It was not the best of times, world-events-wise, but books provided solace, insight, and – occasionally – distraction. Here are some books I read (or listened to) this year, and can’t stop thinking about.
Cronyism comes from crony, a bit of 17th-century Cambridge student slang whose oldest meaning is “a close friend or companion of long standing.” Crony may have come from Greek chronios (long-lasting), which in turn comes from chronos (time).
When cronyism came along, in the mid-19th century, it had the innocuous meaning of “friendship” or “the ability or desire to make friends.” It wasn’t until around 1950 that it acquired a new, sinister, and chiefly American sense of “the appointment of friends to important positions, regardless of ability.” The oldest usage in the New York Times is in a March 13, 1952, editorial about “the graft-cronyism of the Truman Administration.”
Cronyism has been in the news during the last couple of months, often in connection with the incoming Trump administration.
Since 2009 I have observed Festivus – the holiday for the rest of us, celebrated on December 23 – by publishing misspellings, grammar flubs, and punctuation errors committed in the name of commerce. It’s all been lighthearted and lightly instructive: my way of honoring The Airing of Grievances, a mock-tradition of this mock-holiday.
This year, however, my grievances are much more grievous than a misplaced apostrophe or a misspelled brass plaque.
Like many of you, I was dismayed by the 2016 presidential campaign, its outcome, and its aftermath. As I surveyed the devastation, I saw root causes in the practices of my own industry – marketing and branding – and in the ideology of technology, which now permeates the general culture.
And so my grievances this year aren’t minor infractions but rather more serious sins. Here, as I see it, is how we came to this sorry pass.
Via Pinterest. An authentic Festivus pole would be unadorned: decorations are “distracting.”
I see unding as un-ding, as in “You can’t un-ding that damage to your car’s fender.” No? Well, maybe unding is a gerund, like understanding or undulating. (“Do you like unding?” “Sorry, I’ve never unded.”)
After about 30 seconds, I figured out the correct interpretation: It’s a blend of underwear and stocking.*
Thirty seconds is too long. And this is a bad portmanteau.
I’ve written about bad portmanteaus in the past: Flatizza, framily, Analtech, glotion. The gist: Some word pairs just aren’t suitable for blending. Underwear + stocking is one of those pairs. Understock? No. Underking? No. Stockinwear? No. Undocking? No.
What happens when we see an unfamiliar word? We break it down into familiar components. In this case, we see the prefix un- and the familiar word ding. Looking at the picture doesn’t help much: Those clearly aren’t stockings, so what are they?
They’re … velveteen underpants. Near an open flame.
And now I can’t un-see an unding filled with a couple of tangerines. Or a really long candy cane. Or even – yes, I’m very, very naughty – lumps of coal.
* As for the #NeverUndingFireplace hashtag, I can’t help reading it as a parallel to #NeverTrump or #NeverHillary. I will, in fact, never hang an unding over my fireplace, or anywhere else.
This post marks my eighth annual foray into word-of-the-year (WOTY) speculation. My first such summing-up, in 2009, included birther, Tea Party, and FAIL, among other lexical units. How things have changed. Or not.
As in the past, my choices for 2016 follow the guidelines of the American Dialect Society, which will choose its own WOTYs on January 6, 2017, at its annual meeting in Austin, Texas. (If you happen to be in the vicinity, the vote is open to the public, and it’s hella fun.) There are a few new ADS categories this year – political word of the year, digital (tech-related) word of the year, slang word of the year, WTF word of the year – and there’s always the possibility of even more categories being nominated from the floor. (For my own list, I’ve created three new categories: Obscenity of the Year, Import of the Year, and Spoonerism of the Year.) Nominated words don’t have to be brand new, but they do need to “show widespread usage by a large number of people in a variety of contexts and situations, and which reflect important events, people, places, ideas, or preoccupations of English-speakers in North America in 2016.”
It’s fitting that elite emerged as one of the buzzwords of the 2016 presidential election, because elite is the French word for “selection” or “choice.” The word entered English in the late 14th century, when it signified “a chosen person,” especially a bishop-elect; it died out a few decades later and was re-introduced more successfully in Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823).:
At once the ‘lie’ and the ‘elite’ of crowds; Who pass like water filter’d in a tank, All purged and pious from their native clouds
In the poem, lie is pronounced lee, and meant “scummy remnant” (as in the lees at the bottom of a wine barrel).
As the name of a typeface, Elite was first recorded in 1920.
Special Elite typeface, “created to mimic the Smith Corona Special Elite Type No NR6 and Remington Noiseless typewriter models.” Via 1001 Fonts.
The American Name Society is accepting nominations for Names of the Year, with the winners to be announced at the society’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas, on January 5, 2017. Anyone can play; submit your nominations before January 3.
Here are my own nominations in the categories established by ANS – names “that best illustrate, through their creation and/or use during the past 12 months, important trends in the culture of the United States and Canada.”
In the last two and a half years, Thumbtack, which matches customers with local service professionals, has raised $255 million in funding. If the company had spent the merest fraction of that sum on a professional copywriter with an elementary understanding of how advertising works, it could have come up with something more effective than this existential shrug of a billboard.
“We don’t know.” <Shrug> 8th and Harrison streets, San Francisco
It’s not that I don’t get the tiny, unconvincing joke, O Hipster Ad Agency. Nothing rhymes with orange. Haha.
Here’s the thing (and it pains me to have to point this out):
Billboards are meant to grab your attention in a split-second. They’re not supposed to be convoluted in-jokes. They’re supposed to sell.
And they’re supposed to sell your stuff. Not roses, not “this billboard,” not even florists or poets. If you’re Thumbtack, you want people who see your ad to grok the glories of Thumbtack.
At the risk of repeating myself: We don’t know? Are you effing kidding me? Your website says you’re “reshaping local economies.” You’re “getting things done.” If you don’t know, who does?
And finally: Why is the most important message – “Hire skilled pros for absolutely everything” – in the tiniest type?
A good ad should make you smile in instant recognition. It should be memorable and motivational. It should leave you with a positive impression of the advertiser.
It shouldn’t make you feel like your soul’s been sucked out of your body and sacrificed to the gods of snark.
Join me at Strong Language today, where I’ve published a post about a phrase in a sign that appeared on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) last week. The sign was fake (but looked authentic); the phrase was an imperative that included a four-letter word that’s common in speech but uncommon in official pronouncements. I write about the phrase and its history – not very ancient, it turns out – and about GYST, the acronym formed from the phrase. Language-of-commerce connection: GYST is also the name of a couple of U.S. companies.