Hot words

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It is my solemn duty to call the attention of Language Log readers to a seriously deficient BBC article:

"China's rebel generation and the rise of 'hot words'", by Kerry Allen with additional reporting from Stuart Lau (8/10/18). 

Language Matters is a new column from BBC Capital exploring how evolving language will influence the way we work and live.

Even though the article annoyed me greatly, I probably wouldn't have written a post about it on the basis of the flimsy substance of the last 23 paragraphs were it not for the outrageous first paragraph, which really requires refutation.

Before I dissect the first paragraph, however, I need to point out the erroneous premises built into the capsule description of this new series following the title of the article.

All right, "Language Matters" is cutesy, what with the dual nounal and verbal meanings of the second word, but it's too closely modeled on some current politically sensitive slogans for comfort.  Then I'm troubled by the future tense of "will influence".  Neither the present article nor any other article about "evolving language" that I can imagine will be able to predict the way we live and work in the future.  It's hard enough just to figure out how the current stage of a language reflects the way we are living and working in the present.

Now, moving on to the disastrous first paragraph:

Mandarin Chinese is one of the most complex languages in the world. Opening a Chinese dictionary, you find around 370,000 words. That's more than double the number of words in the Oxford English dictionary, and almost three times those in French and Russian dictionaries.

The initial sentence is incredibly lame. It says nothing.  Flunk.

All languages are complex in one way or another:  phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax… — you name it.  If it's a real language that people rely on for all of their needs and transactions, it's bound to be as complicated as life itself.  To tell the truth, I've always felt that Mandarin is one of the simplest and easiest languages I've ever learned.  See, inter alia, "Difficult languages and easy languages" (3/4/17) — I still owe Language Log readers the results of the survey taken in that post; I have all the data, just need to type them up.

The second sentence is worse.  The number of words in a language is no index of its complexity.  The active spoken vocabulary of most people is not going to exceed much more than about 5,000 words and they might use twice that amount in their writing.  Unless their name is William F. Buckley, Jr. or they are someone extremely rare like him, even highly educated people are unlikely to have more than 20,000 words in their spoken vocabulary and 40,000 or so words in their written vocabulary.  Shakespeare knew and used 31,534 words, though he probably knew in addition to that amount another 35,000 or so words, but didn't include them in his published works, making a total of around 65,000 words.

Even if "Chinese" really did have 370,000 words, that wouldn't tell us anything about vocabulary size for individuals.  But "Chinese" doesn't have 370,000 words.  The authors must have gotten their fantastical figure of 370,000 from the number of entries in Hànyǔ Dà Cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sintic) (1986-1994), but that is a dictionary based on historical principles, and most of its entries are no longer current.  It's hugely misleading to casually speak of "Opening a Chinese dictionary" in this instance, since Hànyǔ Dà Cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sintic) isn't just any old, typical "Chinese" dictionary.  For Sinitic, it's the closest thing to an equivalent of the OED, requiring the mobilization of more than a thousand researchers over a period of nearly two decades for its compilation.

The 7th edition (2016) of the Xiàndài Hànyǔ Cídiǎn 现代汉语词典 (Dictionary of Contemporary Sinitic), the standard and most authoritative dictionary of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), has around 70,000 entries.  That fits comfortably in the realm of vocabulary size for highly educated individuals that I described above.

Now, to assert that "Chinese" has more than double the number of words in the Oxford English dictionary" is both bad mathematics and contrary to fact — even if we accept the fictitious claim that MSM has 370,000 words, which it most certainly does not.

"How many words are there in the English language?" from the Oxford Dictionaries website (see especially the last paragraph):

There is no single sensible answer to this question. It's impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it's so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?

It's also difficult to decide what counts as 'English'. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don't take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

Enough said on that score.  Now what about the other 23 paragraphs of the article, which is what it's really about — rè cí 热词 ("hot words")?  In a word, it's all very confused and confusing, muddled at best.  I pity anyone unfamiliar with Chinese who slogs through it, because they will be flooded with misinformation, imprecision, and obfuscation about what the language is today and how it works.

The article is a veritable mess.

The authors do offer a fair number of more or less clever paraphrase translations like "freedamn" for Zhōngguó tèsè zìyóu 中国特色自由 ("freedom with Chinese characteristics") and "smilence" for xiào ér bù yǔ 笑而不语 ("laugh without speaking"), though some of these are flops, and one doesn't always know where they come from.  Furthermore, they instance a lot of "hot words" — some of which (such as "niubility") are decidedly cool by now — without translating them or giving an idea of what they mean.

Jonathan Smith, in calling this article to my attention, notes:

…[T]he weird thing is the screwed-up non-translations….

An important point that is not made clear is whether these "hot words" are Chinese with English glosses, English with Chinese glosses or some combination…. I suppose "Chinsumers (zàiwài fēngkuáng gòuwù de Zhōngguó rén 在外疯狂购物的中国人)", "departyment (zhèngfǔ bùmén 政府部门)", "innernet (Zhōngguó hùliánwǎng 中国互联网)", etc., are the latter but with no attempt whatsoever at marking the puns within the Chinese translations… whereas "harmany (Zhōngguó tèsè héxié 中国特色和谐)" is the former with a (bad) attempt at marking the funny in English… etc.

The most valuable aspects of the article are how netizens use rè cí 热词 ("hot words") to circumvent China's ubiquitous internet censors.  But I'm afraid that this point will be lost in the welter of bewilderment that suffuses the entire piece, from beginning to end.


  1. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

    Some of these words might have come from this article in 2010 by one "Miffy":

    It has exactly the same "is this English or is this Chinese?" mixup. From the list, though, it looks like the ENGLISH words are being used in Chinese! More grist for the digraphia mill!


    eggache 蛋疼

    Smilence 笑而不语

    Togayther 终成眷属

    shitizen 屁民

    Halfyuan 五毛

    vegeteal 偷菜

    yakshit 亚克西

    animale 男人天性

    niubility 牛逼

    antizen 蚁民

    stupig 笨猪

    Z-turn 折腾

    Don'train 动车

    Foulsball 中国足球

    Freedamn 自由

    geliable 给力

    ungeliable 不给力

    Democrazy 痴心妄想

    Innernet 中国互联网


    Chinsumer 在国外疯狂购物的中国人

    Emotionormal 情绪稳定

    Sexretary 女秘书

    canclensor 审查

    Wall· e 防火墙

    围观 Circusee

    corpspend 捞尸费

    suihide 躲猫猫



    stuck market 股市


    Gambller 干部

    Goveruption 政府

    Harmany 河蟹

    Profartssor 叫兽

    To be a "in" chinese you must remember these words.
    If you are a foreigner in China you maybe know what are these means.

    End of quote.

    'Innernet' is actually a word in the Chinese Internet community:

    (From Baidu Zhidao):

    Innernet 内联网
    n. a restricted computer network connecting other approved networks and computers in certain regions or countries like China, Iran, Vietnam etc.
    ie. "What is Yake Lizard what is Yake Lizard, ah? Innernet is Yake Lizard!" “什么亚克蜥?啊 什么亚克蜥?内联网就是亚克蜥!”

  2. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:14 pm

    Proper link for that was: You must know these words

    Translation of the second article:

    'Innernet' is an English word with Chinese characteristics created by netizens. Interpretation as follows:

    n. a restricted computer network connecting other approved networks and computers in certain regions or countries like China, Iran, Vietnam etc.

    What is yakexi (Uyghur for 'good')? Ah, what yakexi? The innernet is yakexi.

    (亚克蜥 Yàkèxī = Yake Lizard = Yakexi = Good)

  3. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:15 pm

    Link got lost….

  4. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

    Still missed an angle.

    Yakexi = 'Good' (Uyghur)

    Yakexi = 亚克西 = yakshit
    Yakexi = 亚克蜥 = Yake lizard

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:43 pm

    Bathrobe's list is interesting. Many are actually newish Chinese slang/weblang terms (蛋疼 五毛 偷菜 亚克西 牛逼 蚁民 [不]给力…) with "just for fun" English translations.

    But with the larger list it is clear that others are a different kind of joke viz. as Bathrobe suggests, the creation was in English and serves to re-cast widely used Chinese bureaucratic-speak terms with a "so-called/air-quotes" flavor, e.g., Foulsball, Freedamn, Innernet, Departyment are designed to suggest [所谓的/号称]中国足球/自由/中国互联网/有关部门, etc.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

    And some are both, like:

    shitizen 屁民 (fart citizen = worthless citizen).

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

    Before Bathrobe posted his second, third, and fourth comments, I was already preparing the following.


    I just let my eyes wander down the list Bathrobe posted, and the first word I noticed was yàkèxī 亚克西, which I instantly recognized as the Chinese transcription of Uyghur yaxshi / ياخشى /йахши ("good"). It's the one Uyghur word that almost every Han in Xinjiang knows.

    Never mind that Miffy??? or somebody (see below) has transcribed that into "Yakshit". What gets even more bizarre is that yaxshi / ياخشى /йахши > yàkèxī 亚克西 is further transformed into the mythical dragon called the Yàkè Xī 亚克蜥 ("Yax lizard" or "Jacques lizard").

    As explained in Wikipedia (


    It is named after the Xinjiang musical dance program "Happy life Yaxshi" (Chinese: 幸福生活亚克西; pinyin: Xìngfú Shēnghuó Yàkèxī, formerly "The Party's Policy Yaxshi") in the CCTV Spring Festival's Gala 2010. In the program, singers and dancers sing praises of how happy their life is, with the chorus line of, "What is yakexi? What is yakexi? The Chinese Communist Party's policies are yakexi."

    Blogger Han Han said that Yax lizards live in the area between Gurbantünggüt Desert and Irtysh River, north to Dzungaria, Xinjiang. They eat snails and even mice. They also arrive the riverine area of Irtysh River to eat dead fishes, river crabs, frogs and so on every year from April to June.

    Han Han held a contest on his blog asking for submissions of alternative lyrics to the song, keeping the original chorus line of "What is yakexi? What is yakexi? The Chinese Communist Party's policies are yakexi." Submissions included lyrics mocking the original song by describing things such as bad housing situations and high tuition prices.

    To demonstrate their dissatisfaction towards Chinese government's propaganda, some netizens name the species as "Yakshit" by the Chinese character's pronunciation.


    I suppose that there are similar stories for most of the other terms on the list.

  8. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 1:23 am

    Brings to minds another BBC article on language:

    I pointed out to the author that the Hungarian "pihent agyú" literally translates as 'sy with a rested brain', but actually means 'idiot'. He said he would try to have the item edited, but it's still their as a testament to his research skills and linguistic prowess.

    These type of stories probably explain why Hungarians express 'fake news' as "angol tudósok megállapították . . ." which means "British scientists have established that . . .".

  9. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 1:27 am

    Another victim of Muphry's law: swap 'their' for 'there' in that last comment.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 1:35 am

    Tim Lomas gives this at his list:

    Pihentagyú. adj. / piːhɛn.tæʒ.juː / pee-hen-tazj-yoo. With a relaxed brain; being quick-witted and sharp; can sometimes be used pejoratively (implying insufficient deployment of mental resources/attention); more positively may also denote someone who can connect ideas in unusual or creative ways.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 3:30 am

    / piːhɛn.tæʒ.juː /

    Is that some kind of attempt to shoehorn it into the English sound system? In Hungarian, a is [ɒ] (or [ɑ] for some), and gy is the palatal plosive [ɟ], not a fricative or even an affricate. Also, i is short and more or less [ɪ]; to get [iː], you need í.

    * [ʒ] is common in Hungarian, and spelled zs.

  12. ~flow said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 6:11 am

    @David Marjanović I thought the same and I'm happy my memory didn't fail me on this one. It totally escapes me why Americans who can and do pronounce sth close to [ɒ]/[ɑ] and [ᴐ] then go and make an [æ] out of every foreign 'a' they see.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    I know very little about the phonology of Hungarian (apart from the fact that if one enters Hungary from a Slavonic-speaking country, one needs to remember that the two phonologies are almost completely different, and that (e.g.,) Szombathely is pronounced in a way that very few could predict) and therefore as a British-English native speaker I would probably have rendered "pihentagyú" with the "tag" elements as in <Br.E> but I was intrigued on listening to to note the distinct tonal pattern. I think that Hungarian is not classed as a tonal language, so what should I infer from the tones used in the recording ?

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 9:04 am

    Then I'm troubled by the future tense of "will influence".

    I think you’re the only LL contributor who analyses will constructions as a future tense!

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    From a colleague:

    It’s not fully clear to me, but I don’t think it’s actually the BBC behind this. “BBC Capital” (see the home page at seems to be a website set up by a commercial company without using any BBC money, but used (through advertising, I presume, though I can’t find any ads) to help fund BBC news reporting. It certainly isn’t a direct voice of the BBC organization itself.

    That said, hit them hard; I hate these “isn’t language cool” articles produced by 22-year-old interns without consulting any linguists.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 9:38 am

    That is not how I read it. What the site says is "This website is produced by BBC Global News Ltd, a commercial company owned by the BBC". It would be hard, would it not, for the BBC to "own" BBC Global News Ltd without making a very serious financial investment in it ? Furthermore, the BBC legal team would police the use of the abbreviation "BBC" like hawks, and therefore very unlikely to allow its use by any organisation over which they (the BBC, that is, not its legal team) did not have total control.

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 9:50 am

    There's an explanation of what "Capital" is about here:

    I can't say I've ever heard of it before, and the wording is a little odd – the BBC aren't usually so explicit or definitive about their target audience. I'm not surprised they're pledging not to fund it using licence fees.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 10:54 am

    (Via VHM) "That said, hit them hard; I hate these “isn’t language cool” articles produced by 22-year-old interns without consulting any linguists".
    To be honest, that concerns me less than the fact that if I (or you, or anyone else) wishes to challenge any of the so-called "facts" that permeate and characterise this site, I (and you, and anyone else) cannot do so — instead, we have to "head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter". Why, for God's sake ? Why should I (we) be forced to use social media (which I detest) in order to comment on something published by the BBC on a BBC-owned web site ?

  19. Thomas Rees said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 11:35 am

    @Philip Taylor The BBC don’t want us to challenge them because we’re older than 45. They also got rid of comments on "The Archers”. I’m on Facebook but I don’t like it.

  20. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    Bathrobe, I have no idea who Tim Lomas is, but what I am absolutely sure of is that he, like yourself, speaks little to no Hungarian.

    Moreover, who on earth would use English language sources to understand a word in a foreign language? Particularly those words which have become sucked into a self-perpetuating internet meme vortex.

    Let's instead go to some more creditable sources, in Hungarian: the office of the "Hungarian Language Services" (Magyar Nyelvi Szolgáltató Iroda), for example. They have very conveniently compiled a list of variations on words for nonsense / stupidity: You will note that "pihent agyú" is amongst them.

    Also note that it is not one word—as you, the BBC, and Tim Lomas insist on writing it—but two. Unlike English the orthographic rules for how to write words is extremely strict in Hungarian and involves counting syllables, word form (adjective or noun) and plenty of other things.

    If you search on synonyms of pihent agyú you find this:

    Again, nothing at all positive and everything to do with being dipsy, not all there, being one sandwich short of a picnic, mentally challenged, a bit thick, not quick to catch on, etc.

    Show me a Hungarian source that contradicts anything I have said (and please stay away from English ones).

    NB. a secondary, though less common, meaning can be for someone who tells corny, longwinded jokes all the time. But then, even many Hungarians haven't heard of it used in that way.

  21. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

    Please do not shoot the messenger. Tim Lomas is the person at the University of East London who was mentioned in the article you linked to — the one who is running the Positive Lexicography Project that "aims to capture the many flavours of good feelings (some of which are distinctly bittersweet) found across the world, in the hope that we might start to incorporate them all into our daily lives".

    I have no stake in this battle and, as you pointed out, know no Hungarian, but I was curious to see whether Lomas had taken any notice of your correction. I downloaded his rather large list of words from around the world to see what he had done about "pihent agyú". The result is what I posted. As you can see, I was not quoting some random English-language source to contradict you. I was pointing out that he had, in a half-hearted, protesting, but-it-really-does-mean-quick-witted-people-who-can-come-up-with-sophisticated-jokes-or-solutions sort of way, incorporated your suggestion.

  22. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 2:42 pm

    And my apologies for not making all this clear at my post.

  23. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

    Bathrobe, fair points all. Following which I managed to track down the document you refer to, and it hasn't helped. I'm just nonplussed to know what to say regarding his comments/explanations of Hungarian words.

    First to deal with his choices, then I'll make one suggestion he could have included that would have fitted his fairly nebulous criteria.

    He offers three words/phrases, the second of which we have already discussed above. His first choice is "pertu" which he describes thus: "Pertu. n. / ˈpeə.ty / pear-too. Lit. by/for you; a drinking or bonding ritual (signifying the establishment or maintenance of friendship)." There is so much wrong with this that it really hurts. First on pronunciation: there are no diphthongs in Hungarian. It is syllable timed and pretty much everything is said as spelt (ignoring basic assimilation of /n/ to /m/ and such). The Hungarian "r" is an alveolar trill [r], somewhere between the Scots and Spanish "r"s, but distinct from both. Regarding meaning, pertu is actually to signal a switch to the familiar/friendly form of register (i.e. may I call thou 'thee'?), as described here: This is often negotiated as a temporary agreement over a drink at a works' party, but it is not a ritual and there are plenty of social rules about who is allowed to initiate this. I wouldn't remotely associate this with 'happiness' in any loose sense of the English word. As the entry above notes, "pertu" comes from the Latin "per tu". Perhaps more importantly, this is a fairly uncommon and overeducated way to referring to what most Hungarians know as "tegeződik" (verb) or "tegeződés" (noun).

    The last offering from Hungarian is "sírva vigad", which is explained as: "Sirva vigad. v. / ʃiːrvɒ vigɒd / sheer-va vig-od. Lit. crying, weeping (sirva), rejoicing, merrymaking (vigad); taking one's pleasures tearfully; a melancholic intermingling of joy and sorrow." I'd just start by noting that "sírva" is spelt with an i-acute "í" not the English "i". In terms of meaning, he has got the Hungarian temperament completely wrong. This is not some sort of bitter-sweet saudade kind of gush. It is closer to rejoicing in misery. This is not happiness in any English sense. As this article points out: (discussing various linguistic and cultural factors unique to Hungarian), if a Hungarian unexpectedly finds themselves emotionally moving towards the positive end of the affective spectrum, they will seek solace in yearning for disaster and misery. The phrase often used is "sírva vigad a magyar”, which is more like "A Hungarian is only happy when they are miserable", taking comfort in loss.

    Finally, I would have suggested "meghitt" as a really positive Hungarian word. Okay we already have hygge and Gemütlichkeit (though most people forgot or didn't know about the latter loan word because it's probably too hard to spell), but this is slightly broader in meaning (adding intimate, familiar, restive to snug, homely, geniality).

  24. Bathrobe said,

    August 11, 2018 @ 9:43 pm

    I was curious and checked out his Japanese and Chinese. Several points I noticed are:

    His pronunciations are highly unprofessional. Sometimes they are extremely narrow IPA pronunciations, sometimes they are extremely crude and inaccurate anglicisations. 'Zen' is /zẽ̞ɴ/ but 'ohanami' is /əʊ.hæ.næ.mi/!

    The meanings he gives are sometimes accurate, sometimes emphasise certain aspects or usages of the original word, and sometimes distort or miss the original meaning. 'Xīn kǔ' (辛苦), which means 'hard, tough, exhausting' in Chinese, is given as 'Appreciation and recognition for others and their efforts'. Well, it does, but only if you say 辛苦了 Xīn kǔ le to someone as a term of appreciation (it means 'That was hard/exhausting for you').

    His choice of words is eclectic, one might say eccentric, ranging from old chestnuts of philosophy and aesthetics to perfectly normal everyday words, such as Xìng fú (幸福) from Chinese, which pretty just means 'happiness', but which he explains as 'Fortunate (xìng) blessing (fú); contentment; deep happiness; blessedness'.

    He seems to be attracted by the exotic, the different, the bittersweet, the profound … It is exoticising at its worst.

    I don't think it worth seriously pursuing this. It appears to be his own personal pet project but he lacks the linguistic sophistication to go about it. I may be uncharitable, but despite his sincerity, I would write it off as a crackpot exercise.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 3:24 am

    I think that Hungarian is not classed as a tonal language, so what should I infer from the tones used in the recording ?

    I can't listen to the recording right now, but I can point out that Hungarian not only lacks phonemic tones, it is one of the least melodious languages out there in terms of the pitch range of ordinary speech, having a smaller range even than German. In my very limited experience, there's two-pitch Hungarian and three-pitch Hungarian; the former has high pitch for all stressed and low pitch for all unstressed syllables (no matter how many of them are in sequence – many words are long, and the stress always goes on the first syllable), the latter adds yet higher pitch for sentence-level stress.

    On the other hand, English in general and British English perhaps in particular uses a very large pitch range. Try that in German, and people just might ask why you've spontaneously begun to sing!

    I think you’re the only LL contributor who analyses will constructions as a future tense!

    I'm fine with this, though: the construction is grammaticalized enough to count as a tense for my taste. Of course this requires analysing going to constructions as another future tense.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 5:25 am

    (David M.) Thank you. Your explanation fits perfectly with what I hear. All but the first syllable are at (notional) middle-C, while the first syllable is at (notional) A-above-middle-C, and the opening /piː/ (of what I hear as /piː-hen-tɒ-dʒu/) does indeed appear stressed.

  27. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 2:00 am

    @David –

    In case you didn’t see the Anoop Sarkar paper that Mark Liberman linked to in this post on the will construction, it’s:

    Not sure it will convince you but it gives an excellent account of the best arguments on both sides, before coming down against a tense analysis.

  28. Mark S. said,

    August 13, 2018 @ 9:11 am

    I'm so glad you took this one on, Victor. I hope people at the BBC see this post and work to ensure that future installments of Language Matters are much more carefully researched.

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