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The new words that expose our smartphone obsessions

Are you a phubber or a smombie? You're almost certainly a member of the bowed head tribe. New phrases can skewer our smartphone obsessions, says Tom Chatfield

New words sometimes skewer a trend so perfectly you wonder how you survived without them. One of the most delightfully apt new phrases I’ve found in the last few years is a Chinese term: dī tóu zú (低頭族), literally the “bowed head tribe”.

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Who does it describe? The people we see every day on city streets – or don’t, because we’re a member of the tribe ourselves – their heads lowered, gazing at their phones.

It’s a wittier, more vivid description than “smartphone addict”. In tapping into the language of social types rather than medical pathology, it also feels a lot closer to our lived experience.

 

And if you belong to the bowed head tribe, you’re probably an honorary member of the mǔ zhǐ zú (拇指) or “thumb tribe” too: someone whose two-digit tapping never stops. That term originated in Japan, where belonging to oyayubizoku (拇指族) – the “clan of the thumbs” – was first coined to describe teenagers better at text messaging than talking.

Competing notions of etiquette and appropriate behaviour are bubbling over into everyday speech

Like many social labels, these terms suggest disapproval of their subject, together with a wary recognition that change is afoot. Competing notions of etiquette and appropriate behaviour are bubbling over into everyday speech: an inter-tribal tension echoed across East Asian languages, as the Language Log blog has explored in some depth.

Are there Western equivalents? Two come to mind, although neither is quite as charming. The art of snubbing people by looking at your phone, even while you’re buying a cup of coffee or sitting together at a table, is known as “phubbing”. Short for “phone snubbing” the word was coined in 2012 by Australian ad agency McCann Melbourne as part of a dictionary promotion, which spawned a global “stop phubbing” campaign.

More sinister is the portmanteau “smombie”, short for “smartphone zombie” and used to describe a mindlessly strolling pedestrian whose attention is consumed by their device. Crowned Youth Word of the Year in Germany in 2015 – despite its general use by older speakers as a despairing description of young people – it took on new urgency with the Pokemon Go craze this summer. Germany also boasts the distinction of installing some of the world’s first traffic lights in the pavement, designed to stop smombies walking out in front of a bus.

Terms of technological disapproval, conjured from hyperbolic hopes and fears, are as old as electronic communications

In a sense, none of this is new. Terms of technological disapproval, conjured from hyperbolic hopes and fears, are as old as electronic communications. When the telephone first arrived in American homes in the late 19th Century, it provoked both elation and despair.

For some, world peace was only a decade of international telephony away. For others, new forms of interaction meant new opportunities for addiction, timewasting and idle chat. Once again, new words needed to be found, and it was to the medical term “mania” that disconcerted commentators turned.

“The telephone maniacs,” began an article in the Chicago journal Western Electrician on 17 July 1897, “are usually men of leisure who have small appreciation of the value of time, and the more leisure they have the less hope there is for them, as far as cure is concerned… An unmistakable symptom of the disease is a desire to talk to people at distant points about all sorts of things at all hours of the day or night… The worst feature about the disease is that those who have it never realise that they are making themselves obnoxious, and, regardless of the hour or the pressure of business, they insist on telling long stories over the wire.”

Long stories may since have turned into bouts of Facebook likes, but the urge to pour attention into distant delights at the expense of your immediate environment is stronger than ever. Indeed, it’s a large part of the unfolding story of media, together with the challenge it poses to traditional ways of thinking about space, community and time.

What words will we need to describe someone walking through a cityscape adorned with augmented reality? And if you don’t need to bow your head to view your screen – if it’s built into glasses, worn as a contact lens or projected onto your retina – will anyone even be able to tell if they’re being phubbed?

By then, perhaps, we’ll need to specify not when our perceptions are machine-enhanced, but those rare times when they are not: when simply seeing what is under our noses demands a new word of its own.

Future Now

Tom Chatfield’s book exploring technology and language, Netymology, was published by Quercus US on 2 August.

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