Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

The author has a good eye for news cycles and norms, and identifies stories’ motivations and subtexts. So alongside discussions of popular neologisms there is commentary on, for instance, the literally furore that occurred during the year when notice of its antonymous senses went viral. Westbrook sensibly advises the peevers to “literally get over it”.

Some new words, while good fodder for news media, are not destined to catch on in common currency; Phubbing… predicts showrooming and sharenting to be among these, and supplies a brief and helpful account of each. A section on synthetic meat notes its considerable potential, and says “what we end up calling it will be quite important”. There’s no mention of Oxford Dictionaries’ WOTY runner-up schmeat, however.

Westbrook pays close attention to dictionary updates, reporting some noteworthy changes to old definitions, such as Oxford’s removal of the reference to “dirty denims” in its definition of biker. New entries and controversies in other countries are also addressed, including the Swedish debate over ogooglebar and the attempt in France to impose mot-dièse over hashtag:

If the efforts of language officials do not manage to mandate what the correct word should be for the language in this case, will French continue to be a tongue which is limited and proscribed in terms of its vocabulary or will it start to take on a more English identity and be allowed to grow in a more natural way?

Directly republishing recent blog posts means the text feels fresh and topical. But the lack of further editing means it is sometimes also repetitive: phubbing may be a “brilliant” word that filled a semantic gap, but readers don’t need to be told this twice in three pages. And yes: discovering a new dinosaur means coining a new word – but saying so once would have sufficed.

Speaking of dinosaurs: they might not have been eloquent beasts, but a little research suggests it’s by no means “a fair assumption that their linguistic ability consisted of loud, indiscriminate noises”. Other animals are treated more fairly, with liliger (offspring of a lion and a liger, the latter a lion–tiger hybrid) given welcome and matter-of-fact treatment:

Whether this word has a long life is of course entirely dependent on the future course of the world’s liliger population. Given that there are only four of them at present, and they are all female, the prospects don’t look great. This may be a word that only covers a single generation of animals and then retreats into history. Or perhaps when older, a liliger will mate with a lion, creating a lililiger.

Picking up on Canberra bashing, Westbrook says bashing could “start to take on suffix duties” à la -gate or -leaks. While it will be interesting to see if bashing becomes productive in forming compound phrases – or rather, more productive than it already is – being a word in its own right it seems unlikely to become a suffix.

The book needs better proofreading. It has misspellings (beaurocracy), grammatical slips (“where the pause in the written words have [sic] a connection”), and numerous typos (e.g., “Thanksgiving this year falls this on the first night”). Double quotation marks alternate with single, straight quotes with smart, and words being discussed are set off with capitals, not italics, which is disconcerting and potentially confusing.

Hugh Westbrook - Phubbing All Over the World - book coverSuch problems aside, Phubbing… is an enjoyable book, sharing insights from lexicographers and other researchers into productive areas of the language. It looks at high-profile words like selfie, twerking and glassholes, and makes interesting forays into lesser-known niches such as the linguistic legacy of Alex Ferguson.

English, writes Westbrook, is “a living, organic entity, owned collectively by everybody who speaks it, and therefore subject to constant flux because of those millions of voices”. His book offers an up-to-date sample of those voices and a cross-section of the growing edges of our lexicon. You can buy Phubbing All Over The World from Amazon in paper and e-book editions.

Disclosure: The author sent me a copy of the book for review.

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8 Responses to Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

  1. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    In Ameringlish, Bringlish, all the dialects we prate,
    New words pop up like weeds, a fact I cannot overstate,
    But words like “phubbing”
    Need a drubbing.

  2. Roger says:

    Re slack proofreading — it’s getting slacker just about everywhere.

  3. Roger says:

    Re animal communication (“speaking of dinosaurs”) — Gordon Grice’s Book of Deadly Animals describes the rattlesnake’s rattle as having an adverse effect on the human nervous system, “causing a sense of alarm in people who have no idea what they’re hearing”.

  4. Roger says:

    Re allowing French to grow in a more natural way, like English:
    languages add vocabulary, they grow, that is, with the no so natural help of storage devices such as books. Non-literate societies tend to store less and flush more.

  5. Stan says:

    Marc:
    I don’t expect to adopt it myself
    From among the options I see on the shelf.

    Roger: ‘slack proofreading — it’s getting slacker just about everywhere.’
    Not on my watch, it isn’t. But generally speaking you may well be right.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Phubbing? No.

    I’m still disappointed I don’t see wev (whatever). I think it made the urban dictionary. I tend to use it in many ways even to the odd swear session.

    I admit to surprise that a book about words would lack the editing and proofreading errata that you caught.

    XO
    WWW

    • Stan says:

      WWW: I use wevs very occasionally, in certain company and with a good dose of irony, but never made it habitual in my usage. Maybe I’ll fling it into a swear session and see how I get on. Language Log looked at wev a few years ago.

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