I won’t give Weird Al too much flak. (A few years ago I would have found the song quite amusing, especially since I’ve been a Weird Al fan for many years and admire a lot of his work. Tutoring undergraduates and high school children, and dating a linguist, have rather changed my outlook.) Instead, I examine the song from one of the basic premises of the Internet: Paul Graham’s brilliant essay on How to Disagree.

While not part of the original essay, the rather cutting insult that opened this rant, “You are an ass hat”, turns up as an example in the graphic illustration of his argument. The whole essay is worth reading, but in short, Graham argues that there is a hierarchy of disagreement, with the weakest, least convincing form of disagreement being name-calling, and the higher forms refuting the argument rather than the arguer. “[T]he greatest benefit of disagreeing well”, according to Graham, “is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier.”

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

Graham’s hierarchy is, ultimately, perhaps overly optimistic. He wrote it back in 2008, and reading it now, one cannot help but feel that the attempt was somewhat futile.

The most obvious advantage of classifying the forms of disagreement is that it will help people to evaluate what they read. In particular, it will help them to see through intellectually dishonest arguments. An eloquent speaker or writer can give the impression of vanquishing an opponent merely by using forceful words. In fact that is probably the defining quality of a demagogue. By giving names to the different forms of disagreement, we give critical readers a pin for popping such balloons.

Back in 2008, Graham was probably blissfully unaware of the waves of trolling that would run rampant through the Internet, in spite of his intentions. Nevertheless, I would not consider Weird Al’s parodies to be trolling, and they can usefully be examined with the heirarchy. The arguments Word Crimes relies solely on are the three lowest forms of disagreement: name-calling, ad hominem and tone (or, in this case, grammar). Name-calling is quite obvious within the song, which includes a wide variety of insults. Ad hominem (“to the person”) disagreements attempt to invalidate the argument by invalidating the arguer. In this, Word Crimes says that improper grammar users are clowns from the sewer, which implies (in a somewhat unsubtle manner) that their form of English is necessarily inferior. Most of all, the song condemns tone, for the entire purpose of the song is to condemn how people speak, rather than what they are saying.

This could all be refuted on two fronts: that Weird Al’s song is intended as and interpreted as a parody.

Of course, it is a parody, of Thicke’s original song, and it is cleverly composed. If it is intended as and treated as a parody then it simply a (somewhat scathing) humorous song. This is how it is defended by Christopher Daly of The Better Editor, who argues that Weird Al is only occuping the persona of a Grammar Nazi. However, an interview with Weird Al by Grammarly, that school for Grammar Nazis, calls into question the strength of both these refutations. Grammarly treats the song explicitely as educational, and Weird Al responds in kind, adding,

People that know me (or have seen the grammar-related videos that I’ve posted on my YouTube channel) don’t doubt my credentials as a grammar nerd, so it was obviously a real joy to be able to vent about some of my pet peeves in a song parody.

Indeed, Weird Al’s Youtube channel includes videos of him correcting printed signs with grammatical errors, and another interview with NPR includes him saying that “When I came up with the idea for ‘Word Crimes’ I thought, ‘That’s great, because I’m pretty obsessed with grammar anyway.’ I’m always correcting peoples’ grammar.” Daly defends this statement, and we could give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that Weird Al does not support grammarians. Nevertheless, the song is interpreted as educational, by the seeming vast majority of the Internet.

Yet should it be considered educational? Surprisingly, even some proofreaders (who tend to be more prescriptive than linguists, since that’s their job) cringe at the excessive insults in Weird Al’s song. Lauren Squires guest blogging on Language Log also makes a similarly invaluable point: this song is not and should not be used as a teaching tool, because it encourages snobbery and discrimination, and pointedly does not teach grammar. One of my favourite responses to the video comes from the beautiful Mignon Fogerty, the woman behind Grammar Girl, who not only points out the flaws in Weird Al’s prescription, but concludes that, simply, insulting people is mean, whether they used grammar correctly or not.

Indeed, the song uses a variety of descriptions for these misusers of English, including “morons”, “mouthbreathers,” and “spastics”*, and just before Weird Al “gives up” on these people in the outro his last words are:

Go back to pre-school
Get out of the gene pool
Try your best to not drool

The song privileges white, educated native English speakers, and does so explicitly at the expense of others. It invites the listener to laugh at people who speak English that is not ‘proper’, and while in person we may restrain ourselves from bullying someone with a less privileged upbringing, the Internet has no such restraint. We are, conversely, actively encouraged to indulge in petty pedantry, and to pick on people’s online grammar if we have no stronger argument against them: precisely the reverse of what Graham had intended. Arguably, Weird Al’s song is an intellectually dishonest argument, relying on the weakest forms of disagreement to incite an – apparently – entirely justifiable vilification of speakers of dialect. And – though I am sorry to say it Paul Graham – no amount of blogging about prescriptivist grammar and just plain bullying is going to change that.

We say “You are an ass hat”, and then we laugh.


*Weird Al has since apologised for the use of the term “spastics”, which has much stronger negative connotations in the United Kingdom than it does in the Unites States. See the analysis of this by Ben Zimmer at Language Log for more information.


Wanted to text at the next red light.
Got green lights all the way home.

Although it has passed its peak, the #firstworldproblems hashtag and meme are still in common usage. According to that omnipotent resource, Know Your Meme, the phrase is for ironic and comedic purpose.

First World Problems, also known as “White Whine,” are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.

download (1)



Now, there are problems with this phrase, as pointed out by Adam Thomas on Medium. Thomas argues that there are three reasons to abandon the tag:

1. The First World no longer exists.

2. The popular conception of the Third World does not exist.

3. People outside of the ‘First World’ have trivial problems too.

Thomas’ first two points refer to the historical origins of the terms First, Second and Third worlds. Basically, these terms arose during the Cold War, to differentiate countries governed by capitalism (First), communism (Second) and everything else (Third). Of course, as I have argued previously, concepts are not intrinsically attached to words, and ideas and language evolve and change over time. Thomas acknowledges this to an extent in pointing to the rise of globalisation (which mitigates the differences between countries), and the development of a two-world system within the United States of America, wherein 10% of the population own 80% of the financial assets.

But, unfortunately, Thomas’ first point has, well, missed the point.

The “First World” is a concept that is alive and well. The Oxford English Dictionary definition A.n.2 is the relevant one here:

The industrialized, developed, relatively wealthy and powerful nations of the world (collectively); spec. the industrialized capitalist countries of Western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. See also quots.

And, indeed, the OED notes a few key quotations that help to illustrate the wide usage of the term. Even more significantly, the OED adds this:

In early use, freq. as opposed to the communist nations (formerly) constituting the Second World; now more usually as opposed to the less-developed and poorer nations constituting the Third World.

But this is just being pedantic about language. Thomas’ second argument is that these terms are used to perpetuate certain ideas about the world that are changing. I do think that the terms First and Third world are problematic, particularly as it implies an inherent hierarchy. They does not account for the growing economic disparity within ‘First World’ countries, nor the diversity of countries and cultures that are lumped into the Third World category. But the use of the term “First World” does not correspond with the use of the term First World Problems. This means that we cannot blame the latter for perpetuating the use of the former.

No, most interesting is Thomas’ third point, that trivial problems are universal. I absolutely agree. I also concur that self-reflexive irony is not restricted to developed countries.

But the point is about relativism. When we complain about a #firstworldproblem, it may well be the same problem that someone in the “Third World” has. But they may well also have bigger problems, and the hashtag reflects a First World awareness of that. Relative to the rest of our lives, maybe someone next to us sucking loudly on a straw, or someone leaving their indicator on, or a friend not texting us back until the next day IS a big deal. The phrase allows us to laugh about the triviality of our genuinely felt but very small issues without feeling entirely self-obsessed and without any relativism. It allows us to laugh at ourselves.

So is the hashtag just an indulgence in the same complaints that we would make anyway, with a bit of irony and self-awareness thrown in on top? Probably. Will it change the way we think about the First and Third Worlds? Probably not. But laughing about our lives probably won’t hurt anyone either. Even Thomas’ edit notes that.

I just re-read this last paragraph through and it sounds all wrong. Don’t stop complaining. Complain about problems, make fun of trivial things, that’s one of the beautiful things about freedom and communication and all of that other life stuff. But, can’t we just have a funnier, smarter hashtag to use while we do it?

And maybe there is a hashtag that we deserve… but not the one that we need right now.
After all, by the time Thomas wrote his article, #firstworldproblems was already falling out of usage. So complaining about it was, ironically, a #firstworldproblem.


Australian National Dictionary – Quarter Century Celebrations

The AND.
What a delightful initialism!* And, arguably, a suitably Australian one: while the British have that renowned and respectable institution, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), we have the almost colloquial the AND (Australian National Dictionary).

The recent celebration of the AND’s 25th Anniversary was similarly toned, beginning with a marvellous speech by Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Richard White. Rather than list the considerable achievements of the AND chronologically, or wax ad nauseam on the rise and fall of Australian dialectic traits, Richard enthusiastically delineated the stories of some eclectic true blue words: home, bonzer, Australiana, mate and cooee.

As an historian†, Richard is personally indebted to the work of the AND, and has frequented the publications of the AND and the AND Centre itself at the Australian National University.

His stories of the five Aussie words were engaging and humorous. We learned about how “home” in Australia around the 1840s began to develop a capital letter or inverted commas, to self-consciously refer to Britain as the mother-country, and was later used parodically as we developed a sense of our own nationhood. We learned about how cooee was over-used in Australia, attached with such an overbearing sense of nationalism that we ceased using it as often. We learned about how at the same time, cooee had spread so far from its origins in Aboriginal Australian communication that people in New Zealand were looking for a Maori etymology of the word, and the English were claiming it as quintessentially British.
And of course there was audience participation too: someone prompted the discussion of “mate” being used homoerotically, and a linguistic scholar noted that it was now being used by women and English-as-a-second-language people in Australia.

Then we retreated from the conference room to the Australian National Dictionary Centre itself: a brilliantly Australian building reminiscent of a corrugated iron shed.

Photo from WikiCommons (until the author is motivated enough to take a photo of the building herself. It is, after all, the building next to her office...)

Photo from WikiCommons (until the author is motivated enough to take a photo of the building herself. It is, after all, the building next to her office…)

Here we were treated to a selection of food from the The Gods Café, and much better wine than is served at most ANU events. I offered my services as photographer, which allowed me to mingle with the delightful crowd of linguists, AND workers past and present, and people like myself who just like dictionaries.

We all signed ourselves into the 25th Anniversary publication; a short and human series of recollections by people who had worked on the AND over its quarter century history. Although Richard White had done well to resist the temptation to explain the history of the AND to an audience who already knew it (or were even a part of it), the story is actually a great one. The Kiwi Bill Ramson, after moving to Australia and spending some years working on what was to be the Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English, decided to compile a more historically based dictionary in the style of the OED. In a mere decade he’d completed the work, and published it through the Oxford University Press for the bicentenary of the arrival of white settlers in Australia (1988).

Everyone is now turning their eyes to the second edition, due within the next few years, and I certainly hope that I’ll still be in Canberra to celebrate it. You never know – I might learn something new about the word cooee, and follow it up with some more wine!

To access the whole AND, online, for FREE, just click here.

I’d also recommend the AND blog, ozwords.

* Fun fact: While we use the definite article “the” with initialisms (the OED, the NSA) we drop them for acronyms (NASA).

† Footnote from my tame linguist: Despite all the school English teachers who taught you to use the indefinite article “an” instead of “a” before all words starting with an‡ ‘h’, the actual rule is more complicated. “An” should only be used before words whose pronunciation starts with a vowel, regardless of their spelling. Where the first syllable of the word is not stressed, the speaker may abandon the ‘h’ and start the word with a vowel. In that case, “an” is indeed required. However, where the ‘h’ is pronounced, “a” is the correct indefinite article. So should “historian” be preceded by “an” or “a”? The first syllable is unstressed, which means that both are correct, depending on the writer’s pronunciation.‡ In Australia and the UK, the letter ‘h’ is usually pronounced “aitch” and requires the indefinite article “an”. In the US, ‘h’ is pronounced “haitch” and is correctly preceded by “a”.

Squee, new words! But srsly people, stop derping.

So, the Oxford Dictionary added some words.

Since this event occurs four times each and every year, I was baffled by the hysteria that has surrounded the recent additions. The reactions ranged from memes about the end of the world, to Facebook posts decrying the shame and devolution of humanity, to journalists themselves wondering whether we “really need” some of these new words, or even actively turning their noses up at the “repulsive-sounding terminology” and concluding that “No doubt [these words] have their place, but let them stay there.”

"Liked" by more than 62,000 people on one page alone.

“Liked” by more than 62,000 people on one page alone.

First and foremost, let me clear up a few confusions. The Oxford English Dictionary – that is, the OED, the “Definitive Record of the English Language” – has not added these words. These words have been added to Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) – the free, online version, which more speedily records changes to the vernacular. An excellent and more thorough exploration of the difference as it relates to these words has been written by Ben Richmond at Motherboard.

Second, these words are not just added to annoy people. According to Angus Stevenson of Oxford Dictionaries Online, approximately 1.8 billion new words are detected each year, and each month ODO adds about 150 million words to their database of English usage, but only around 1,000 of these are ultimately added to ODO. “New words, senses, and phrases are added to Oxford Dictionaries Online when we have gathered enough independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English,” says Angus of ODO. “Publishing online allows us to make the results of our research available more quickly than ever before.”

Third, and the thing that most people seem to disagree with, is the role of a dictionary. I’ve had a rant about this previously when discussing the word antidisestablishmentarianism, in which I argue that the role of the OED/ODO is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Other dictionaries are indeed more restrictive in their new additions, but the consensus is that if a word maintains widespread, sustained and meaningful usage then it is added to a dictionary. In this way, a dictionary is neither the record of a snobbish elite, nor the constantly changing trends of the masses, but an (almost) up-to-date and valuable resource that reflects current and past usage of our verbal and written communication.

Basically, dictionaries reflect our language use. The purpose of them is so that, when we hear or read a word that we do not know, we are able to go to a moderated* reference source in order to work out what that word means and how to use it.

This was neatly summarised by Yahoo Tech’s technology editor Jason Gilbert in a Tweet: “The OED comprehensively tracks changes to English. If we all start using a word, it will get added to the OED. End of story.”

So, apols to everyone who thought that – as an English PhD candidate – I too would shake my head in shame at humanity, and declare the need for a digital detox at this latest dictionary omnishambles, but while I may not exactly squee over Miley Cyrus’ twerking†, neither will I vom and make a fuss about a dictionary doing what a dictionary’s got to do.

Still, it must be said: grats to Oxford Dictionaries Online for getting this much attention! Srsly people, dictionaries ARE exciting!

*As much as the examples in Urban Dictionary are hilarious, it is a less useful reference system precisely because anyone can edit it, and it has no moderation, which leads to painfully long and sometimes contradictory entries.

†According to Katherine Connor Martin, from Oxford Dictionaries Online, “The current public reaction to twerking is reminiscent in some ways of how the twisting craze was regarded in the early 1960s, when it was first popularised by Chubby Checker’s song, the Twist.” (She also adds that “twerk” has been in use for the past two decades.)

Below is a list of some of the new words, taken from The Washington Post.
• apols, pl. n. (informal): apologies.
• A/W, abbrev.: autumn/winter (denoting or relating to fashion designed for the autumn and winter seasons of a particular year). (See also S/S)
• babymoon, n. (informal): a relaxing or romantic holiday taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born; a period of time following the birth of a baby during which the new parents can focus on establishing a bond with their child.
• balayage, n.: a technique for highlighting hair in which the dye is painted on in such a way as to create a graduated, natural-looking effect.
• bitcoin, n.: a digital currency in which transactions can be performed without the need for a central bank.
• blondie, n.: a small square of dense, pale-coloured cake, typically of a butterscotch or vanilla flavour.
• buzzworthy, adj. (informal): likely to arouse the interest and attention of the public, either by media coverage or word of mouth.
• BYOD, n.: abbreviation of ‘bring your own device’: the practice of allowing the employees of an organization to use their own computers, smartphones, or other devices for work purposes.
• cake pop, n.: a small round piece of cake coated with icing or chocolate and fixed on the end of a stick so as to resemble a lollipop.
• chandelier earring, n.: a long, elaborate dangling earring, typically consisting of various tiers of gemstones, crystals, beads, etc.
• click and collect, n.: a shopping facility whereby a customer can buy or order goods from a store’s website and collect them from a local branch.
• dappy, adj. (informal): silly, disorganized, or lacking concentration.
• derp, exclam. & n. (informal): (used as a substitute for) speech regarded as meaningless or stupid, or to comment on a foolish or stupid action.
• digital detox, n.: a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world.
• double denim, n.: a style of dress in which a denim jacket or shirt is worn with a pair of jeans or a denim skirt, often regarded as a breach of fashion etiquette.
• emoji, n: a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.
• fauxhawk, n: a hairstyle in which a section of hair running from the front to the back of the head stands erect, intended to resemble a Mohican haircut (in which the sides of the head are shaved).
• FIL, n.: a person’s father-in-law (see also MIL, BIL, SIL).
• flatform, n.: a flat shoe with a high, thick sole.
• FOMO, n.: fear of missing out: anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.
• food baby, n.: a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food and supposedly resembling that of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy.
• geek chic, n.: the dress, appearance, and culture associated with computing and technology enthusiasts, regarded as stylish or fashionable.
• girl crush, n. (informal): an intense and typically non-sexual liking or admiration felt by one woman or girl for another.
• grats, pl. n. (informal): congratulations.
• guac, n.: guacamole.
• hackerspace, n.: a place in which people with an interest in computing or technology can gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge.
• Internet of things, n.: a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.
• jorts, pl. n.: denim shorts.
• LDR, n.: a long-distance relationship.
• me time, n. (informal): time spent relaxing on one’s own as opposed to working or doing things for others, seen as an opportunity to reduce stress or restore energy.
• MOOC, n.: a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.
•omnishambles, n. (informal): a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.
• pear cider, n.: an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of pears.
• phablet, n.: a smartphone having a screen which is intermediate in size between that of a typical smartphone and a tablet computer.
• pixie cut, n.: a woman’s short hairstyle in which the hair is cropped in layers, typically so as to create a slightly tousled effect.
• selfie, n. (informal): a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
• space tourism, n.: the practice of travelling into space for recreational purposes.
• squee, exclam. & v. & n. (informal): (used to express) great delight or excitement.
• srsly, adv. (informal): short for ‘seriously’.
• street food, n.: prepared or cooked food sold by vendors in a street or other public location for immediate consumption.
• TL;DR, abbrev.: ‘too long didn’t read’: used as a dismissive response to a lengthy online post, or to introduce a summary of a lengthy post.
• twerk, v.: dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.
• unlike, v.: withdraw one’s liking or approval of (a web page or posting on a social media website that one has previously liked).
• vom, v. & n. (informal): (be) sick; vomit.


So, we all know the word “antidisestablishmentarianism”, but how many know what it means?

The automatic response, of course, is to reach for the nearest dictionary, and online dictionaries are facilitating much ease of reaching, and much less spilling of coffee. Yet, this particular word – colloquially known as the longest word in the English language that most people can remember, but not the actual longest – is not in all dictionaries.

This was a revelation for me too, when I was recently linked to a video from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

It is a part of a series of videos on their website, in which the editors of this American dictionary answer questions about the language, the dictionary and grammar. They have some excellent stuff – there is even a wonderful video about the figurative use of the word “literally” in there!

However, the video about antidisestablishmentarianism bothered me.

For the Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary, the longest word is electroencephalographically (by using electroencephalography to examine a patient), which at 27 letters long is quite a long word. Antidisestablishmentarianism would only best it by one letter. Yet antidisestablishmentarianism is not the longest word for the M-W, and that is because it is not a word entered into their dictionaries at all. They give a decent justification for this – all words that they enter must meet certain criteria.

Widespread usage.
Sustained usage.
Meaningful usage.

Antidisestablishmentarianism is rejected on the grounds of meaningful usage, because there is little evidence that the word is used to refer to something (other than being an example of a long word). M-W argue that although a meaning could be constructed for the word – opposition to depriving a legally established state church of its status – there are few examples of it ever being used this way. In fact, the M-W files only contain three examples of the word being used like this, which for them is not enough evidence of sustained or widespread usage.
The video concludes that if this word develops more widespread, sustained and meaningful use, then it will be entered into their dictionaries. But not before then.
The same applies for “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – another word found nowhere in the M-W.
You can watch the video here.

The video left me dissatisfied. Thus, as I am wont to do, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary.

antidisestablishmentarianism, n.
Properly, opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England (rare): but popularly cited as an example of a long word.
1923   in Brewer’s Dict. Phr. & Fable (new ed.) at Long words,
1960   Amrita Bazar Patrika 17 June 6/4   But then ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’ contains three more letters, as pointed out by two readers.
1984   T. Augarde Oxf. Guide Word Games xxvi. 216   The longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism..and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

There it was, in all its glory. The OED had included the word antidisestablishmentarianism.

Yet, something was wrong. All these examples were of the word being used as an example of a long word – precisely the criticism that the Merriam-Webster had levelled at it. This was not true of the derivative, antidisestablishmentarian (note the lack of “ism”).

1900   N. & Q. 25 Aug. 147/1   In the recent biography of Dr. Benson is an entry from the Archbishop’s diary to the effect that ‘the Free Kirk of the North of Scotland are strong antidisestablishmentarians’.

But I wanted the 28 letter word. The Oxford Dictionaries site (which is freely available outside of subscriptions by institutions, unlike the full online version of the OED) noted that “Antidisestablishmentarianism is very occasionally found in genuine use, but it is most often cited as an example of a very long word.”

This was as frustrating as the original video: if there were examples, why had the OED not cited them at all? I explored the web myself, discovering that the word antidisestablishmentarianism was almost always only used as an example of a long word. It occurred occasionally in scholarly articles, but more often in a title rather than the text itself. When it did occur in the text, it was usually talking about the word itself, and only rarely using the word in a sentence to which it added useful information.

Some other relevant considerations are nicely captured by John Madeley in his characterisation of an important strand in contemporary antidisestablishmentarianism.

This is a typical, dry example of the way in which the word can be used once in an article.

The rest of the net was full of discussion around the word (about 258,000 results), with lots of people defining it when asked to, but not usually using it as a word outside of the discussion of the word.

So, where does that leave me?

Well, it depends how you interpret the role of a dictionary. Merriam-Webster is the descendent of Noah Webster’s original 1828 “An American Dictionary of the English Language”, which attempted to standardise† American speech. This philosophy has carried over into their present publishing: they offer guidance for people using the English language, and as has been noted, have certain criteria that must be met by words for them to be entered into their dictionary.

Interestingly, this prescriptive rather than solely descriptive approach is usually brought up as a criticism of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a very powerful authority of the English language. The criticism is not necessarily negative: Merriam-Webster has criteria about the entry of words because they only want to record words that meet them.

I am not going to defend the OED against the charge that is it an institution of the English language, because that would be making it one. The OED is not, and should not be above criticism. They took a long time to include any of those infamous four-letter-words, and much like the M-W and other dictionaries, they offer guidance as to the common and even “correct” usage of words. They have their own set of rules about proof of words, which have been criticised (they require a printed example, for instance, though their submission guidelines seem to say that even song lyrics are acceptable). Moreover, their full dictionary is not freely available outside of institutions (though this is also true of Merriam-Webster, amongst others). I am not affiliated with the OED, and though I will refer to it religiously and love it dearly, I am aware of its faults, and even consciously choose to ignore it at times (such as using the wonderful word “summited” in my last post, which the M-W includes in their dictionary but the OED does not. Further to this, I have now submitted relevant quotations of this usage to the OED, in the hope that they will update it.)

Nevertheless, I argue that the Oxford English Dictionary, as the self-proclaimed “Definitive record of the English language”, should record the usage of that language, and I love that it meets that challenge (at least for this word! And supercalifragilisticexpialidocious‡. But please don’t attack me with a million examples of where this is not so!). The word antidisestablishmentarianism is used very often and in a consistent way, even if that usage is circular (referencing itself as a long word), and that it only rarely gains a real meaning (which the OED, I freely concede, should really quote examples of if it wants to include that usage in the definition).

To acknowledge that the word exists in the language and then to refuse to record it is to impose prescriptions, and restrictions, upon the language. If a person heard the word antidisestablishmentarianism used in conversation (as, say, in the unlikely scenario of an example of a long word), and wanted to find out the etymology or usage or pronunciation of that word, they would be able to answer these questions in the OED, even if they might be unable to find out a satisfactory meaning.

This is not to say that such authorities of a language should not give advice about the usage of words. Conversely, one needs guidance about certain standardising (and evolving) rules and usages, if only so that they can informatively break them.

Books, University of Western Australia, Perth

The image above was taken last year at the University of Western Australia, Perth.

And for the Aussies, here is the Macquarie Dictionary excerpt:

/ˌæntidɪsəsˌtæblɪʃmənˈtɛəriən/ (say .anteedisuhs.tablishmuhn’tairreeuhn) Rare
–adjective 1. opposed to the disestablishment of a church by the withdrawal of state patronage.

–noun 2. someone who is thus opposed.

–antidisestablishmentarianism, noun

Usage: This is a term that relates to the position of the Church of England in 19th-century Britain, but it retains some currency because the derived form antidisestablishmentarianism has popularly been thought to be the longest word in the English language.

Also of interest, Germany has recently deleted its longest word.

*I use the OED online, because I find it very easy to use, and mostly because I never have a hard copy on hand. Or one at all, actually, though I do intend to acquire a hard copy of the second (most recent) edition, as I feel that it would be wrong not to celebrate the edition of the year of my own birth.

†I am actually rather fond of the OED spelling of words with an “-ize”. (Yes, that is correct: this is the Oxford spelling, not just the American standard.) Not only is “standardize” so much more exciting and exotic than “standardise”, but it is much closer to the English pronunciation, has been in spelling since the 15th century (-ise turned up in the 18th century), and for most words, is closer to the original etymology: the -ize ending corresponds to the Greek verb endings -izo and -izein. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the -ize spelling for these etymological reason, but also because that is what they have used since their first unofficial publications from 1884 (and complete dictionary in 1928). They state that both spellings are correct; importantly, neither -ise or -ize is more “correct”!
However, I use the -ise spelling, because that is the standard Australian (and British) spelling. Simple as that! Some words in British English require the -ise spelling (like exercise, or advertise) due to their different etymological roots, which has been suggested as the reason for why the British standard of always using -ise may have been adopted.
For a more articulate version of this explanation, see the OED’s blog post about the subject.

‡The OED has an entry for supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! It is an adjective, defined as “A nonsense word, originally used esp. by children, and typically expressing excited approbation: fantastic, fabulous.”