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Keeping Up with the Wordsmiths

We who live far away from our mother tongue can testify that language is dynamic, not static. While some of the newly coined or popularised words will survive, others will expire, spells out the New York Times article entitled “Which words will live on?” For example, the term “austerity measures” was (unfortunately) popularised last year, the article says, and the phrase “bath salts” assumed a new meaning (illegal stimulants). Apparently, “horsemaning” (posing in a photo to create the impression of a headless body appearing next to a severed head) became popular, while others applied “humblebrag” (self-deprecation that reveals wealth or importance) and “twinkling” (a hand gesture showing approval).
What do we transnationals do when confronted with unfamiliar, new-fangled vocabulary?

Skip it!

American Kevin Berkowitz says that when he encounters newly popularised terms in writing, he typically ignores them - citing “CeeLo Green” and “Kim Kardashian” from the Huffington Post.

“Though, in these examples,” Berkowitz says, “I can understand they are names of pop-media stars whose fame has come since I’ve been overseas.”

He employs the same strategy during conversations: “I usually just let it go, knowing the other person may be a follower of word-fads.”

“Those of us who listen to or read news daily can spot word trends and fads,” says Berkowitz, who lived in several countries before moving to Greece in 2005. “My criticism is that not everyone understands these words, so why use them? You’ll never catch me using ‘schadenfreude’ in a sentence.” (We just did!)

Briton Julie Carter, who also lived in several countries before moving to Greece in 1989, prefers to investigate.

Look it up or ask

“I heard both of the terms ‘chav’ (the underclass) and ‘muffin-top’ (bulging fat around the waist) from my UK-based sisters,” Carter says, “so I just asked what they meant. Of course, they gave me odd ‘where has she been’ looks, but they explained.”

While close friends and family make allowances for our lapses, others are not always so forgiving.

“If it happens with people I don’t know so well, it does make me feel slightly out of things,” she says, “especially since I teach English and pride myself on knowing my language.”

Unfortunately, by the time we show off our new vocabulary, it may be too late.

David Gibson came to Greece in 1979. Several years ago, he was bewildered when a fellow Briton used the phrase “hole in the wall” in Greece to mean an automated teller machine (ATM).

When Gibson finally had the chance to use the phrase himself back in the UK, it had already gone out of style - leaving the locals scratching their heads instead of twinkling.

Kathryn Lukey-Coutsocostas is an Athens-based, Canadian Greek (by marriage) writer and a transnational of some 30-odd years. She blogs at
Saturday, May 19, 2012