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Words of 1997

Oxford Dictionaries, the section of Oxford University Press that produces the Oxford English Dictionary among many others, has nominated a selection of the most interesting or topical words that have appeared (or reappeared) in the preceding twelve months. It was intended, I suspect, as a fun exercise to titillate jaded journalistic palates at the fag-end of a difficult year. No doubt it was a fun exercise for the compilers as well, nicely filling up a hour or two of those inconsequential days before the Christmas break.

As you would hope and expect, a good proportion of these words have been featured in World Wide Words: we are inevitably gathering the same pearls from the same oyster bed of language. So the list that follows is a selection of the words in the Oxford list which have not been featured here but which contribute to a sense of the topical concerns of 1997.

The list necessarily has something of a UK bias, because it was prepared for the British press. A list that concentrated on new terms in the US, Australia or South Africa would look rather different. So annotations and explanations would seem desirable.

A 35-45 year old, with interests typically associated with youth culture. Sometimes known as a middle youth.

Oxford has noted several new formations such as videorazzi, stalkerazzi, and snapperazzi which have joined the already well-established paparazzi.

Big Beat
A sound imported from the US with rock-style guitars. I’d also add in Speed Garage as another musical form which made it big in Britain in 1997.

Oxford notes this as another name for the phrase muscle dysmorphia, or reverse anorexia, which I’ve already featured, a psychiatric disorder in which bodybuilders exercise obsessively because they think they are physically inadequate.

Bridget Jones
A single, unattached woman in her 30s, who leads a doomed quest for self-improvement. Helen Fielding began writing Bridget Jones’s Diary as a column in the Independent newspaper about two years ago, which led to two novels, the second selling more than 650,000 copies in paperback in 1997. Bridget Jones suffers the traumas of a single woman of her age, obsessed by weight, alcohol intake, excessive smoking and the effects of her comforting indulgences. She is beset by “smug marrieds” who insist she should be in a serious relationship. The creation has been so successful, being both witty and perspicacious, that Bridget Jones has become the archetype of a certain kind of aspiring woman and her name could even enter the language permanently.

This prefix has done well in 1997, producing Britad, Britlit, Britpic, Britrap, Britrock and others to join the older Britpop.

bus buddy
One of the better innovations of 1997 in Britain, modelled on a US original which has been around for many years. A bus buddy is a person employed to help bus passengers, especially disabled ones, and generally to keep order. Those of us of a certain age will remember the old-style bus conductor (the member of a two-man crew who was responsible for issuing tickets); if only economies had not done away with this role, bus buddies would not have had to be invented.

Plus Dianarite, Dianathon, and Dimania are among new words spawned in the media by Diana’s death. (The Guardian produced a splendid correction near Christmas in which it apologised for using Dianarite in the previous day’s issue and corrected it to Diana’ite.)

The idea behind this was explained by Cherri Gilham in her “Fluffy Manifesto” in the Daily Mail. A fluffragette is a pre-feminist type of woman who aims to control men by using feminine wiles and sexual power. As Ms Gilham put it, they intend to, “giggle, pout, flirt and coo” their way to emancipation. The term was popularised in a rejoinder by Suzanne Moore, a feminist and columnist in the Independent (and formerly of the Guardian, where she had a huge spat with Dr Germaine Greer, who famously described her as wearing fuck-me shoes, a term invented in the eighties). The adjective fluffiesque has also been sighted.

girl power
Fluffragette feminism as espoused by the Spice Girls, another media sensation of 1997, exemplified by their sacking of their (male) manager near the end of the year. The fact that their feature film, Spice Girls: The Movie, which came out soon afterwards included a scene in which their manager was sacked surely would be regarded as coincidental only by those of a naïve disposition. Or is my cynicism showing again?


laser pen
An innocuous and inexpensive device which is intended as a lecturers’ pointing device. They hit the news in 1997 in Britain when they became a teenage fashion accessory and were then quickly converted into a weapon which could cause blinding. There were calls in September for them to be banned, following a much-publicised attack on three policemen in Southampton.

A middlebrow, but as you might judge from this deliberately pretentious formation, one who is so in a fashionable and superior way. This is actually a reintroduction, or possibly reinvention, of a term coined in the US in the 1920s.

A buzzphrase of the spin doctors of New Labour. As a Labour MP, you are on-message if you’re publicly supporting stated party policy. This makes you one of the good guys. The opposite, being off-message, is an uncomfortable experience, likely to lead to much tut-tutting and loss of privileges.

This has been tacked on to lots of words by the new Labour government. The classic example is Tony Blair’s description of Diana, Princess of Wales as the People’s Princess. Other examples are People’s Banquet, People’s Lunch, People’s Palace, People’s Prince, and People’s Panel (see the article on panel). The new year, with Britain assuming the six-month presidency of the European Union by Buggins’s turn, has seen a rash of sightings of People’s Europe. Most commentators have politely refrained from pointing out the political antecedents of this use of people.

restorative justice
This first came to public notice in March 1997 as one of the pre-election proposals by Jack Straw, later Home Secretary. He had been impressed by a pilot scheme being run by the Thames Valley Police, in which offenders could be required to face their victims and explain their actions. The scheme was reportedly based on traditional Maori concepts of justice, but may also reflect an initiative by the Arizona group UUJJ (Unitarian Universalists for Juvenile Justice).

sandwich generation
A US term which has reached Britain in 1997. This refers to middle-aged parents who are simultaneously bringing up children while coping with aged parents.

One of the British media events of 1997. The Teletubbies, named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, are a set of four plump, woolly, colourful characters with expressionless baby faces, who appear in a BBC Television series for very small children. Though criticised for its absence of meaningful language and repetitious plots, the series has become hugely popular and a craze among students, who relish its surreal nursery-rhyme world of bright colours and huge retractable trumpets. The actor who played Tinky Winky (the handbag-waving one), 37-year-old Dave Thompson, was sacked from the series in July for reasons that were never entirely clear; he is reported as saying “I was always the one to test out the limitations of the costume. I was the first to fall off my chair and roll over. I took all the risks”. He later became a dolphin named Fin-Fin in another series. There was a cock-up on the merchandising front at Christmas, with demand for Teletubby dolls much greater than expected, leading to reports of them changing hands at inflated prices.

This US term has been imported into Britain as a result of policies of the new Labour government. There have been many attempts to move people from welfare back into employment, but these have only been marginally successful, and have been very expensive even when they have worked. The Labour method is to apply a stick to accompany the carrot; unemployed young people will not be able to avoid taking up one of the limited options on offer, one of which is to take a subsidised job with a private firm. In a further linguistic borrowing from the US, the scheme was described as a “New Deal” for the young unemployed. It has just been announced that a further 250 million pounds is to be made available to extend the project to older unemployed people.

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Page created 10 Jan 1998