My recent explorations of sicko and rhino led me to wonder about other words that end in -o and how they arrived in English. Those words are the subject of my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “The Story of -o.” Full access is restricted to subscribers for three months; here’s a taste:
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at numbers from a non-mathematical perspective: as words and names. I include commentary on some numeric names I’ve written about here, including 605, SENS8, 23, and 427.
Original 420 Brand CBD gummies. For more on 420 as shorthand for “cannabis,” see my 2014 post.
Full access the column is restrict to subscribers (still just $19.95 a year)! Here’s an excerpt:
Bonobos. Founded in 2007 as an e-commerce site, the menswear company Bonobos grew into the largest U.S. clothing brand built on the web. This year, it was bought by Walmart for $310 million in cash, an acquisition that was called more significant in terms of retail disruption than the Amazon–Whole Foods deal, also finalized this year. The Bonobos name is a nod to the endangered ape native to the region south of the Congo River. It's a curious choice for a company that sells only men's clothing: Lower-case bonobos live in female-led groups and are notable for their altruism, empathy, and peaceful behavior. The bonobo name was first used in 1954 by two European scientists who may have misspelled Bolobo, the name of a town near where the first specimens were collected.
Other names that made my list: Juicero, Gothamist, Mattress Mack, Pepsi, RompHim, Shero. Read the full column.
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Laughing Matters,” looks at the spread of ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd (and their adverbial counterparts) as positive intensifiers. Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers; here’s an excerpt.
On the language-of-humor scale, where funny, droll, and amusing are positive or neutral, ludicrous, ridiculous, and absurd have traditionally skewed negative: You might say yes to an amusing hat, but not a ridiculous one. And yet here we are in Branding Land, circa 2017, where disparaging modifiers such as ridiculous are paired with positive words like delicious and attached to messages intended to persuade and sell, such as "Ridiculously Tasty Beer" (for Full Sail brewery), "Ludicrous Small Batch" (for the new Seven Caves Spirits distillery), and "Absurdly Fresh Groceries" (Good Eggs grocery-delivery service).
“Ludicrous performance”: poster in Tesla showroom, Glendale, California.
One source for this semantic shift may be the language of sports, where, as language maven Ben Yagoda told me via Twitter, sportscasters have evinced a "recent fondness for calling a great play 'ridiculous'" (or even, sometimes, "stupid"). I don't follow sports closely enough to have noticed this trend, so I looked it up. In short order I discovered "One of the most ridiculous [read: excellent] plays of the 2017 season" (SB Nation), "Manny Machado Made a Ridiculous [read: impressive] Play Yesterday" (NBC Sports), "a ridiculously [read: outstandingly] good closer" (Business Insider, on Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen), and "ridiculously [read: extremely] fast" (in a 2007 book about baseball). I also found plenty of stupidly intensifiers, and not only in sportswriting: "stupidly fiery" hot peppers, "Stupidly Simple Snacks" (a cooking show), "The Stupidly Simple Way to Stop Bombing on Your Goals," and many more.
The word first flip-flopped from negative to positive in the late 1950s, cropping up in jazz circles. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage back to 1959 (“His technique is ridiculous!”) and quotes the 1960 book “The Jazz Word” as saying, “To a jazzman...ridiculous is wonderful.” A 1955 interview with Dave Brubeck in the oral history “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” may offer a clue to how being ridiculous became respected in the jazz world. Brubeck describes how a jazz combo can begin with an arrangement and then have soloists freely improvise, before “going out” with the arrangement again. “And when we’re playing well,” Brubeck explains, “the out parts are ridiculous, usually, because the inner parts have come up to the level where you’re truly improvising.”
In my newest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at backronyms, defined in an Oxford Dictionaries blog post as “an acronym deliberately created to suit a particular word or words, either to create a memorable name, or as a fanciful explanation of a word’s origin.” Backronyms are rife in the names of legislation: witness the recent HONEST, COVFEFE, and MAR-A-LAGO acts. It’s a tradition that goes back to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, whose rah-rah title expands into “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
Backronym was coined (as bacronym) in 1983; examples were rare before then.
Full access to the column is available only to subscribers for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus considers a batch of new brand names, including Mr. Cooper (the insurance company formerly known as Nationstar), Penny (a personal- finance app), Dave (another personal-finance app), Oscar (a health-insurance company), June (an “intelligent oven”), and Alexa (the Amazon device). All of these names are eponyms – derived from proper nouns. But unlike previous generations of brand eponyms – Wendy’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Mary Kay, Sam’s Club – these eponyms aren’t taken from the names of founders or founders’ relatives. Instead, they’re wholly fictional.
The illustration on Mr. Cooper’s website isn’t identified as the fictional Mr. Cooper, but it could be.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers. Here’s an excerpt:
A corporate press release for Mr. Cooper said the name was selected from among thousands of candidates “to personify the next generation of home loan servicing and lending for the company”: It “represents a more personal relationship customers can have with their home loan provider.”
But can you really have a personal relationship with a fictional persona? Dave and June and the rest of the crowd are counting on it, but the assumption strikes me as disingenuous. The new eponyms are less suggestive of living, breathing humans than of characters in a play or – even more to the point – mascots.
We often think of mascots as representing sports teams or events: the San Francisco Giants’ Lou Seal; “Olly” and “Syd” from the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney. But a mascot can be any person or thing that is supposed to bring luck. The word came into English in 1881 from French mascotte, a talisman or sorcerer’s charm; an 1880 French play, La Mascotte, popularized the word, which may have its origins in Latin masca, or “mask.” (It’s worth noting here that personal and person also come from a root – in this case, Greek – meaning “mask.”)
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus – where I’ve been a contributor for 11 years – is about the shifting meaning of failure. A relatively recent addition to English, failure first appeared in the early 18th century, when it had the very specific meaning of “the act of failing in business.” It took another hundred years before a person could be called “a failure,” and the stigma of that label was damning.
No longer – at least, not in certain quarters. For tech entrepreneurs and self-improvement boosters, failure is “a stepping stone to success,” “the price you pay for progress,” and even a badge of pride.
Access to the article is paywalled; here’s an excerpt:
The names of some of the world’s most successful brands – from Accenture to Zantac – were widely ridiculed when they were first announced. In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Why Do We Hate New Names?”, I look at the causes of name aversion and the reason we eventually change our minds. (Hint: Zajonc effect.)
Access to the article is restricted to subscribers (pleasesubscribe!). Here’s an excerpt:
Why do we tend to react strongly and negatively to unfamiliar words, which, after all, have no power to physically harm us? Probably because humans are wired to reject novelty. In our prehistory, any mysterious plant might have been toxic; any strange person could have posed a threat. We favor familiarity in our environments – and our words. “It is common to bat away linguistic novelty – ‘It won't catch on’,” wrote the language expert Henry Hitchings in 2011. “Such disdain is tinged with anxiety, and to speak of ‘our’ language is to identify the source of this fear. For while no one truly owns English or any other natural language, we feel proprietorial about the language that we speak and write. As a result we are apt to look on linguistic changes – including new words – as personal affronts.”
Two hundred fifty years ago, Hitchings adds, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson disparaged the noun finesse as “an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language.” I’d add that a century ago, the writer and language-advice-giver Ambrose Bierce told Americans to avoid the adjective talented because “there was never the verb ‘to talent’.” In the same vein, a lot of people hated lunch, jeopardize, and the verb to contact – that last usage until as recently as the 1960s. We know how those controversies ended.
Elsewhere on the web, I’ve written a few posts for Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing, that I’ve neglected to flog here. Earlier this month, I wrote about “AF,” the sweary acronym that’s made a commercial debut in New York subway ads for FoodKick, a meal- and booze-delivery service. I also took a figurative bite out of the idiom “shit sandwich,” and rounded up a bunch of sweary-yet-edifying links. While you’re over at Strong Language, check out my collaborators’ posts, too, and leave a comment or a “like” to give us a reason to keep on keeping on.
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus asks: What’s the difference between crisp and crispy? And what do 15th-century language fads, breakfast cereals, and Martha Stewart have to do with the question?
Full access is limited to subscribers, but of course you already knew that (and have already subscribed). Here’s an excerpt:
We may use crisp to describe cold, fresh weather; a starched cotton shirt; a witty line of dialogue; or a dry white wine. We can also use crisp to describe food – bacon, fried chicken, chocolate chip cookies – but we’re equally or more likely to choose crispy in culinary contexts. We even turn crispy into brand names: Krispy Kreme, Rice Krispies, Crispy Critters. There are exceptions, though: Foods with a high moisture content generally don’t make the crispy cut. Apples and certain types of pears may be crisp; they’re rarely crispy.
Post Crispy Critters (1963-1989). The brand name was adopted as U.S. military slang for a burnt corpse.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, crisp and crispy originally meant something else entirely.
Both words entered English from the Latin adjective crispus, which means “curled,” “wrinkled,” or “having curly hair.” That’s what crisp and crispy meant, too. The OED traces crisp back to the Venerable Bede, who wrote around 900 C.E. about “crispe loccas fægre” (beautiful curly locks). Crispy, or cryspy, appeared in the Middle English period, around 1398. It was used in exactly the same way as crisp: to describe curly hair or, metaphorically, some other curling thing, like an ocean wave.
The English language gives us many ways to call something (or someone) false or untruthful. In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Unreality Check,” I explore many of those options, from fake, phony, and kayfabe (from underworld slang) to swindle (from German) and disinformation (originally Russian). Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers (reminder: aVT subscription makes a great gift for a word-lover). Here’s an excerpt:
One term for intentional deception comes not from the Anglophone world but from Russian. Disinformation is a direct translation of Russian дезинформация, or “dezinformatsiya”; the original source may be French. A Cold War term coined by Soviet spy agencies, disinformation is intentionally false or misleading information spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences. (The definition is from the Wikipedia entry.) Disinformation is distinct from misinformation, which is unintentionally false.
Would you prefer to be more discreet when you talk about a person’s reckless disregard for facts? There’s a word for that, too: dissemble, “to hide or conceal behind a false appearance.” The word itself is hiding behind a false front; it was originally dissimule, from an Old French source. Its spelling changed around the 16th century, possibly in imitation of resemble.