Betteridge’s Law: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’.” Named for British technology journalist Ian Betteridge, who articulated what he called “my maxim” in a February 2009 blog post. Also known as Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.
Before Ian Betteridge lent his name to it, this truism about rhetorical questions went by a few other names, including Davis’s Lawand the journalistic principle (a subcategory of Murphy’s Law). A Wikipedia entryprovides other sources for the concept: in particle physics, it’s known as Hinchcliffe’s Rule, and refers to the titles of academic papers; another British journalist, Andrew Marr, said essentially the same thing in a 2004 book, My Trade.
For your weekend reading, may I recommend “The Weird Science of Naming New Products,” a longish story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about my favorite subject: naming. The article, by the cultural critic and author Neal Gabler, is essentially a case study of how one Palo Alto technology startup got its name.
I won’t spoil the story for you by revealing any more details, but I will tell you that Anthony Shore, who developed the name, is an acquaintance and a very talented namer; I know many of the other name developers mentioned in the article, too (we’re a close-knit coterie here in the Bay Area). It’s great to see a general-interest publication devote this much serious attention to our field. (It’s been tried before, with mixed results:see my post about a 2011 article in The New Yorker.)
Congratulations to Anthony on the coverage! And here’s hoping all prospective clients read the article and gain an appreciation for the work that goes into creating memorable names.
A few quibbles about the Times Magazine story:
“Weird science”? Oh, c’mon. It’s also weird art. And weird legal stuff.
“The hills above Oakland”? Check a map. Those prominences are the Oakland hills; they’re within the city limits.
The iPad wasn’t confused with a tampon; it was confused with a pad. See my 2010 post.
“We’re taxed with doing something different”? Yes, branding can be a taxing effort, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Anthony said. I suspect that Gabler mis-heard tasked, or the copyeditor changed it.
Churnalism: “Journalism that churns out articles based on wire stories and press releases, rather than original reporting.” (Source: Word Spy.) A portmanteau of churn and journalism.
I spotted churnalism last week in an FT Magazine story about the blurring of lines between journalism and PR. The story, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, leads with the launch of a “community-driven daily news site” called Richmond Standard in the East Bay city of Richmond, California. Richmond’s population of 100,000 “is no longer a guarantee” that it “can sustain a thriving daily paper,” writes Edgecliffe-Johnson. But Richmond Standard is doing just fine, possibly because “it is run and funded by Chevron, the $240bn oil group which owns the Richmond refinery that in August 2012 caught fire, spewing plumes of black smoke over the city and sending more than 15,000 residents to hospital for medical help.”
Even Americans who don’t live in company towns like Richmond are exposed “to what proponents call ‘brand journalism’—a new form of journalism that just happens to be produced by companies,” Edgecliffe-Johnson writes:
As journalism schools pump out new generations of would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, many of those not finding newsroom jobs have turned instead to the business of how to present the news in the most flattering light. They have been joined by laid-off reporters, editors, producers and presenters*, with the skills to tell the stories brands want to be told about themselves. … Their efforts seem to be working. Cardiff University researchers estimated in 2006 that 41 per cent of UK press articles were driven by PR, a phenomenon known as “churnalism.”
“Churnalism” was popularized in Flat Earth News, a 2008 book by the British freelance journalist Nick Davies:
This is churnalism. This is journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession; quite unable to tell their readers the truth about what is happening on their patch.
Word Spy’s most recent citations, from 2009, are from British newspapers (the Daily Mail and the Guardian), possibly influenced by Davies’s book. But the earliest citation, from 2001, is American (Writer’s Digest Books).
In April 2013, the Washington, DC-based Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency. launched Churnalism.com, the US version of a UK site developed by the Media Standards Trust. (Note: I've amended the original post to clarify the relationship between the two sites.) Churnalism.com is “an open-source plagiarism detection,” one of its developers toldThe Atlantic. Enter an article’s URL, or paste some of its text, and Churnalism will compare it with a corpus of press releases and Wikipedia articles, then notify you if it has detected “churn.”
* British English for what Americans usually call a “news anchor” or “program host.” FT Magazine is published by the TheFinancial Times, whose main office is in London.
“The tale of ‘scofflaw,’ born in Boston at a time when Prohibitionists were staging mock funerals of ‘John Barleycorn’ and fleets of Coast Guard rum-chasers patrolled Boston Harbor, shows that sometimes real words can actually be invented on demand. They just don’t always behave exactly the way their engineers hope they will.” (Boston Globe, via @ammonshea.) I wrote about “scofflaw” in a 2011 blog post. More on the language of Prohibition in this 2010 post.
[T]he project leader’s initial idea was straightforward: the Anti-Qassam, referring to the type of missiles most commonly fired by Hamas. When that was rejected as “problematic,” he and his wife came up with Golden Dome, an image that brings to mind the palaces of Kubla Khan or perhaps (closer to home) the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. That name was rejected as being too ostentatious, so under the pressure of time, gold was reduced to a lesser metal, and Iron Dome was born.
Workamping: Working full or part time while living in a mobile home. A contraction of “work” and “camping.”
Workamping is the focus of “The End of Retirement,” an investigative article by Jessica Bruder in the July/August 2014 issue of Harper’s. Access is restricted to subscribers; here’s the nut graf:
They call themselves workampers, travelers, nomads, and gypsies, while history-minded commentators have labeled them the Okies of the Great Recession. More bluntly, they are geriatric migrant labor, meeting demands for seasonal work in an increasingly fragmented, temp-driven marketplace. And whatever you call them, they’re part of a demographic that in the past several years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans.
Bruder accompanied a number of workampers as they traveled around the American Southwest in search of jobs near cheap or free trailer hookups. Many of them flock to Fernley, Nevada, home to one of Amazon’s vast warehouses. To attract older workers, Amazon in late 2011 created CamperForce, which Bruder calls “a graying labor corps consisting entirely of RV dwellers, many in their sixties or seventies, who work during the peak shopping season that starts in October and ends just before Christmas.” Wages start at $10 an hour, plus overtime; before official employment begins, workers go through an orientation period, called “work hardening,” to acclimate them to “ten-hour workdays spent roaming the concrete-slab floor.”
“Workamper” is a trademark, registered in 1991, of Workamper News, Inc., in Heber Springs, Arkansas, which calls itself “the #1 resource for workamping!” The Workamper.com home page makes workamping sound like a cross between a road trip and summer camp (which for some people it no doubt is):
Workampers are adventurous individuals, couples and families who have chosen a wonderful lifestyle that combines ANY kind of part-time or full-time work with RV camping. If you work as an employee, operate a business, or donate your time as a volunteer, AND you sleep in an RV (or on-site housing), you are a Workamper!
Workamper News appears not to enforce its trademark with much vigor, and it doesn’t have trademark protection for other forms of the word, such as workamping. Thus “workamper” and “workamping” are frequently used as lower-case generic terms.
For an even grimmer look at workamping than Bruder’s, see “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” by Mac McClelland, published in the March/April 2012 issue of Mother Jones. (Subtitle: “My brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine.”) McClelland gives her employer the pseudonym of “Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide, Inc.,” located “somewhere west of the Mississippi.” She was 31 when she did her stint; many of her co-workers were twice her age:
I can break into goal-meeting suicide pace for short bouts, sure, but I can't keep it up for 10.5 hours.
“Do not say that,” one of the workampers tells me at break. … We will be fired if we say we just can’t or won't get better, the workamper tells me. But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job.
McClelland’s take-home pay for her ten-and-a-half-hour day was “about $60 after taxes,” with no job security or health insurance. Bonuses for exceeding work goals were paid in company gift cards in amounts of $15 or $20.
The leaves of Citrus hystrix are used in many South and Southeast Asian cuisines; they’re sometimes called by their Thai name, makrut, but in many English-speaking countries they’ve long been called kaffir lime.That’s changing thanks to a protest “against the racial and religious slur of ‘kaffir’,” writes Tiffany Do in SF Weekly(“Citrus-Based Racism Leads Market to Change Product Names”). “Kaffir,” which comes from an Arabic word meaning “unbeliever,” was appropriated by English colonizers in South Africa, where it was used as a slur and a term of abuse against blacks. “What’s most surprising in this whole controversy is that the issue hasn't been addressed – and remedied – before now,” writes SF Weekly’s Do. Most markets are switching to the neutral “lime leaves.”
Who decides what makes a word “real”? Anne Curzan, a language historian and member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, explains why she finds language change “not worrisome but fun and fascinating.” (TEDxUofM talk; video and transcript.)
We say: meet (not ‘meet with’),consult (not ‘consult with’), talk to (not ‘talk with’), protest against a decision (not ‘protest a decision’), appeal against a verdict (not ‘appeal a verdict’).
And, n.b., the BBC does not punctuate the abbreviations i.e. or e.g.
In the early to mid-1960s, Mad magazine carried on a “glorious” and “fearless” anti-smoking campaign through parody ads that “closely resembled the real ones that ran on television and in magazines,” writes David Margolick in the New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog. The ads attacked tobacco companies, ad agencies, and smokers with equal-opportunity opprobrium. Mad has always been ad-free, and—unusual for the 1960s—its offices were “largely smoke free” as well: the magazine’s publisher, William Gaines, “was fanatically opposed to the habit,” writes Margolick.
It’s not every day that a name developer has the chance to name a radically new technology. Anthony Shore had such a chance when the makers of a “cinematic virtual reality” device hired him. Read about how Jaunt got its name.
“Machines don't need names, but we feel the need to name them,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic (“Why People Give Human Names to Machines”). The urge has long been with us, or at least some of us: a siege engine was named “Domina Gunilda” (“Lady Gunild”) in an Anglo-Norman document of 1330-1.
(My favorite submission comes from Erica Friedman, who once worked for an ad agency whose conference rooms were named Ideation, Creation, Dream, Coopetition [sic], and Resonate. “It was horrible and miserable and it still makes me shudder,” she writes. Erica and I are not related, but we are definitely soulmates.)
“We’ve turned learning vocabulary into an addictive game,” says Vocabulary.com, which this week announced its new app (iPhone and iPad only, for now). Vocabulary.com’s chief technology officer, Mark Tinkler, told Fast Company that some people play “over 10 hours a day. It’s crazy.”
You’ve probably heard about Facebook COO Sheryl “Lean In” Sandberg’s campaign to ban the “bossy” descriptor for girls and women. Perhaps you’ve tangentially wondered, as I did, why cows are frequently called “Bossy,” at least in the U.S. There are two theories, and “no matter which of the two theories you pick, you end up in Latin.” (World Wide Words)
I attended my first roller derby match a couple of weekends ago, and couldn’t believe my ears when the announcer said that Fatal Dreidel would be skating for the Oakland Outlaws. Not only is that her actual nom de derby, it turns out there’s a whole subgenre of Jewish derby pseudonyms, including Mayhem Bialik, Yom Tripper, and Hebrewno Mars. (Jewniverse, via Diane Fischler.)
For more on derby names, see my May 2011 linkfest and law professor Dave Fagundes’s “Talk Derby to Me” (great title!), on “intellectual property norms governing roller derby pseudonyms,” published in 2012 in the Texas Law Review.