Is ‘booyakasha’ the new ‘cowabunga’ for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

© dragan85 - Fotolia.comThe ’10s have become the decade of 80s remakes, from The Karate Kid to Footloose to The A-Team. (Rumor has it there’s a Dirty Dancing remake in the works… blasphemy!) So it comes as no surprise that 80s comic book, TV series and 1990 hit movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been retooled for Nickelodeon.

The series is already being heralded a success as TMNT merchandise flies off the shelves (better get your hands on some TMNT gear now — it’s the hot item this holiday season.) There’s even a new movie in the works from Michael Bay, due out in 2014.  Turns out these ass-kicking, pizza-loving turtles still have major shell-ing power. (Yes, I went there.)

But diehard fans think the remakes are, well, totally bogus. Aside from the fact that the TV show features slick computer animation and the movie will have a new origin story (the turtles will come from another planet, rather than a puddle of radioactive ooze), there’s also a new catch phrase on the block.

Fans went ballistic when the classic ‘cowabunga’ was seemingly kicked to the curb in favor of ‘booyakasha.’ So what gives?  Well, the show’s executive producer explained it like this to Entertainment Weekly:  “There was a lot of talk about what the new ‘cowabunga’ was, or whether it should even remain ‘cowabunga’.” They hadn’t actually thought of a word to replace it yet, but the actor who voices Michelangelo started riffing — and ‘booyakasha’ just sort of stuck.

The show’s execs claim that ‘cowabunga’ could still make its way back into the turtles’ vocabulary — but should it? The word ‘cowabunga’ actually dates back to the 1950s, when it was popularized by The Howdy Doody Show. It evolved into a surfing catchphrase and rose to prominence in the late 1980s, when California surfing culture pervaded national pop culture and regularly spawned new catchphrase. ‘Booyakasha’ is decidedly a word of the 2000s with notably different roots (it’s often associated with Ali G).

As a child of the 80s, I’m not crazy about all the remakes — I’d rather see new stories being told. And why replace Patrick Swayze or Kevin Bacon when they danced their asses off so perfectly in some of the biggest hits of the 80s? But my feeling is, if you’re going to remake a movie, don’t just take the exact same script and plunk fresh faces into the leads — really remake it. Modernize it, find a new angle, set it in a different era, and yes, even play with language to translate it into something that meshes with contemporary culture. After all, we do it with Shakespeare — so why not with nunchuk-wielding reptiles?

Why words like lolz, ridic and mwahahaha make it into the Oxford English Dictionary

© artenot - Fotolia.comLast month, the Oxford English Dictionary revealed its latest buzz-inducing list of new words to enter the revered reference guide. This time, words like lolz, hackathon, ridic, and group hug made the cut (see the full list at Oxford Dictionaries Online).

Every time this happens (which is four times a year, FYI), there’s a slew of articles, blog posts and quippy TV pieces that express a mixture of outcry, bafflement and sheer amusement at the latest additions. How could mwahahaha become a real word… in the dictionary?! We tend to think of dictionaries as the end-all and be-all of language. If it’s not in the dictionary, then it’s not a real word… right?

Well, it turns out dictionaries — like language itself — are dynamic and very much alive.  Rather than being rigid and prescriptive texts, they’re a reflection of humans’ relationship with language.  As some words fall out of favor (so long, growlery), others make their way into daily usage (hello, sexting).

In previous years, OMG-worthy entries have included jiggy, bling, woot and <3. We get bent out of shape because we feel these words haven’t yet proven their staying power to enter something as venerated as a dictionary. But nothing compared to the uproar caused last year when cassette tape was ruthlessly slashed to make room for words like retweet. Did this mean that the cassette tape was effectively being erased from our language — and our history?!

Well, no. Casette tape actually got removed from the Concise OED — this is a mini version of the full OED that’s meant to represent the current vocabulary of the English-speaking world.The full Oxford English Dictionary continues to be one of the most respected, comprehensive, and expensive guides to pretty much every word in our language. There, words like casette tape and video jockey continue to live on (and of course, the ’80s continue to live on in our hearts)…

You can also still find these words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, what TIME Magazine called “the hipper and more adaptable young cousin of the venerable OED.” Its role is actually tracking language trends and adding words as they reach a tipping point of daily usage. There are even different editions for U.S. English vs. British & World English. If you’re interested in how words make the cut, you can see the ODO’s infographic explaining the process. A word doesn’t actually enter the “real” OED until after it’s proven itself worthy over a long period of time.

The OED has long been considered the premier dictionary of our language. And while some of the new entries to the online edition seem silly (personally, I don’t think “getting voted off the island” deserves an entry) I respect that they continue to stay on the cutting edge of language. To be fair, other dictionaries like Merriam-Webster also regularly update their word lists (this year they added f-bomb and mash-up, for example). But for word nerds like me, the OED remains the ultimate. For a better understanding of why, I highly recommend Simon Winchester’s book, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Turns out you have to be a little loopy to want to create a record of, well, the meaning and history of every word in the English language… ever.

So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — the Oxford Dictionaries Online is sponsoring a contest for the best 50-word story inspired by the most recent additions (you could win an iPod Touch). That’s right, an iPod. Because while Walkman may have entered the OED in 1986, it got the Concise OED kibosh long ago. Who knew a dictionary could make you feel so old?

The Romney campaign debacle and the evolution of a ‘shitstorm’

© Ben Chams - Fotolia.comYou’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the secret video showing Mitt Romney wailing about how 47% of the country will never vote for him. Poor Mitt. The video made me think a lot of things about America, but in particular, it reminded me about a very special word in the English language.

Earlier this year, linguists in Germany voted the word ‘shitstorm’ one of English’s greatest gifts to the German language. As German newspaper The Local reported, “Shitstorm fills a gap in the German vocabulary that has become apparent through changes in the culture of public debate… Established German words, such as Kritik (criticism), were simply not descriptive enough.”

Apparently scheisse, German for ‘excrement,’ just didn’t have the same “oomph” when it came to talking about the European financial crisis. But as Michael Lewis noted in his 2011 Vanity Fair piece on Germany, “the German word for ‘shit’ performs a vast number of bizarre linguistic duties—for instance, a common German term of endearment was once ‘my little shit bag.'” It’s no surprise, then, that they were so taken by the word ‘shitstorm.’

So what is a shitstorm? Well, putting the literal definition aside, the jury of German linguists defined it as “a public outcry, primarily on the Internet, in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction.” This adds a new spin to the older Oxford Dictionaries definition, which is simply “a situation marked by violent controversy.”

Indeed, regardless of your politics, the current brouhaha surrounding the Romney campaign fits both definitions of shitstorm. It is undoubtedly a situation marked by fury and controversy (that is, Romney verbally spewing a big pile of scheisse about 47% of the electorate that even many Republicans have to disagree with). It’s also a shitstorm in the German sense, in that the Internet played a major roll in causing public outcry to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction from Romney.

Still, despite the German adoption and evolving of ‘shitstorm,’ in my mind, it’s still very much a word unique to the English language. One of my favorite aspects of American (er, and British) culture is the flexibility of the language that allows us to create compound words to describe new phenomena with ease — like cybercast, brainstorm, or hellcat. This gives us the ability to make up words with nuanced cadences and connotations that say just what we mean. For example, a shitshow (a display of incompetence) is not the same thing as a shitstorm (widespread outcry and controversy that’s difficult to control).

We’re constantly making up compound words like this in our daily lives, even if they don’t have formal definitions. For example, we’ll add “-fest” to the end of anything to indicate “a gathering or celebration” — nerd-fest, food-fest, tech-fest, etc. It’s no wonder, then, that our compounds make their way into other languages, where they express concepts for which there are no single words. The Germans also took a liking to “stresstest,” and France’s L’Académie Française tried unsuccessfully to strike “le week-end” from daily usage (it just flows off the tongue better than le fin de semaine). Of course, we have a big debt to German, French, and a host of other languages for some pretty choice words, too.

So while critics might say that Romney lacks foreign policy experience, at least now he can say that thanks to his ‘shitstorm,’ he’s participated in a German-American cross-cultural exchange.

From Apple to Ikea, product names that get lost in translation

Apple announced the highly-anticipated iPhone5 yesterday, along with a slew of other new products, sending gadget geeks into a tizzy.

Before major events like this, the Apple store is always taken offline — and restored immediately after the launch of its shiniest new toy, complete with all the sexy specs and details. It’s a smart practice for a company whose every move is watched, analyzed, debated, criticized, or romanticized, depending on whom you ask.

Apple last announced a new iPhone (the 4S) in October 2011, when we were introduced to Siri — the voice-activated virtual assistant with eerily profound answers to “Where can I get a burrito?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” Still, critics pounced on the fact that “Siri” sounds awkwardly similar (though not exactly the same) as the word for buttocks in Japanese. Oops.

The fact is, product names don’t always translate well across cultures, and these kinds of blunders are becoming a growing trend as consumer goods spread across the globe like wildfire.We latch onto these examples because they’re a simple, funny way to illustrate the challenges we all face with language and understanding as the world becomes smaller. Certainly, Apple’s not alone in trying to tackle this.

Another famous example you may have heard is the Chevy Nova. As the story goes, the car was a huge flop in Latin America in the ’70s because no va means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. It’s even been cited in marketing textbooks as a classic example of a product name that doesn’t translate well in foreign markets. More recently, this has been debunked as something of a myth, and while the Nova may not have been a hit in Spanish-speaking markets, it wasn’t exactly a flop either.  Of course, what is true is that Toyota changed the name of the MR2 to MR for its French market, so it didn’t sound quite so much like merde.

These examples pale in comparison to Ikea, which has had so many product name mishaps, you could practically write a book on them. You almost have to wonder if at this point, it’s a conscious part of their marketing strategy to garner attention. After all, the Fartfull workbench and the Jerker desk haven’t seemed to stop consumers from flocking to their stores.

There are so many examples of translation pitfalls in today’s global economy, it’s impossible to list them all here (Huffington Post has a good roundup of the top 11, if you’re curious and in the mood for a chuckle — not even Pepsi and KFC are safe). The phenomenon’s even the subtext of the Broadway play Chinglish, which tells the story of an American businessman from a sign company, trying to win business in China. It highlights the hilarious, confusing, and occasionally offensive translations that happen from Chinese to English (and vice versa) despite our best intentions to try and understand each other.

It turns out there’s a reason why cultural communication firms are on the rise. Before breaking into a market, the smart thing for companies to do is consult native speakers who’ve been fully-immersed in the culture in question. For example, I might speak decent Hindi, but I can’t possibly understand the cultural context of northern India in the same way as someone who’s grown up there and can identify potentially embarrassing slang, double meanings, or homophones.

The way I see it, it’s better to swallow your pride now rather than find out later your translation has accidentally caused a major scandal.

FAQ: What’s up with South Asians and spelling bees, and what the heck is a “bee” anyway?

© Paul Maguire - Fotolia.comSyamantak Payra spelled his way to the top last week at the 5th annual MetLife South Asian Spelling Bee, winning the championship with the word “dghaisa.”

Now, you’re probably thinking two things. First, what in the world is a “dghaisa”? Well, apparently it’s a Maltese boat similar to a gondola. Yeah, I didn’t know either. Second, you’re probably wondering why South Asian Americans seem to have taken such a shining to spelling bees (the last five winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee are all of South Asian descent, and now the community even has its own spelling bee circuit). As a South Asian American who happens to love spelling, I thought I’d take a stab at this one.

In my years of pondering this topic, I’ve read a number of interesting theories and been asked some pretty hilarious questions on why the South Asian American community has fallen head over heels for spelling bees. Here’s my response to the FAQs:

Are spelling bees big in India? What the heck is a bee anyway?
Despite what some people might think, no, spelling bees aren’t really a thing in India. In fact, spelling bees are very much an American phenomenon. According to the Scripps National Spelling Bee website, the first recorded usage of the phrase “spelling bee” was in the U.S. in 1875, but the etymology of the word is a bit of a mystery. Most sources suggest the term “bee”  for a communal gathering is a reference to the insect (being busy or social like a bee), but this is just a theory.

Is there something about Indian culture that makes people go crazy for spelling?
Um, no. I love spelling, but I can’t speak for a billion people. I never entered a major spelling bee and my non-South Asian best friend always trounced me at the school bee.

Yes, rote memorization is emphasized in the Indian education system, but that’s a total oversimplification of both the education system and spelling. In my opinion, good spelling isn’t actually rote memorization. Nobody can memorize every word in the language, especially since so many words we use aren’t actually English. You have to learn how to recognize the root of a word and the rules that come into play as a result (that’s why being bilingual can provide an advantage). Second, the kids competing in this bee might have South Asian parents, but they grow up in America. And when they’re standing in front of a microphone trying to spell “logorrhea,” they’re on their own.

Lastly, I’m not a fan of the “but Indians make their kids study so hard” argument for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here because that’s an essay. If you’re interested, you can read more about why I have a beef with the model minority stereotype.

You still haven’t answered my question. Why spelling bees?
Okay, okay. Here goes. James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds, offered up the simplest yet most convincing reason in his 2006 interview that aired on the PBS NewsHour:

“Indian-Americans are very, very strong at the bee. And, of course, an Indian-American boy won in 1985, and I think it inspired a lot of immigrant pride. I think recent Indian immigrants said to themselves, ‘Well, if one of our own can win this quintessentially American contest, then we really want to be, you know, interested in this.’ So Indian-Americans put a lot of emphasis on it.”

In other words, South Asian Americans saw somebody that looked like them win the spelling bee and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” Mind you, 1985 was before South Asians had risen to national prominence in the U.S. It was just two years before the Dotbusters committed a spree of hate crimes against South Asians in Jersey City, and Indians were often the butt of jokes in TV and movies. I can’t emphasize enough how empowering it must’ve been to see a fellow South Asian American excel at something — anything — on the national stage.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to South Asian Americans and spelling bees either. In Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, there’s actually an entire section of the book called “If she can do it, why can’t I?” Coyle answers the question of why so many Russian women were dominating tennis all of a sudden, or why a slew of South Korean women golfers were joining the LPGA tour. The reason is that talent hotbeds developed when a single star rose to prominence and prompted others to say, “If she can do it, why can’t I?” To us, it looks like a sudden, strange anomaly. In actuality, it’s a slow and steady climb.

So there you have it. The more South Asian American kids win the National Spelling Bee, the more other South Asian American kids become interested in trying to win it. Over time, the South Asian Spelling Bee circuit  has become the hotbed to nurture and grow talent. But it all started in 1985 with Balu Natarajan, a little luck, and the word “milieu.”