Hot damn! I have a new post up on Strong Language, the newish “sweary blog about swearing.” This time I’ve written about brand names like Mother Pucker, Mother Clucker, Mother Effer, and MoFo. Guess what they have in common?
As usual, Oxford Dictionaries was first out of the gate, nearly a month ago, with its WOTY choices. And the winner was… vape.
As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vapehas grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.
Merriam-Webster’s word of the year—based on a spike in number of lookups on the dictionary’s website—is culture:
Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).
This year, the use of the word culture to define ideas in this way has moved from the classroom syllabus to the conversation at large, appearing in headlines and analyses across a wide swath of topics.
Runners-up include nostalgia, insidious, legacy, and feminism.
The twentieth Kanji of the Year took a total of 8,679 votes, or 5.18% of the total 167,613. The reasons for its selection are clear: on April 1 this year the government raised Japan’s consumption tax for the first time in 17 years, bringing it from 5% to 8%. Meant to bolster funding for the country’s future social security needs, this tax hike impacted Japanese wallets and brought about drastic swings in the economy as a whole, with consumers front-loading major appliance, vehicle, and home purchases ahead of April 1 and curtailing spending after the higher rate went into effect. Two straight quarters of negative growth thereafter convinced Prime Minister Abe Shinzō to put off the next planned rate hike, from 8% to 10%, until the spring of 2017.
The German word of the year is lichtgrenze, the “border of light” created by thousands of illuminated helium balloons that were released November 9 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other words on the German list were less celebratory: “It was a year of terror, strikes, and football frenzy.”
Geoff Nunberg, the linguist-in-residence on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” picked God view as his word of the year:
It’s the term that the car service company Uber uses for a map view that shows the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who ordered them. The media seized on the term this fall when it came out that the company had been entertaining itself and its guests by pairing that view with its customer data so it could display the movements of journalists and VIP customers as they made their way around New York.
Nunberg continued: “What we’re talking about here, of course, is the sense that the world is getting more and more creepy. …Creepy is a more elusive notion than scary. Scary things are the ones that set our imagination to racing with dire scenarios of cyberstalkers, identity thieves or government surveillance — whereas with creepy things, our imagination doesn't really know where to start.”
Also in radioland, Ben Schott presented the most ridiculous words of the year, from the ridiculous active nutrition (“sports nutrition for people who don’t exercise”) to the appalling catastrophic longevity (“insurance-speak for people living too long”). Schott writes the Jargonator column for Inc. magazine; he spoke with NPR’s “The Takeaway.” (Link includes full audio and partial transcript.)
Here’s a reminder that there are as many Englishes as there are words of the year: the Australian National Dictionary Centre selected shirtfrontas its word of the year for 2014. It’s a verb, it comes from the vocabulary of Australian Rules football, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used it in a threat to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin:
The term was little known outside of its sporting context, although the figurative use has been around since at least the 1980s. Abbott’s threat to shirtfront Putin, and the word itself, was widely discussed and satirised in the Australian and international media.
The ANDC’s shortlist includes man-bun, Ned Kelly beard, and coward punch.
“Demised” is etymologically accurate—the Latin roots mean “to send away”—but its kinship with the synonym for “death” makes it more of a dysphemism than a euphemism.
I wrote about the legal meaning of demise—“to grant or transfer by will or lease”—in April 2012. The original meaning of “demise,” from the mid-15th century, was the legal one; the meaning was extended to “death” (because that’s when estate transfers usually occur) in the mid-18th century.
It’s Death Week on Fritinancy: a daily report on deathly words, names, and branding, culminating on All Hallows Eve, October 31. Read my previous “death” posts.
I’d missed the new marketing campaign for household brand Lysol until a column by New York Times advertising writer Stuart Elliott brought it my attention. Earlier this week,Elliott wrote in one of his regular “20 Questions” columns:
Will a new campaign for the Lysol line of products sold by Reckitt Benckiser, which is centered on the word “healthing,” prove to be the biggest bugaboo for English teachers and grammarians since R. J. Reynolds infuriated them with the jingle “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”?
“Cleaning is hoping you’re killing germs. Healthing is knowing it.”
The ad is cleverly plotted and well acted (the expression on the face of the teenage girl as she schleps down the hotel corridor is pure bershon), and the multiple payoffs at the end are satisfying. What stands out, though, is the repeated appropriation of the company name as an almost-expletive:
It doesn’t get any booking better than this! Look at the booking view! This is exactly what you booking needed! Bask in the booking glory!
As a general principle, associating your brand name with an obscenity is a bad idea. But as AdFreak says in its review of the commercial, “the fact that it's vaguely explicit makes it just self-deprecating enough to not be too abrasive.”
Here’s another thing about booking: it’s a Britishism that’s infiltrated American English only in the last 20 years or so. (Americans have traditionally preferred to reserve restaurant tables and make reservations for theater seats and vacation travel.) When Ben Yagoda wrote about book (tickets, table, room) in an October 2011 post on his Not One Off Britishisms (NOOBs) blog, he noted that the usage started surging in the US around 1993, “the sweet spot for NOOBs.”
Booking.com is owned by Priceline, an American company, but it’s based in Amsterdam; the ad agency that produced the spot is the Amsterdam office of Portland-based Wieden + Kennedy. That European perspective may have influenced the choice of the company name and the push to fully Americanize booking.
Speaking of euphemistic expletives and brand-name dropping, a play I saw last night at Berkeley Rep is gloriously full of both. Troublemaker, by Dan LeFranc, is a live-action adventure comic featuring a posse of 12-year-olds who speak an idiosyncratic lingo filled with invented profanity. The play’s subtitle—“The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright”—gives you a taste; two minor characters are listed in the credits as A-Hole #1 and A-Hole #2. Tween tough-gal Loretta Beretta (great name!) snarls some of the best lines: “I’ll rip off your breadstick and shove it up your Olive Garden.” “Shut your St. Francis and move your Assisi.” “You’re lucky I don’t break your banana, remove it from your republic, and shove it up your gap.” In his review for Theater Dogs, Chad Jones wrote that it’s “pretend swearing taken to such an outrageous level that it’s actually beautiful in its own poetic way.” The play ends its Berkeley run on Sunday; if it shows up in your city, go see it.
Malarkey: Nonsense, horsefeathers, bushwah, humbug, bunkum, rubbish, twaddle, exaggeration, lies. Originally US slang, first seen in print in 1924 in the Indiana Gazette (“The rest of the chatter is so much malarkey …”). Its origin is unknown; attempts to connect slang malarkey to the Irish surname Malarkey or to modern Greek malakia (“soft”) have proved fruitless.
Malarkey was all over the news after last Thursday’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan. Biden used the word twice: “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey” and—clarifying his characterization of Ryan’s comments as “a bunch of stuff”—“We Irish call it malarkey.”
Malarkey was the most looked-up word after the debate, according to Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. It is the 2012 campaign’s quaint-euphemism equivalent of 2008’scockamamie, which GOP candidate John McCain used in reference to … Joe Biden.
On Friday, the Visual Thesaurus devoted a column to malarkey. “Biden certainly knows his way around a colorful Irish expression,” wrote Ben Zimmer:
The word malarkey, meaning “insincere or exaggerated talk,” originally found favor in Irish-American usage, though its exact origin remains unknown. We can likely thank a cartoonist of Irish descent, Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (“TAD” for short), for popularizing the word.
The Atlantic Wire also devoted a column to malarkey. (“Adding a ‘With all due respect’ to the phrase, [Biden] is clearly insinuating, or outright stating, that Ryan’s words are not to be taken as truth, that it’s just a bunch of hooey, right?”) At The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan called malarkey “literally, the word of the night.” (The “literally” was a sly reference to Biden’s repeated use of that word in his Democratic National Convention speech.) And in The Economist’s language blog, Johnson, Robert Lane Greene saidhe was skeptical of the Irish-origin story: “Giving English words Irish etymologies is a proud Irish and Irish-American pastime,” he wrote, adding, “Whether malarkey’s putative Irish origin is malarkey, bunkum, hokum or legitimate may be lost to history.”
Although malarkey has American roots, it occasionally shows up in the UK. Helen Dunmore, a British poet and novelist, titled her recent poetry collection The Malarkey. (“You looked away just once / as you leaned on the chip-shop counter, / and forty years were gone. / You have been telling them forever / stop that malarkey in the back there!”)
In the US, malarkey has been used as a trademark, most often as an eponym (Malarkey Roofing Products, Malarkey’s restaurant). But I also found a Malarkey clothing brand, originally registered to a company called Shenanigans. Shenanigans (trickery, skulduggery, a prank, an exhibition of high spirits) is another charming and mysterious American word. It first appeared in print in 1855, in a San Francisco publication called Town Talk; the next two citations (dated 1856 and 1857) are also from California. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word may have come from Spanish chanada, a shortened form of charranada “trick, deceit.” Lacking corroborating evidence, though, lexicologists throw up their hands and declare shenanigans, like malarkey, to be “of uncertain origin.”
UPDATE: Lucy Ferriss considers malarkeyat the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog: “We have waded through misstatements, false claims, and fiery pants. And finally we have arrived at malarkey, which has the extra advantage of being fun to say.”
We have a three-day weekend here in California, in honor of the holiday called Columbus Day (traditionally), Indigenous People’s Day (in Berkeley and elsewhere), and Exploration Day (according to a group of scientists who are petitioning the government for an official name-change). It’s a good opportunity to catch up on some long-form reading. Here are three pieces I recommend.
“Villager and Me” is Andrea Lee’s reminiscence—sparked by an encounter with an ad in a 1969 issue of The New Yorker—of the “proto-preppie” women’s fashion brands Villager and Ladybug. “Up and down the East Coast,” Lee writes, “in that American provincial period before the invasion of international brands, before ‘Love Story’ had graven the word ‘preppie’ into the national consciousness, boarding-school girls and country-club wives swathed themselves in Ladybug and Villager. Until, of course, the zeitgeist swept them off to become hippies.”
A typical Villager dress—which I remember well from my own West Coast girlhood—looked like this:
“Rustling softly downwards, like the quality of mercy…”
The clothes were demure, but the ad copy and color names could cause an impressionable girl to swoon with desire. The real story here, though, is about the man behind Villager and Ladybug, Max Raab, “a brilliant mercurial Jewish Philadelphian, son of a garment manufacturer whose ambition was to make the cheapest blouse in town.” Here’s Lee on Raab:
A lifetime maverick with a passion for jazz and movies, Raab flunked out of high school, fought in the Korean war, pumped gas, delivered mail, and sold televisions and Fuller brushes before coming up with the idea that made his—first—fortune. I like to imagine that he built the Villager and Ladybug concept on his wistful outsider’s view of the style Philadelphia débutantes were after when they borrowed their boyfriends’ Oxford cloth shirts. By the time I was mooning over the ads, there were over a hundred Villager shops with rustic wooden floors nationwide, and his line of upscale feminine sportswear had earned a hundred and forty million dollars. “I know women better than they know themselves ” Raab said in a New York Times interview. “The Waspy girls all want that country look, and the Jewish girls want to look like the Wasps. I knew I had a winner.”
Raab enjoyed “a long, sublimely quirky career” that included producing out-of-the-mainstream movies such as A Clockwork Orange. (Lee: “When I read that, I just sat for a minute imagining Shetland cardigans and A-line skirts mingling in his brain with Malcolm McDowell and his droogs.”) When he died, in 2008, Raab was working on a film about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya.
Andrea Lee used to contribute regularly to The New Yorker; this article—online only—is the first writing of hers I’ve seen in quite a while. More, please!
In a very different elegiac vein is this interview in The Awl with the writer Fran Lebowitz, who achieved meteoric success in the late 1970s and has been famously afflicted with writer’s block—but not talker’s block—ever since. If you’ve seen the 2010 HBO documentary about her, Public Speaking, you’ll be familiar with some of the territory covered in the Q&A—in particular, the gay culture of the 1970s and the effect of the AIDS epidemic on the New York arts audience. Lebowitz is so quotable that it’s hard to pick just one excerpt, but I’ll try: “The memories of people are very short. As we know, because otherwise we certainly wouldn't still have Republicans in office.”
It is an interesting question, meanwhile, why the word “baby” in menu descriptions does not disgust us. Surely the last things we want to eat are babies. But perhaps once we are lulled into an imaginative world where a “baby” lamb or the “baby” queen scallop can be “resting” (in the scallop’s case, resting itself on another baby, this time a “baby gem”, since vegetables too – baby carrots, baby greens – can share in the general babyhood of all nice things, and participate in tottering towers of babies all stacked up for our gastric enjoyment), we are cocooned in such a euphemistic dream that the incipient act of putting these “baby” organisms into our mouths doesn’t register as the horrific dissonance it otherwise might.
Poole traces the word “foodie” back to 1982 and “foodist” to the late 19th century—for hucksters selling fad diets, “which is quite apt,” he tartly observes.
Actually, it’s been a very good year for every iteration of the A-word. According to the media-news site Romenesko, which pays attention to such things, “ass” has appeared 22 times on NPR in the last year, only three times “in reference to the animal.” And there’s been little objection among booksellers to the barely taboo-avoiding title of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s latest book, released in August.
Book cover with wall of assholes.
The subtitle—“Assholism, the First Sixty Years”—makes it clear that Nunberg’s A-word is “asshole,” a word Nunberg says originated among American GIs during World War II and entered everyday language in the 1970s.*
I haven’t (yet) seen “asshole” in brand language, but—as noted in this space on severalpreviousoccasions—“ass” has been steadily gaining ground in the marketplace. In fact, “bad ass,” noun and adjective, has become practically a badge of brand honor.
The winery’s own website, however, compares the taste of Charles & Charles rosé to Jolly Ranchers, which seems kind of candy-ass to me.
Down in Los Angeles, there’s a food truck—excuse me, “gourmet mobile burger concept”—that puts “badass” right up front in the name: Baby’s Badass Burgers.
(Hat tip: Michael.)
Indeed, LA may want to change its acronym to “BA.” TechCrunch reported last month on an infusion of cash for online retailer Nasty Gal, whose offices are in the 213.
Nasty Gal takes its name from the album by Betty Davis, “the patron saint of badass women,” according to the About Us page.
In other news, a movie called Ass Backwards, starring Clueless’s Alicia Silverstone, is currently in post(erior)-production. The film’s writers raised more than $50,000 in funding on Kickstarter but haven’t sent updates to backers in more than 15 months, which sounds downright A-wordish.
And because if I don’t include it I’m sure to hear from several of you, here’s your Big Ass Fans mention. The company, whose logo is a donkey’s behind, is based in Lexington, Kentucky; the ad is in the September 17 issue of the New Yorker and may represent the first time “bespoke” and “ass” have appeared together in a commercial context.
* I heard Nunberg talk about Ascent of the A-Word last month at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, where his interviewer was Robert J. Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule. Because the event was being taped for public-radio broadcast, both gentlemen had to sidestep actual A-words in favor of “A-word.” It was an impressive exercise in forbearance, although Nunberg did slip in a D-word.
A couple of language notes from San Francisco Pride, the annual celebration that culminated yesterday with the Pride Parade from Market and Beale streets to Civic Center.
I spotted “Touch Our Junk!” on the marquee of the Nob Hill Theatre (not on the parade route). The façade was festooned with rainbow bunting.
Nob Hill Theatre, 729 Bush Street, San Francisco. (Shot through my windshield.)
“Junk” as a slang synonym for “male genitals” became a “cri de crotch” (as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus put it) in late 2010, after a software engineer named John Tyner refused the full-body security scan at San Diego International Airport. “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested,” Tyner told the screener. The trope quickly evolved into “Don’t touch my junk!” The Nob Hill Theatre marquee playfully inverted (ahem) the quote, turning a threat into an invitation.
Since it’s doubtful that the young popularizers of junk were familiar with Mordden’s fictional forerunners, something about the sound and sense of the word must have made it ripe for reinvention. Tom Dalzell, whose latest book is “Damn the Man!: Slang of the Oppressed in America,” sees junk catching on euphemistically: “To diminish the shock, we call the genitals childish names or use vague and sometimes coy euphemisms —down there, unit or thing.” The Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky concurs, adding stuff as another euphemistic model forjunk. Unlike these other terms, however, junk is a harsh monosyllable evocative of four-letter taboos.
OccuPride was formed to protest the commercialization and corporatization of the Pride observances.
As for “gay pride,” the phrase first appeared in print in the Washington Post’s June 29, 1970, coverage of a march that “was the climax of what its organizers called ‘Gay Pride Week’.” (Note the use of quotation marks around Gay Pride Week.) “Pride” was chosen because it’s the antithesis of “shame”; earlier slogans had included “gay is good” and “gay liberation.” The success of “pride” is often credited to Brenda Howard, an activist in New York City who helped organize the first-anniversary commemoration, in 1970, of the Stonewall riots.
“Pride” is also, of course, the collective noun for a group of lions. This association has been made explicit in some usages of “gay pride.”
According to the OED, “pride” is also an obsolete term for sexual desire (“esp. in a female animal; heat”). It’s also one of the seven deadly sins. Columnist and author Dan Savage wrote in a June 1999 issue of The Stranger:
Webster’s defines pride as “inordinate self-esteem,” or “a reasonable and justifiable self-respect." Whether inordinate or justifiable, pride was an effective antidote: as more gays and lesbians committed the sin of pride, fewer were victimized by shame.