Cromnibus: The $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on December 11 and by the Senate on December 13. The word is a portmanteau of omnibusbill (per Vox, “how Congress funds the government when things are working normally”—which in recent sessions is never) and the initials of continuing resolution, (“how Congress funds the government when it can’t come to a deal”). The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature. Also spelled CRomnibus.
Omnibusentered English—from a Latin word meaning “for all”—around 1829; it described “a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers.” By 1832 it had been truncated to bus. In reference to legislation, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, omnibus goes back to 1842.
Cromnibus caught on, however briefly, not only because of our enduring affection for portmanteaus but also because the word triggered similar-sounding associations that tickled our collective fancy. One of those associations is cronut, the croissant/donut hybrid invented—and trademarked—in 2013 by New York bakery owner Dominique Ansel. It has inspired dozens of imitators.
The cronot, a specialty of Bay Area bakery chain Posh Bagel. (Spotted earlier this month on Piedmont Avenue, Oakland.)
The omni- prefix has been used with sardonic intent in another recent-ish coinage, omnishambles, invented by British writer/director Armando Ianucci for a 2009 episode of “The Thick of It.” It was famously used in 2012 in the British House of Commons.
Update: Ben Zimmer alerted me to “the clever meta-blend cromnishambles,” as seen on Twitter last week.
Speaking of -bus words, and of Britain (but not of politics), IncubusLondon is a newish venture whose name is intended to be a portmanteau of [startup]incubator plus bus: it’s a co-working space in a London double-decker bus. Unfortunately, incubus has a separate and sinister meaning: “a male demon who comes upon women in their sleep and rapes them.” You’d think the London gang would have learned from Reebok’s costly misstep, back in 1996, when it named a women’s running shoe the Incubus. According to the Snopes entry, “Reebok Incubus” had been developed in-house and selected from a master list of about 1,500 names. Whoops:
Much chagrined, the company recalled 18,000 boxes of these unsold $57.99 shoes. The poorly researched name did not appear on the footwear itself but merely on its boxes, which provides a potential explanation for how the product’s rollout process got so far along before anyone commented on the unseemly name.
More of an excuse than an explanation, if you ask me.
Ammosexual: A person who exhibits an extreme love of firearms, possibly to the point of fetishization. Coined from ammunition and sexual, with sonic overtones of homosexual.
On June 6, 2014, Bill Maher, comedian and host of the late-night talk show “Real Time,” derided proponents of “open carry” laws that would permit guns to be taken into all public spaces, including restaurants and places of worship.
Guns aren’t just a tool of last resort. They’re awesome. That’s why people stroke them. And name them, and take pictures with them. You guys aren’t just firearm enthusiasts — you’re ammosexuals. (audience laughter and applause)
And before you try and deny you have some sort of unnatural romantic relationship with your gun, consider this. You’re taking it out to dinner! (hysterical audience laughter) Because it completes you. Get a room.
Maher did not coin the term, which had appeared a couple of weeks earlier in an Americans Against the Tea Partypost headlined “Meet the Dangerous Ammosexuals and Gun-Fetishists That Invaded Chipotle with Their Blessing.” (“Their” apparently refers to Chipotle management.)
A search of #ammosexual on Twitter reveals even earlier appearances, including one dated April 25. There’s an even earlier tweet from July 2012:
OK, I get it gun nut...you love hunting, and the deer population is out of control. Now, could you explain your erection? #ammosexual
My informal audit shows that “ammosexual” is usually a term of contempt. But as with gundamentalist, which has similar origins but with religious rather than sexual overtones, ammosexual has been appropriated by some of the people it’s meant to shame.
Here, for example, is a tweet from “Gun Rights Across America” that also appropriates “pride” as used by LGBT-rights organizations:
We’ve all heard the phrase by now... Ammosexual! I’m here to say: “I’m out of the closet! I am an Ammosexual, and I’m proud!” It’s time the liberal gun grabbers start recognizing our rights as law abiding gun owners, and quit discriminating against us. Stand united... stand proud... and post a decal that tells them how you feel.
For a possibly unwitting display of ammosexualism, see My Parents Open Carry, by Brian Jeffs, “a wholesome family book that reflects the views of the majority of the American people.” (Gun advocates are able to view themselves as both the majority and the minority.) The father in the story is named Richard Strong (nickname Dick?). Alexandra Petri’s sardonic review in the Washington Post is excerpted unironically on Amazon; here it is in context:
Thank heavens! I frequently lament how closeted gun owners are, and how I seldom hear from them. “You know who I wish we got to listen to more often?” everyone whispers and murmurs. “Gun rights advocates. Especially I wish they addressed the kids more.”
This “Charlotte’s Web” isn’t the beloved children’s book by E.B. White. But it does have a connection to childhood.
Some background first:
The five Stanley brothers of Wray, Colorado, grow medicinal marijuana in greenhouses and—now that medical and recreational cannabis are legal in Colorado—outdoors. Federal law prohibits them from shipping their product across state lines. But they’re hoping to circumvent that ban through what reporter Dave Phillips, writing in the New York Timeslast week, calls “a simple semantic swap: They now call their crop industrial hemp, based on its low levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot.”
That isn’t the only name the Stanleys have changed in their drive to “serve thousands of people instead of hundreds,” in the words of 27-year-old Jared Stanley, one of the brothers.
Here’s how Phillips tells the story:
The brothers, who had a Christian upbringing in conservative Colorado Springs, started a small medical marijuana business in 2008 after seeing the relief it brought to a relative sick with cancer. At first, they grew mostly marijuana high in THC that packed a serious psychoactive punch. On the side, they experimented with breeding plants low in THC but high in another cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, or CBD, which scientific studies suggested was a powerful anti-inflammatory that a handful of small studies showed might have potential as a treatment for certain neurological conditions, including seizures and Huntington’s disease.
For years, this variety languished unused in a corner of their greenhouse. “No one wanted it because it couldn’t get you high,” said Joel Stanley, 34, the oldest brother and head of the family business. They named the plant “Hippie’s Disappointment.”
Then, in 2012, a Colorado mother named Paige Figi came seeking CBD-rich marijuana oil for her 5-year-old daughter Charlotte, who has a genetic disorder called Dravet syndrome, which caused hundreds of seizures per week.
After a few doses of oil made from Hippie’s Disappointment, Charlotte’s seizures all but stopped, and two years later, daily drops of oil keep her nearly free of seizures, Ms. Figi says. The Stanleys renamed the plant Charlotte’s Web.
“Industrial hemp” is a smart repositioning tactic. And “Charlotte’s Web” is ingenious and poetic: allusive rather than descriptive; out of the 1960s and into the future of cannabis branding. But although the state of Colorado has accepted “industrial hemp,” and although some 200 families now rely on oil from Charlotte’s Web for their children’s health, the federal government—which during the George W. Bush administration tried to ban all hemp products with even a trace of THC—remains unconvinced. “In the last four months,” writes Phillips, “the [Drug Enforcement Administration] has seized thousands of pounds of nonintoxicating industrial hemp seeds, including a shipment bound for a research project at the University of Kentucky.”
For more of my posts on marijuana branding, start here.
There are no precise equivalents to Tweed outside Canada, where marijuana cultivation and sale are federally regulated.* But even without direct comparison, the Tweed name stands out as multilayered and highly distinctive.
One of the most edifying books I read in 2013 was Rose George’s The Big Necessity, first published in the U.S. in 2009. George, a British journalist, delves into history, descends into city sewers, visits a Japanese factory that makes robo-toilets, and interviews the leaders of India’s “open-defecation-free” campaign in her exploration of “the unmentionable world of human waste.” If you like the work of Mary Roach (who blurbed George’s book), you’ll love the combination of thorough research and zesty writing in The Big Necessity.
In addition to some boggling statistics (2.6 billion people have no access to even the most primitive form of sanitation), The Big Necessity offers some good stories about language and names. Here, for example, is the story of how and why “sludge”—first used, in the late 19th century, to mean “the precipitate matter in sewage tanks”—was reinvented a century later as “biosolids.”
First, a little background from Chapter 7, “The Battle of Biosolids”:
The Harper-Collins Dictionary of Environmental Science defines sludge as “a viscous, semisolid mixture of bacteria and virus-laden organic matter, toxic metals, synthetic organic chemicals and settled solids removed from domestic industrial waste water at a sewage treatment plant.” The Clean Water Act keeps it simple and calls it a pollutant.
“[B]y the end of the [20th] century sludge contained far more than pure human excrement,” George writes, “and hardly any of it good. Anything that goes into the sewers can end up in sludge.”
Decades ago, one pioneering sewage authority determined to turn sludge into metaphorical gold:
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) has been selling its sludge as fertilizer since 1925, with discreet labeling. Only someone who knew what MMSD stood for would realize Milorganite is derived from a human body.
The sludge and wastewater industry looked at Milorganite and saw the light. No one would want to live near farms where sewage sludge was applied. But people might want to live near fields that were covered in a fertilizer called something else. The transformation of sludge into “biosolids” was brilliantly documented in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. The book was about “the lies, damn lies” of the PR industry in general, but the maneuvers of the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the U.S. sewage industry association, were impressive enough to provide the authors with their title. The EPA, they write, was conscious even in 1981 of the need to persuade the public to accept sludge farming. A Name Change Task Force was formed, and suggestions solicited through a WEF newsletter. The 250 suggestions received included “bioslurp,” “black gold,” “the end product,” “hudoo,” “powergro,” and—my favorite—ROSE, standing for “Recycling Of Solids Environmentally.” [Ed: A ROSE by any other name would smell as sweet?] Biosolids won, probably because it was the blandest. Maureen Reilly, a prominent sludge opponent and the producer of the prolific SludgeWatch newsletter, calls this “linguistic detoxification.”
In an endnote, George gives more detail about Milorganite:
Milorganite was named by McIver and Son of Charleston, South Carolina, who entered a competition to name the new fertilizer in National Fertilizer Magazine in 1925. Milorganite stands for Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen. Its history is told at http://www.milorganite.com.
According to that website, “Milorganite fertilizer is one of the oldest branded fertilizers on the market today.”
What not to name the baby, San Francisco version. Tips for techies: “You have the added handicap of being in a field where naming products comes up all the time. You probably even think you're good at it. Unfortunately for fetuses, there is a pretty big difference between names that would be appropriate for a baby and names appropriate for a wearable pedometer.” (Via Nancy’s Baby Names.)
Speaking of babies, Neil Whitman was recently baffled by a product called Babiators: “All at once, not only did I have to infer the existence of aviators as a noun referring to a kind of eyewear instead of a group of airplane pilots; I also had to take it in as part of an offensively cute portmanteau word, in a display for a product that shouldn’t even exist.”
Swatting: Calling 9-1-1 and faking an emergency that draws a response from law enforcement. The gerund, which is relatively new, is derived from the acronym SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), which was first used by big-city police departments in the mid-1960s.
Last week six Los Angeles-area celebrities were the targets of swatting, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. On April 8, L.A. police responded to a swatting call at the home of comedian Russell Brand, who was away from home at the time. Two days later, the Beverly Hills Police Department responded to a similar call at Ryan Seacrest’s home. Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, and Sean Combs have also been targeted. According to the New York Times:
What once was merely a police annoyance in Southern California — thrill-seeking pranksters filing a false report of a breaking horrific crime at celebrity’s home, designed to provoke the dispatch of SWAT teams — has turned in recent weeks into a full-blown “swatting” epidemic, drawing expressions of concerns from police officials and victims alike, and the promise of a crackdown by lawmakers in Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall.
The earliest references I found for “swatting” are from 2007 and do not involve famous names. In March of that year, SWAT teams in Orange County, California, showed up with assault rifles, dogs, and a helicopter at what a caller had described as the scene of a murderous rampage. A 19-year-old Washington State man was arrested seven months later on felony charges of endangering the homeowners’ lives. According to police, the man had hacked into the county’s 9-1-1 system from his home hundreds of miles away and placed a call that appeared to come from the scene of the crime.
Needless to say, these calls are dangerous to first responders and to the victims. The callers often tell tales of hostages about to be executed or bombs about to go off. The community is placed in danger as responders rush to the scene, taking them away from real emergencies. And the officers are placed in danger as unsuspecting residents may try to defend themselves.
In Los Angeles last Thursday, the L.A.P.D. announced “that it would take the unusual step of no longer issuing press releases or immediately confirming instances of celebrity ‘swatting,’ saying intense media coverage seems to be fueling more incidents.”
Another sadder-but-wiser tale: How not to name your restaurant. Author David Lizerbram, a trademark lawyer, leads off the story by observing: “It’s always astonishing to me that businesses will invest countless dollars in every aspect of their operations while relying on a name that will only bring legal issues.” Hear, hear!
If you’re launching a fashion brand, should you follow the traditional route and name it after yourself (which worked fine for Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Betsey Johnson)? Or should you follow the lead of some younger designers and choose a quirky name like Creatures of the Wind? Mark Prus, guest-blogging for Duets Blog, weighs the costs and benefits of “strange” as a naming strategy.
The Atlas of True Names “reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings, of the familiar terms on today's maps of the World, Europe, the British Isles and the United States. For instance, where you would normally expect to see the Sahara indicated, the Atlas gives you ‘The Tawny One’, derived from Arab. es-sahra “the fawn coloured, desert’.”