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".

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.

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.

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