Numbnuts, hashtags, and refutations

I normally report on my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog about once a month. But because I took a short break from blogging here, I have three to share instead of the usual two.

The first reflects on the American Dialect Society’s words of the year (columbusing, even, manspreading, bae, #Blacklivesmatter). These category winners, considered collectively,

testify to the creativity and imagination inherent in language use, each in a different way. #Blacklivesmatter is not lexically innovative, but its selection as word of the year underscores the irresistible rise of hashtags and how they continue to spread into mainstream culture and domains beyond their early use as a way of organising discussions on social media.

It also indicates the broader significance of the hashtags shortlisted: #icantbreathe, #notallmen, #yesallwomen, #whyistayed and #blacklivesmatter all point to conversations taking place, on a global scale and in real time, about violence or abuse between different groups of people. Hashtags have facilitated such communication, providing a forum for voices to be heard and opening people’s eyes to others’ experiences.


My next post picks up on a new entry to Macmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary, numbnuts, and looks at words with a similar sound and meaning, such as ninny and numbskull:

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green dates numbnuts to the late 1960s, and has also recorded numbhead, numbwit and nimwit (by analogy with dimwit) numbass, and other more colourful variants that cluster around similar sounds. There’s also numps, numpty, nimrod and nincompoop, and a little further off we find dumbo, dumb-ass, dunce, dunderhead, chump, schmuck, and Monty Python’s Gumbys. I have a soft spot for numbskull because of the comic strip The Numskulls, which I loved as a child. And I recently dreamt I called someone an ‘ignorant ninny’, which belongs in the same general set (though it doesn’t appear to be an abbreviation of nincompoop, as I originally imagined).


Finally, and topically, I defend the ‘loose’ use of refute by refuting allegations of its incorrectness:

For the first few hundred years of its existence in English [refute] had various related senses having to do with disproving theories, arguments, people, and so on. But its use as a word meaning reject or deny the accuracy or truth of something is no upstart either – it dates to the 19th century, so it’s had time to become established in the common tongue.

This ‘weakened’ usage has been criticised for almost as long as it has been around . . . . Yet the original sense of refute, according to the OED, is ‘To refuse or reject (a thing or person)’.

It’s topical because the UK Telegraph responded to the HSBC scandal this week by ‘utterly refuting’ allegations (from its newly resigned chief political commentator Peter Oborne) that its editorial operations were not distinct from advertising-based income. The BBC went so far as to paraphrase the Telegraph’s statement:

bbc news - telegraph hsbc peter oborne story -refute deny

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the Telegraph’s use of refute in its statement. It could be described as unclear, or careless because it contradicts the paper’s own style guide. But it’s not incorrect, and anyone insisting that refute can only mean ‘disprove’ has fallen foul of the etymological fallacy.

Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

9 Responses to Numbnuts, hashtags, and refutations

  1. Hashtags seem to be coming into their own. I never thought that they would catch on the way they have.

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I would submit that any list of words sharing a similar meaning to “numnuts”, “ninny”, and the like, should include nut-job, nut-case, wack-job, wacko, nimrod, and doofus. That’s just the short-list. (Not sure if those first three combined words should each be considered singular words… w/ no connecting dash.)

    Use of “doofus” appeared to gain some traction in common parlance after the “Seinfeld” episode where the character Elaine calls her crazed friend, and regular cast member, Cosmo Kramer, a “hipster doofus”. Clearly Kramer was far more doofus-like than on the cutting edge of hip.

    Maybe, I’m giving that “Seinfeld” doofus remark more import than it deserves? But as an inveterate fan of the show, that “hipster doofus” label has stayed w/ me for years, and I’ve used it on more than a singular occasion in my own casual conversation.

  3. wisewebwoman says:

    I find hashtags extraordinarily useful. We had a situation of ongoing power outages here in NL and angry activism to make the government more accountable so #darknl is used every time the power goes out so it can be tracked.


    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Hi http://www... as a fellow Canuck, all-be-it an expat of some 35 years living here in Southern California, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that at first blush in reading your hashtag “darknl”, I interpreted it as ‘dark… no light’, until I came to my senses and realized the “nl” part signified your beloved province of Newfoundland… eh?

      Granted, you did preface your hashtag reveal w/ your “here in NL”, which should have clued me in right off. Oh well.

  4. Stan Carey says:

    Alex: Seinfeld is one of the all-time great TV comedies in my book, and doofus is a fine insult. I was sticking to words that sounded similar, and nimrod would certainly fit the bill. Good to see you again, by the way.

    WWW: That’s a great example. From a practical point of view they’re very useful for following local events and uniting common interests.

  5. Any comment on how new punctuation comes into the language? Or maybe the better way to ask that is how punctuation becomes formalized?

    Like most languages use periods, commas, and question marks in similar ways, but I suppose we could say Spanish uses question marks differently. How does that become acceptable and what would the process look like where in 200 years the hashtag is common in even the most formal writing?

    Jeremy Schaar

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a lot of questions – are you writing an essay? New punctuation enters English much as any other novel feature does: through necessity, gradual drift, playful creativity, etc. Anne Curzan wrote an interesting post at Lingua Franca on an innovative use of greater-than and less-than symbols, which seems relevant to your query. Becoming ‘acceptable’ depends on whose acceptance you mean. If you’re talking about entering standard English, a usage would need to pass conclusively into edited prose. And because punctuation is a small and relatively stable set, the chances of a successful entry are small.

      [Edit:] Trends in punctuation use also featured on Language Log recently.

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