Interview with Tony Thorne

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tony thorne

Tony Thorne is a British author, linguist and lexicographer specialised in slang, jargon and cultural history. He is a leading authority on language change and language usage in the UK and across the English-speaking world. From 1991 to 2007 he was Director of the Language Centre at King’s College London where he is now Visiting Consultant. He founded and oversees the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s, a library and database resource recording language change and tracking linguistic controversies. He has written and presented programmes on language and popular culture for BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service and is a regular contributor to media discussions of language controversies, communication technologies and lifestyle innovations. Most recently he has compiled lexicons of language relating to Brexit and populism and records and comments on new language associated with the Coronavirus pandemic.

1. Tony, you are an expert in contemporary slang, jargon and cultural history. To what extent do you think that words shape cultures and subcultures?

Words are only one of the various, multimodal semiotic resources that are involved in the acts of world-making and identity building that accompany the birth and development of subcultures and communities of practice. For wider cultural formations keywords are emblematic, resonant points of reference for insiders and outsiders alike as well as ‘entry-points’ for enquiry and analysis, and as such I think deserve more attention than they have been given (Wierzbicka is one who has promoted the notion, in for example Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words (1997): my The 100 Words That Make the English (2011) is a much less scholarly attempt). Having first defined words I still use a version of old-fashioned semantic componential analysis in trying to unpack their connotations and implications. Where appropriate I also practise a sort of ‘critical lexicography’ or ‘lexicology’ in going beyond the labelling of terms and tracing their histories to consider how and why they are used.

2. Nowadays, thanks to the socioterminology movement, there is a growing tendency to protest against universality and defend the plurality of language. What are your thoughts about it?

It’s no longer possible, except in certain local or microniche settings or when dealing with certain officially defined practices and codes, to see language as uniform or universal. Terminology and translation can only be approached as something context-dependent and user-specific. These are not new concepts or approaches – think of Bakhtin’s ‘heteroglossia’ and of all the implications of ‘superdiversity’, ‘multilingualism’, ‘code-switching’, ‘technolects’, etc. I think the translators and teminologists I collaborated with back in the 70s and 80s were acutely sensitive to these imperatives and implications, but we lacked a metalanguage – a ‘terminology’ with which to discuss them. Of course we also lacked the resources that linguists, lexicographers, translators and terminologist can now draw upon: resources which, despite their rapid proliferation and problems of prevalence and currency, in my own experience do serve to clarify rather than confuse.

3. Socioterminology addresses terminology as a phenomenon “effectively at the service of the society” (Rey 1988). Do you agree with Rey’s quote?

I do agree. As I mentioned I think that the precepts of socioterminology were grasped and its practices applied even before the term itself – and associated terms such as ‘localisation’ – began to be used. Language planning and standardization must include communication between different socioprofessional groups, and terminologies must be considered in the social contexts in which concepts appear, are defined and are named. As Rey and others observed, the transfer of ideas and information must not simply be from dominant economies and institutions to less influential recipients, but an interaction which empowers all the stakeholders.

4. One of the goals of terminology and translation is to facilitate linguistic and cultural mediation, wiping out linguistic ambiguity. How can we guarantee then that this proliferation of information reflects scientific, cultural and local/regional thinking?

This is a very challenging task, given the speed of technological and technical change and the range of cultures and practices involved. Coping with these depends on very close collaboration between experts and constant monitoring of all the platforms and outlets (not just the official ones) where new terms appear. Trying to do this as an isolated individual is (as I know in slightly different contexts) testing, not to say exhausting and is best approached (as I’m sure you will agree) with the backing of expert teams in well-funded institutions. Lexicographers, incidentally, still sometimes still have to resort to very old-fashioned methods: I’m thinking of my friend and colleague Jonathon Green who is single-handedly combing print archives, cuttings libraries and rare book collections as he expands his masterwork, Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

Language planning and standardization must include communication between different socioprofessional groups, and terminologies must be considered in the social contexts in which concepts appear, are defined and are named.

5. Let’s talk about how COVID-19 shaped our language. We are constantly adding new coined words and expressions to our spoken language. What have been the most significant changes to our language from a linguistic standpoint since the outbreak of the pandemic?

In tracking the new or repurposed terms appearing during the pandemic I noticed three distinct phases. The first involved the ‘medicalisation’ of public and private language by way of an influx of scientific, technical and strategic terms. The second was when ordinary people began to coin new terms themselves – often seemingly frivolous, but serving both to fill the gaps in the official narrative and to create a bond among struggling remote workers and home teachers  – to describe their experience of lockdown and restrictions. The third featured a combination of these, with the addition eventually of vocabulary relating to virus mutation, to vaccination and to possible exit strategies in adjusting to the ‘new normal’.

6. The Italian language for example was influenced by the English language during the pandemic. As a result, many Anglicisms have entered popular usage, sometimes causing confusion among the general audience. In this context, how can linguists and terminologists ensure transparent and mutually intelligible communication?

I have seen and been involved in very useful exchanges of information between colleagues – academic linguists, lexicographers, terminologists, translators – across the globe, officially and via social media – in attempts to keep track of new terminology and the adoption and translation of new terms into other languages. I know that in Italy Licia Corbolante, for instance, (whose interview is on this site) is doing a really excellent job in negotiating the influx of Anglicisms and novel technolects, as are Rodolfo Maslias, Isabella Massardo and many others with whom I’m in touch.

7. In your opinion, were there any media or social media that contributed the most to this language phenomenon?

In their reach and influence Anglophone media of all kinds still predominate. In disseminating new and ‘exotic’ anglicisms, I have even probably been guilty myself. Official websites and academic discussions are of course important sources of information, but I have found social media, particularly Twitter, to be a main driver in propagating change and exchange – and a better source than press and broadcast media for tracking its spread. This is especially true in monitoring the sort of language – much of it nonstandard, informal – that I am personally focusing on.

8. In a world led by new technological developments and social networks, how do terminologists monitor the growing number of newly coined words?

The big, regularly updated corpora (GloWBe and CORD-19 for example, and of course JRC-Aquis and the like) and smaller specialist databanks are essential resources, but terminologists also need to refine the (seemingly straightforward but actually demanding) skills of using search engines and learning how to access messaging, discussions, obscure reference sites, catalogues and archives. They then need to share their discoveries and insights.

9. You are currently collecting #coronaspeak via your website, Language and Innovation, and on Twitter. Besides that, are you involved in any interesting new projects?

Before the pandemic struck I was collecting examples of the new language of populism, Brexit and the media’s responses to these. I hoped that my lexicon and accompanying commentaries would be of help to researchers, teachers and students, and to journalists as well as providing an updated record for future consultation. I am still working on those glossaries of what I have called ‘weaponised words and toxic terminology’; expressions and usages which are notably ambivalent and/or designed to confuse, mislead and manipulate, and there are examples on that website where I also post on the latest language controversies and on etymology. Most recently I have looked at subjects as varied as the nomenclature and labelling of ethnicities, the nature of slurs, the multimodal expression of protest. In the meantime I am still curating my Archive of Slang and New Language at King’s College London and for a long time I have, somewhat reluctantly, worked on the more controversial language of youth: the street slang and cryptolects connected with crime and the way these are reflected in performance in, for example, rap and hip-hop musical genres. Despite my advanced age I seem to be one of the very few people with experience in this area and I have compiled glossaries of these varieties which I hope will be published before the end of 2021, and which are designed to assist youth workers, educators, parents and law enforcers as well as forensic linguists.


Written by Maria Carmen Staiano, Schuman Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit. She holds a Bachelor’s in Linguistic and Cultural Mediation and a Master’s in Specialized Translation at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. She has experience in translation technologies, project management and localisation.