One trending word, now happily used and proudly worn
By Bu Shikong
As a nation, we’re hardly ever affected by single words, nor pairs. Ex-Mediacorp stars can start a food business with the curse-turn-oxymoron Sibay Shiok, but no one’s undies are caught in a knot. When former military man, now SPH’s CEO, Ng Yat Chung indignantly brandished “umbrage”—twice!—in response to CNA reporter Chew Huimin’s question, many people are piqued. The uncle’s contempt at the press conference was, for sure, unmistakable. However, it was not just how garang he was that people reacted to, but the word choice (choice word?) as well. This morning, The Sunday Times reported that that one beautiful word very quickly led to a 200,000-plus searches on Google that day: what did Mr Ng really take? What was given? People were burning with curiosity.
In one Coconuts report I read, it was noted that “many Singaporeans have never even heard of the word until it got a mention at the company’s press conference…” With the Speak Good English Movement still running this year’s campaign, Let’s Connect, Let’s Speak Good English, on TV, that is hardly surprising. But the memes and jokes that emerged have somehow diluted the kau-ness of the fury. And the retailers that have been quick to turn this into a money-making opportunity have only made a word expressing no ordinary anger funny. Since yesterday morning, I have been inundated with photos of and links to the availability of T-shirts with ‘umbrage’ emblazoned across the chest, as well as marketing campaigns enjoying the use of what Asiaone called “word of the day”.
It is rather puzzling that the lead time for producing garments, bags, and cups could be this short. Clicking on a Lazada ad on my social media site, I was brought to a page of a selection of merchandise—six different pieces in all. There is a three-product ‘line’ known as “Umbrage Dictionary”, offered by sellers that appear to be in the digital printing business. Things the now-shuttered-for-good Naiise would have gladly taken in. When I looked closely at the images on the website, I could see that the U-word had been superimposed on the images of standard-issue crew-neck tees. This is likely a print-on-order product line, which could explain how they managed to put umbrage out almost as soon as Ng Yat Chung was susceptible enough take it. But I wonder if more umbrage would be taken if he has read how the seller’s lexicographer defined the word that had a nation talking and dissing.
Those who don’t find charm or humour in this meaning of the hot noun may aquire some other at the National Library. I always thought that our flagship public library is staid. Well, it isn’t. A new display to entice you to their books was very recently set up: “Umbrage And Other Words You Should Know”. An orgiastic grouping for those who would relate to titles such as Word Nerd. But if you need to take knowledge-seeking to social media, enter ‘umbrage’ in Facebook search—the result will tell you the word is “popular now”, just as another phrase is: Umbrage Singapore. As it turns out, this is “a group for Singaporeans who want to take umbrage at anything and anyone”, created just a day after Mr Ng’s heated retort. It is understandable why his rebuke has generated so much reactions. It wasn’t just the use of an uncommonly-mouthed word, it was also the near-bullying way that he spoke it, which included the delectable and by-then-obvious admission that he is not a gentleman.
But not everyone thinks the umbrage was unwisely taken. The former journalist Bertha Henson, who, as one online description enthused, covered “Singapore developments for the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newspapers for 26 years”, took a more contrary view. In her blog Bertha Harian (Bertha Daily, a pun on the Malay-language broadsheet Berita Harian or Daily News), Ms Henson wrote in the piece “It…could be… a new beginning for news media here”, shared a day after the incident of the CEO and the journalist, that she “empathised” with Mr Ng, even when she noted that he “lost his cool”. Many who have read her post were certain she was speaking up for her former employer SPH, which wouldn’t be surprising. Ms Henson, now also an author, is a product of The Straits Times and its sibling titles. She knows why—and how—SPH has become what it is today, even correctly acknowledging that “journalism standards… have been declining at a precipitous rate”.
But as an experienced news person, she curiously chose to deprecate a journalist who turned up to do her job, of which asking questions is expected. She opined that “it is a naive reporter, especially from a local media outlet, who asks such questions which can be applied to his or her own employers and editors”, in a clear reference to a competing news organisation. I don’t expect Ms Henson to play the dajie of local journalism, but choosing not to also empathise with someone whose job she once did seems, to me, to be taking the side of a media company she still feels dearly for. If that singling out was not enough, in a Facebook post from yesterday, Ms Henson wrote in defence of those working for her former employer: that it was “pretty insulting to insinuate that SPH journalists were pandering to advertisers and not maintaining their integrity.” Ms Henson was basically saying to the CNA staff, you deserve it. How becoming, I wonder, is that of a news veteran? Was Bertha Henson also insulted or was she, as the T-shirt sold on Lazada suggests, simply dulan?
Product photos: Lazada. Photo illustrations: Just So