McCall it what you like, but you didn’t invent it: “menopausing”

In June of this year, a couple of months ago as I write this, the Intellectual Property Office received an application to trade mark the word menopausing. Not especially exciting news, all things given. Nor was the fact that, on Friday the 20th of August, that trade mark was formally published. Indeed, thousands of trade marks are registered every year, and this extremely commonplace matter would likely have gone entirely unnoticed, except for one detail. The trade mark owner was listed as Davina McCall. That’s the Davina of Big Brother fame (amongst other things) whose current life course seems to plot generally towards the eighth house of Gwyneth Paltrow rising.

Back to the trade mark for menopausing. The matter may have passed everyone else on earth by, but somehow, in the predawn hours, a single Daily Mail thread vibrated, and immediately journalist Katie Hind rapelled down from that gigantic web to chalk a horrified outline round the matter in the shape of wronged menopausal women everywhere.

The headline was not flattering, and the content itself was unrepentant in its allusions: Continue reading

Digby, Lord Jones: the man who took on linguistics and lost

Over the past forty-eight hours, an individual by the name of Digby Jones has pulled off a remarkable linguistic hat-trick. In Act I, apropos of nothing, Digby launches into a lengthy complaint about Alex Scott’s accent. He’s doubled-down on it and keeps saying it’s about “elocution”, despite the fact that around 200 linguists have told him what he’s commenting on really is accent, but what would we all know. We’re just PhDs in the subject. Anyway, in Act II, as the backlash mounts, he complains that he is now being cancelled. (Remember, it’s only cancel culture if it comes from the Cancélle region of France. Otherwise it’s just the sparkling white consequences of your actions. At some point I’m going to write a post about what “cancel culture” actually means but I don’t have the strength of character today.) And then in Act III, he tops it all off by describing Alex Scott as “coloured”. If you don’t know why that last one is bad but you’re striving to be a better person, start with this primer from the BBC.

Honestly, it’s been so much that at points I started to wonder if he was a parody account, but sadly not only is he real, he is a mouthpiece for a lot of people who think just like him. So let’s carry out a neat linguistic post mortem just on Act I of this very public body of evidence, and see where a few of the problems kick in. Continue reading

Five reasons why online anonymity is here to stay, and why it’s (mostly) good

I’ve written about this before, but in the wake of the appalling racist abuse faced by members of the England men’s football team, there has been yet another (well-meaning) call to “ban anonymity on the internet”, and variations on this theme. I understand why this is so popular. Anonymity can be intoxicating and just as some people get happy-drunk, others start swinging fists. In just the same way, this Gyges effect can breed some of the worst kinds of behaviour online. People become unidentifiable and next thing they’re murdering the king and seizing the crown, or pouring out racist tirades on Twitter. A knee-jerk reaction, then, is to remove the invisibility ring from their finger. Snatch away the mask. Pull up the rock. Expose the creeps hiding in the darkness beneath.

But removing anonymity from the internet will not be the glorious utopia that people imagine. In fact, it would actually be quite the opposite. For many, it would be a dangerous, living nightmare, fraught with appalling human rights atrocities and daily fear of persecution. Here are just five reasons why: Continue reading

Drug-dealer vs NHS cancer pharmacist: where does serious end, and satire begin?

On the 18th of June, a political Twitter account tweeted the following:

Serving Labour MP Admits to Selling Drugs

(Wayback link)


And then there was a link, but we’ll come back to this later.

This caught my eye for a few reasons, but perhaps the most obvious is that it was so surprising, I went to fact-check it, and was gobsmacked at what it actually meant.

So what’s the problem with this tweet? Well, perhaps the most reasonable interpretation is that the person in question – this serving Labour MP – is a drug dealer, and therefore a criminal.

In fact, Taiwo Owatemi is an NHS cancer pharmacist, and on the 14th of June, the Register of Members’ Interests was updated to declare that “From 5 June 2021 until further notice” Owatemi would be a “Locum Pharmacist for Tesco, Shire Park, Kestrel Way” and that she would “work shifts on an ad hoc basis as required” (TWFY).

So did Owatemi “admit to selling drugs”?


But also?


That’s because there are at least two distinct interpretations to “admits to selling drugs” and whilst “trained and registered pharmacist legally dispensing medication” is one, another is “criminal drug-dealer selling illegal substances”. And I would argue quite strongly that the average person who reads the tweet is more likely to arrive at the latter. How do we know this? Well, we could test it on people and ask them what they thought it meant, but luckily, corpus linguistics can show us much more quickly what we tend to mean when we say things like this. Continue reading

Cummings and ghostings: Who wrote Dom’s statement?

Introduction: if love is a battlefield, politics is a bonfire

As the Dominic Cummings v Boris Johnson battle rages across the headlines, it caught my eye that two high profile figures have both noted similar, rather interesting points. The first figure was Robert Hutton, who, at 3:03pm on the 23rd of April 2012 (three days ago as I write this) tweeted:

“Look, the point of getting journalists to attribute a quote to “friends” or “allies” is that you have plausible deniability. There’s no point if the quote sounds so absolutely like you that it just looks like you always refer to yourself in the third person.”

He then includes a small screenshot that, judging by the style and font, looks like a quote from The Telegraph (but I can’t check to credit them properly because paywall 🤷‍♀️‍). The text of that is thus:

“Allies of Mr Cummings have hit back at Number 10 for starting “a war they can’t win”, adding: “Dom doesn’t care about all this stuff and they’re in gov. It’s like the Americans going into Vietnam – they may be able to drop big bombs but in a war of attrition, the rebel always wins.””

This first case is fun, and it would make a nice little study for uses such as gov (possibly some sort of written correspondence that’s been copied and pasted?) and the types of analogies that Cummings routinely makes (does he fall back on war examples a lot?), but realistically it’s a bit short so whilst tempting, I left it alone.

But then, just fifteen hours and 29 minutes later, at 6:32am on the 24th of April 2021, former Labour politician Alastair Campbell tweeted:

“Interesting change of style in Cummings’ latest blog. From long, rambling and incontinent, to rather tight and focused, as though he had the help of an experienced journalist who knew how to land more blows with fewer words. Anyone seen @michaelgove ?”

Continue reading

Top of the populi: the most tweeted pictures, videos, links, issues, names, emoji, swearwords and more in GE19


It’s twenty four hours since the Conservatives won a remarkable majority in the 2019 General Election. There has already been an avalanche of nuanced (and not so nuanced) debate about quite whether Johnson won, or Corbyn lost, about whether Brexit is The Beginning or The End, and on, and on, and on.

This post is going to deal with exactly none of that stuff. If you want serious business, go stick your face in Politico or the FT. (I like the FT, by the way. This isn’t a dig at them.) If what you’d like right now is something lighter, but still surprisingly informative (er, maybe) then I present here a range of probably useless, but possibly interesting facts about twenty-four hours of Twitter data gathered during the final critical hours of the 2019 UK General Election. This blog post tells you all about the top devices, videos, pictures, links, names, places, issues, emotions, and swearwords, pretty much in that order, so if you came here for all the fucks, just scroll waaaaay down to the bottom. Similarly, if you want to just skip down to the start of the fun stuff, click here. Otherwise, if you appreciate a little data salad and caution sauce with your result reuben, then keep reading. Continue reading

Academia is a cake-eating contest, in which the prize for eating the most is… more cake

Oh the weather outside is dreary

And marking is making you weary

And you’ve got that draft to revise

And that grant! And reviews! And replies!

Something we talk a lot about in academia is work-life balance. We have committees on it. We hold meetings about it. I’ve seen workshops scheduled on it that ran from 2pm till 8pm with apparently no sense of irony. Everyone sings the same song, and yet, systematically, the attacks on our free time come from all sides. Most of us feel pushed into a 100% teaching/admin load, with another 33% on top for research during evenings and weekends. And most of us feel a sinking abyss of guilt when we say no to other people because our refusal seems, in the short-term, to leave them with even more to do, or to stem from us not doing our fair share.

This post is all about being selfish. It is about protecting your free time (whenever you decide to schedule that free time, morning, noon, night, I don’t care). It is about respecting and supporting your own physical and psychological well-being. And it is about stemming the infinite avalanche of crap that will otherwise continue to pour onto your desk and into your inbox.

This is a Five Step Plan to a Better You. It will give you shinier hair. Longer nails. Sparklier teeth. Smoother skin. More toes. Literally everything you ever wanted, except for all those things I just listed. But really, it should lead to a better you, because you will get the time you should have to be you, and do stuff that makes you you, and it will build in emotional and logistical reserves for the times when shit gets hyper-busy.

It will also, hopefully, help you to recognise your limits, and stop you from disappointing people in future by preventing you from saying, “Yes” to something that it will be virtually impossible for you to do.
Continue reading

Post mortem: dissecting letters from experts

(Get it? POST mortem? Because it came by… po- never mind.)

This is the unexpected third part of what has turned into a disinformation trinity. I hadn’t expected the first part in late November (the Conservatives’ factcheckUK saga), I was marginally less surprised at the second instalment in early December (the three big parties’ “local newspapers”), and by this third volume, I have hit a wall of weary acceptance. A single instance can be discounted as anomalous, but three is a pattern. A tiresome, dangerous, corrosive pattern that suggests a much wider comfort with behaviours that the electorate find problematic than I, at least, had previously thought.

So what’s the story for this latest and (hopefully!) final chapter before the General Election strikes? Somewhere throughout November 2019, the Liberal Democrats started sending out letters. Here are two exemplars – one that is fairly representative of those distributed in England, and one that seems to be fairly representative of those sent in Scotland. Continue reading

The local news_apers: Tadmouth Gazette or Badmouth Gersatz?

As election season gets underway, more and more instances of disinformation and misinformation (just plain fake news if you’re feeling fed up) keep hitting the headlines. Stoned squirrels, dead cats, fake factcheckers, dodgy polls, it’s all happening right now. Disinformation is in the headlines, everywhere.

But there’s a catch with disinformation.

And headlines.

Sometimes, they’re the same thing.

In the past few weeks, people began to tweet about free local newspapers that were being posted through their doors. Luckily for me, plenty included photos, usually of the front page, pointing out that this apparently free journalistic offering was in actuality a political publication with a clear agenda to persuade voters to support particular candidates. More to the point, people were not happy. At the extreme, some felt that these were literal embodiments of disinformation and should be aggressively prosecuted. Still others felt that these were problematic, manipulative, and/or deceitful, but not unexpected. And at the other extreme, some people responded that these publications allegedly all disclose their true identities and agendas in various ways, so the responsibility is on the reader. (We’ll get into that more later.) Continue reading

The introvert academic’s alternative networking guide

If you want to dodge the preamble and get stuck straight into the nitty gritty, click here. It’ll jump you down past these opening paragraphs. Otherwise if you like a context starter with your main guidelines dish, keep reading.

Let’s start this simply. I am an entrenched introvert. On the scale, I would put myself at a cold, clear ten out of ten. I don’t merely find networking events and mid-conference coffee gatherings and social meet-and-eats uncomfortable. They set off all my anxiety klaxons and I invariably lose anywhere between 99% and all of my ability to function like a normal person. Appropriate topics of conversation? Let’s do serial killers of the 20th century. Normal methods of eating? I am going to tackle this sandwich with a knife and straw. Hot container of coffee? We should all bathe in it. Sometimes I can manage ten minutes. Sometimes I can even get to half an hour. And then, all at once, I’m done. The energy supply is depleted. It’s time to suddenly need to go to the toilet (i.e. escape) or go check with reception about some minor detail (i.e. e s c a p e) or discover that my train sets off soon (i.e. ! E ! S ! C ! A ! P ! E !). Continue reading