Corinthian Colleges. The bankruptcy filing of Corinthian Colleges, in April, marked the largest shutdown of a for-profit college in U.S. history, and it called into question the practices of for-profit higher education generally. Sixteen thousand students were “displaced,” as official reports put it. (One hundred of the students petitioned the federal government to forgive their student debt.) Corinthian — an adjective meaning “of Corinth,” a city of fabled wealth in ancient Greece – has had many figurative meanings in English since the 16th century, including “elegantly or elaborately ornate” and, as a noun, “a luxury-loving person.” Corinthian columns are heavily decorated with acanthus leaves; in Christianity, Corinthians is the name of two chapters of the New Testament. (And currants derive their name from “raisins of Corinth.”) Corinthian leather was coined in 1974 by a copywriter at the advertising agency responsible for marketing Chrysler luxury vehicles; most of the leather came from a factory in much more prosaic Newark, New Jersey.
In the very beginning, it wasn’t clear that television – coined from Greek tele (far) and Latin-derived vision, and first used in 1907 to describe a purely hypothetical technology – would be the name of the new medium. The alternative telephote was proposed as far back as 1880, and televista in 1904. The American inventor Charles Francis Jenkins, who transmitted pictures of U.S. Secretary of Commerce (and later President) Herbert Hoover in 1923, called his system radiovision. Philo T. Farnsworth, who developed the first working electronic camera tube in 1927, called his invention an image dissector.
Purists like C.P. Scott, the British publisher and politician, sniffed at television’s hybrid origins. “Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it,” Scott said in 1936.
Read the rest of “Television, in Other Words,” including an explanation of new TV terms such as OTT, cord-never, and household-addressable.
My October column for the Visual Thesaurus (cross-posted on Vocabulary.com) admires the colorful coinages of autumn, with a close look at fall-ify, a newish verb meaning “to add autumnal touches to something”(décor, clothing, makeup); and the bountiful word-blends created from “October.” Along the way, I navigate the trans-Atlantic autumn/fall divide, the verb-making power of -ify, and the history of Oktoberfest and its many X-toberfest offspring
In the San Francisco Bay Area we have Sharktober (the season of peak shark migration and human-shark encounters); Australia celebrates Frocktober to raise money for ovarian cancer research (the Frocktober Challenge: wear a dress every day in October). Other specialized -tobers include InkTober, which invites artists to create one ink drawing a day for a month; Poptober, a Boy Scouts of America popcorn sale; Socktober, which donates socks to homeless people; Pinktober, a breast-cancer fundraising campaign (and a registered trademark of the Hard Rock entertainment company); Monstober, a Disney Channel games promotion; Overstockober, a month of discounts on the Overstock.com website; and Sicktober, often accompanied by a hashtag symbol and a sad-face emoji.
Sicktober in the wild:
I've almost used an entire roll of Costco toilet paper from blowing my nose. Yes, I lead a glamorous life. #Sicktober
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus takes a look at how nouns become verbs – and vice versa – in the language of commerce and elsewhere. If you’ve seen ads inviting you to beauty, to movie, or to pumpkin, you’ll know what I mean. But what about to gift, to share, and to contact? All began their lives as nouns before being undergoing the process known as functional shift or anthimeria (and not without controversy, in some cases).
Access to the column is open to all this month! Here’s an excerpt:
Although the examples I’ve cited here are recent, the phenomenon is not. “Flaubert me no Flauberts. Bovary me no Bovarys. Zola me no Zolas,” the novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937. “And exuberance me no exuberances. Leave this stuff for those who huckster in it...” Facebook may have popularized to friend (the verb has been in widespread use since about 2005), but friend had occasionally been used as a verb since the 1200s, according to the OED. Four and a half centuries before there were mobile text messages, to text meant “to write in text letters” – the large writing used by clerks in the body of a manuscript. (The past-tense form of text still stymies many people. For the record, it’s texted. As linguist Arnold Zwicky pointed out in 2008, “Verbing has always weirded [not weird] language.”)
Access to both of my recent columns is free and unrestricted, so share away. Here’s an excerpt from the Pluto column:
Mordor, Cthuhlu, Meng-Po’o, and Tombaugh Regio. What sounds like the title of a Jorge Luis Borges short story is in fact a partial list of informal names for newly discovered features on Pluto and Charon. (Formal names must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, but as one project scientist tweeted, “Cannot just say ‘that dark spot.’ ‘No I meant that dark spot.’”) Many of them are drawn from “your darkest imaginings,” as the science blog i09 put it—and consistent with the established names of Pluto’s moons, including Styx (in Greek myth, the river of death), Cerberus (the three-headed hellhound that guards the underworld), and Nix (the Greek goddess of night). The new names depart from classical mythology and enter fictional realms: The dark area at Charon’s polar region, for example, has been tagged Mordor, from the wasteland in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. On Pluto itself, an area originally dubbed “the whale” is now called Cthuhlu, after the fictional deity invented by H.P. Lovecraft; and Meng Po’o is the Buddhist “lady of forgetfulness.” An exception to the pattern is the Tombaugh Regio—literally “region of Tombaugh”—which honors Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. For a long list of Plutonian names suggested by the public, see the Our Pluto discussion forum.
Randall Munroe of xkcd offers his own nomenclature for newly identified Plutonian features. I especially like Debate Hole, “where we’re putting all the people still arguing about Pluto’s planet status.”
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the shifting and varied meanings of special—a word that can mean particular, extraordinary, dear, and having an intellectual disability. I consider special delivery, BlueLight Special, Afterschool Special, and more.
By the time Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics in 1968, the association of “special” with “mentally challenged” was firmly established. If anything, it was the word “Olympics” that was controversial: the U.S. Olympic Committee holds a tight grip on the word, but in 1971 it granted official approval—a special dispensation, you might say—to the Special Olympics.
Special Olympics, special needs, and special education are just a few examples of the exceptional flexibility of special. Since it first crossed the English Channel from France in the 13th century, special has taken on multiple meanings—particular, remarkable, dear—and become part of dozens of idioms and expressions, from special relativity in physics to special magistrate, special pleading, and special prosecutor in law; from special effects in TV and movies (earliest usage: 1909) to special teams in US football. Its literal meaning, from Latin specialis, is “individual” or “particular,” as opposed to “general.” (Compare the related words species and genus.) But its extended meanings range far and wide.
The fourteenth Special Olympics begins July 25 in Los Angeles. Its theme song, “Fly,” was written and performed by Avril Lavigne, who has said “her struggle with Lyme disease inspired her to work on the project.” The singer was bedridden for five months. She does not, however, have any lingering mental or intellectual disabilities.
Blog bonus #2:
“Isn't that special”: Dana Carvey as Church Lady, “Saturday Night Live.”
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers (just $19.95 a year for lots of great content!). Here’s an excerpt:
Pout was an English verb meaning “to puff out of the lips in displeasure” since at least the 1300s; the noun form (which is what I’m talking about here) emerged in the 1590s. The word’s origins are uncertain, although it may be imitative of the shape your lips make while saying the word. (French has a related verb, bouder, which gave us boudoir — literally, a room for sulking.)For most of its history pout had generally negative connotations: petulant toddlers pout, as do sulky teens. Then, in 2002, a London weekly, News of the World, turned its attention to a British TV actress, Leslie Ash, who’d had silicone injections in her lips. The newspaper coined the term “trout pout” to describe the unfortunate results, and the catchy if catty rhyme caught on. (The label isn’t quite scientifically accurate: trout don’t have especially prominent mouths. Some other fish do, however. There’s even a species, Trisopterus luscus, whose common name is “pouting.”) In 2008, Ms. Ash appeared in a TV documentary about botched cosmetic surgery and talked to newspapers about “my trout pout hell.”
My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the term “sharing economy” and the evolution of share from Old English—where it was a noun meaning “a cutting” or “a shearing”—to its use as a verb in 12-step meetings and beyond.
Access is free this month! Here’s an excerpt I’m pleased to share:
These activities—“ride booking,” chore marketplaces, textbook lending, short-term lodging rentals—have become known collectively as the sharing economy. The sharing economy is a growing sector of the U.S. and global economy as a whole, and its name represents the latest twist in the evolution of share, a word that’s practically inescapable in the social-media-dominated 21st century. Share appears in company names (SlideShare, ShareThis, Shareable, City CarShare) and product names (Sharewhat, Leafshare, Authentishare, ScholarShare); in advertising campaigns (“Share a Coke,” the 2014 program credited with reversing the soft-drink manufacturer’s decade-long decline in sales) and website prompts (“Share on Facebook,” “Share your thoughts”). It has even inspired at least one new word blend: sharewashing (softening the capitalistic edges of an enterprise by calling its activities “sharing”).