The American language lost two influential figures this month, one widely known among the reading public and the other known mostly to students of corporate America.
The passing on September 26 of William Safire, the Nixon speechwriter turned New York Times columnist, was promptly and thoroughly reported, as the deaths of media figures generally are. The Times obituary, by veteran reporter Robert McFadden (no mean wordslinger himself), included this vivid snapshot:
He was hardly the image of a button-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.
Safire was not, as McFadden reports, "a talented linguist"; he wasn't a linguist at all, but rather an enthusiastic amateur with a zest for word play and a lively interest in language. Of Safire's long-running On Language column, McFadden wrote:
There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
Although genuine linguists loved to criticize Safire (see Mr. Verb, Wishydig, and Language Hat), I think most would agree with their colleague Benjamin Zimmer that Safire "will be remembered fondly for his openness, humanity, and thoughtfulness."
I was a regular Safire reader, but I'd never heard of Edward Gelsthorpe, who died September 12, until I read his obituary. But I certainly know his work for companies like Bristol-Meyers, Ocean Spray, and Hunt-Wesson. You probably do, too. Here's one example from the Times obituary:
Mr. Gelsthorpe, a salesman turned marketer, was known for his ability to sniff out consumer desires and get new products into stores quickly. At Bristol-Meyers, for example, when an amateur inventor walked into the company’s Manhattan headquarters proposing that deodorant be applied like ink from a ballpoint pen, he bought her idea on the spot; Ban, introduced in 1955, became one of the company’s most successful toiletry products.
The Times obit doesn't mention it, but Gelsthorpe was also a pioneer of what's now called corporate social responsibility. In the early 1970s, while he was president of Hunt-Wesson, he launched a number of programs that were well ahead of their time, including a partnership with Ralphs Grocery Company in Southern California that helped poorer customers get the most food value from their limited budgets. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.
For language mavens and branding folks, however, Gelsthorpe's biggest contributions were Cran-Apple* (a juice blend invented to sell cranberries year round instead of only at Thanksgiving) and Manwich (Sloppy Joe sauce in a can).
The introduction of Ocean Spray's Cran-Apple in 1964 represented the first time cran- detached itself semantically from cranberry, paving the way for Cran-Grape, Cran-Raspberry, Cran-Pomegranate, and Crantini. Linguists eventually took notice of this phenomenon and dubbed it "cranberry morpheme," which got shortened to "cran-morph." In 2006, Benjamin Zimmer wrote about cran-morphs in Language Log:
The segment cran- in cranberry is opaque, though it looks like it's a modifier for the transparent morpheme -berry. Indeed, cranberry was only ever fully transparent in the Low German dialects from which the term was borrowed, where it was kraanbere or 'crane-berry.' Since English underwent the Great Vowel Shift, the semantic connection between the cognate forms cran- and crane has been lost. But the opacity of cran- has allowed for a reanalysis of the morpheme to "stand for" cranberry in new compounds like cran-grape and cran-raspberry. Such cran-morphing has yielded many productive suffixes in the 20th century: -burger, -(o)holic, -(o)rama, -(a)thon, -(o)mat, -(o)nomics, -gate, etc. (In the case of -burger, the new morpheme quickly became lexicalized as the standalone burger.)
As for Manwich, introduced in 1969 by Hunt-Wesson, it's both a cran-morph—-wich standing in for sandwich—and possibly the ur-man-word. Without Manwich, would we have mandles, manbags, mancession, Man Glaze, or manscaping? I suspect not.
The classic Manwich slogan, by the way, remains “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.” I love this Manwich commercial:
* I was amused to notice that the Times's auto-link for the "Apple" in Cran-Apple goes to "more information about Apple Inc."