Not a whole lotta quakin’ goin’ on – An Irishman’s Diary about the Oxford word of the year that nobody anywhere used
‘Youthquake’ made its debut in these pages only via a report from the London fashion shows of 1967
Perhaps this hasn’t been a vintage year for words. Photograph: Getty Images
At first it seemed a bold move by Oxford Dictionaries to choose as its word of the year something nobody anywhere had actually said during 2017. “Youthquake” may have had its “epicentre” in the British general election, as the lexicographers claim. But in most of the English-speaking world, it registered nought-point-nought on the (excuse my Latin) obiter dicta scale.
Even so, the term also had an awkward, old-fashioned feel about it: a bit like a dictionary version of Dad-dancing. And sure enough, I find on trawling the archives that “youthquake” first appeared in print all of 60 years ago, in 1957, in connection with that tectonic social movement of the era in Britain: Teddy Boys.
Okay, it didn’t make it into The Irish Times for a full decade, and several more youth movements, later. By then, even the fogeys in the IT were getting “hip” and “groovy”, apparently shocked into modernity by another cause of mid-20th century tremors: rising hemlines.
In fact “youthquake” made its debut in these pages only via a report from the London fashion shows of 1967, and it was overshadowed then by a different, if related, controversy.
Apparently, a hospital matron somewhere had noted with disapproval the increasing amount of leg being displayed by Irish nurses and claimed that some of them resembled “Mullingar heifers”: a description that had been “widely reported in the British press”.
So while “youthquake” was mentioned only once in Judy Fallon’s London fashion dispatch, which was about the rise (x 2) of mini-skirts in general, “Mullingar heifer” featured repeatedly.
In the 1980s, already heading for middle age, “youthquake” took on another new lease. It was, I have been told, the name of a series of “Catholic-lite” youth events run in Co Tyrone (and a few other places, I suspect) during that decade. In similar vein, it was also the name of “a parish musical group” from the Caribbean island of Grenada, which toured Ireland in 1988.
Such church approval would usually have killed the word’s street credibility stone dead. And it probably did. Prior to this week’s resurrection, the only citation in the archive during the year for which it was supposedly definitive was in a book review last June on How Skiffle Changed the World.
But I suppose this sort of thing had to happen, eventually. In the absence of any major new musical youth movements in recent decades, many of the big-name groups from former ones are still touring, and still singing about the joys and pains of being teenagers. Even where death or irreconcilable differences have finally retired them, tribute bands often fill the gap.
In that light, we can consider the latest appearance of “youthquake” to be a heritage act. Then again, I don’t see it getting many bookings next year, even for a side tent at the Electric Picnic. One of the reasons the Oxford people think the term is newsy now, after all, is that it never really took off on previous appearances.
The list of words that were also coined, or became popular, in 1957 includes many that remain permanent fixtures in the dictionary: Lego, moisturiser, overkill, smiley-face, and West Bank among them.
I can’t see Youthquake taking off like that, however belatedly, or even one day being remembered quaintly as something of its time, like Sputnik, Pot Head, and Marlboro Man (a gender reassignment of a cigarette that had been launched decades earlier, aimed at women): other debutants of 1957.
But perhaps this hasn’t been a vintage year for words, unlike 2012 and 2013, when “omnishambles” and “selfie” were Oxford’s choice; or 2016, when “post-truth” won the title.
The Germans, who also elect a semi-official word of the year, agreed with last year’s English choice (although their version, the adjectival postfaktisch, sounded better). This year, by contrast, Germany has opted for Jamaika-Aus. Meaning “Jamaica out”, it’s a reference to failed attempts to form a multi-party coalition, with the Jamaican flag colours. That hardly has much staying power either. Still, the Germans in their wisdom also have a young person’s word of the year, the jugendwort, which for 2017 is the expression “I bims”. A slangy misspelling of a term meaning “It’s me”, this topped a poll in which a million voted (or about a million more than the number of people who used Youthquake in a sentence). As to why “I bims” was so popular with the kids, it’s hard to explain. But that’s probably half the point. Older people just wouldn’t understand.