Big bang and gazing into the twitterverse

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 4, 2012, page 25)

Big bang and the 2012 edition of the Petit Larousse

In 2010, the Petit Larousse introduced only about 150 new words, including “le fameux geek.”Footnote 1 However, in a recent interview in Montréal, the editor, Jacques Florent, stated that the 2012 edition contains an amazing 3,000 new words and eliminates a number of anglicisms no longer deemed necessary. “On photographie la langue et ça nous oblige à faire des choix,” Florent said, adding that Larousse’s approach is to collect neologisms in the media and elsewhere and rate their frequency of use.Footnote 2 This descriptive rather than prescriptive approach is a sea change for French dictionaries. Further, Larousse has included the French spelling reform in its entries, e.g., ognon/oignon, bruler/brûler, cèleri/céleri, nénufar/nénuphar and cacahouète/cacahuète.

After my initial shock at the number of English words in the Petit Larousse (e.g., car-ferry, with two plural forms: car-ferrys or car-ferries, albeit with the official recommendation to use navire transbordeur), I was pleased to see that several terms that I have written about in past Language Update articles have been included in this new edition (réalité augmentée, tablette, téléphone intelligent and séquestration), as well as to find some words with new meanings (continent, crocodile and liseuse). Ferme éolienne (wind farm) is now a synonym for parc éolien. Big bang is an old expression that has taken on a new meaning. In addition to Stephen Hawking’s theory of the beginning of the universe, big bang now means a radical change in any area of endeavour.

Also new in the 2012 edition is microblog, defined as: “Blog au contenu textuel court qui permet de communiquer en temps réel, notamment depuis un téléphone mobile, une messagerie instantanée.” Why is microblogging important? Remember the Arab Spring? Also, according to an article in The Gazette, the number of Chinese users registered on domestic microblog sites reached 195 million at the end of June 2011. Microbloggers in China have no other venue for expressing themselves, although Chinese microblogging sites are subject to heavy censorship.Footnote 3

Gazing into the twinkling twitterverse

Twitter, the social network and microblogging service, has gone mainstream. According to the BBC, “Twitter founder Jack Dorsey tells the story that Twitch was another possible name [for Tweet]…. However, the word also brings to mind nervous tics….”Footnote 4 Many English words starting with “tw-” tend to be either whimsical or annoying—although some might say they are playful—such as tweak, twinkle, twitch and twit. I would venture to guess that not many languages use the “tw-” prefix, and it might almost be as unique to English as the “th-” prefix is. Catchy names tend to become popular, which may explain why Twitter and tweet have spawned a slew of neologisms, including twagiarism, tweeple, tweeps, tweetup, tweet cred, twelete, twirting, tweme, twisticuffs, twitterate, twitterrhoea, twitterverse, twittiquette and twebinar.Footnote 5


It is rumoured that a hashtag (mot-clic) was first used by mistake by someone in an emergency situation, and it went viral. However, Google employee Chris Messina seized on this idea, and some sources credit him with suggesting in August 2007 that the pound sign—sometimes called the hash mark or sign—be used to group and classify Twitter messages. Because of space limitations, Messina realized that the symbol could help organize tweets if it were placed next to the subject as a prefix, e.g. #occupywallstreet. Twitter hashtags act as keywords for topics. However, hashtags have become immensely popular and acquired other meanings. People have started using them in advertising and everyday conversation. According to The New York Times, “hashtags have transcended the 140-characters-or-less microblogging platform, and have become new cultural shorthand, finding their way into chat windows, e-mail and face-to-face conversations.”Footnote 6 In other words, hashtags have entered into popular culture, with some people making air hashtags with their fingers. A few examples of hashtags are: #awkward, #winning and #fail.

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