“Is Tinsel Canceled?” asks a headline in the December 19 New York Times Style section. The verdict: “Glitter, tinsel and shiny wrapping paper are now signs of the apocalypse, judging by the #zerowasteholidays and similar hashtags that are blooming on Instagram.”
That may be an overstatement: Tinsel tours and tinsel trailsstill thrive in various US municipalities, and mirror-bright strips adorn plenty of wreaths and trees. So let’s table the eco-arguments aside and get to the question at hand: What is this stuff called tinsel, and where does that word come from?
What’s your grief, and how are you coping with it? Perhaps you suffer from climate grief, a term that may have been coined in 2007, by the authors of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, to describe the despair and depression people experience when they contemplate the climate crisis. Maybe you console yourself by eating, which may result in what Germans call kummerspeck (literally “grief fat”).
Or maybe you, like New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, are experiencing democracy grief: not merely “anxiety and anger” but also “a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression” that—as one psychologist put it to Goldberg—“the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail.”
How Democracies Die (2018). by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who warn of the “gradual chipping away of democratic institutions” that makes it “harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent [elected official] by democratic means.”
Another week, another epithet. Last week we had a look at soy boy, although I’d considered shining a spotlight on incelinstead. (For an analysis of this insult, a portmanteau of involuntary and celibate, see Ben Zimmer’s essay for Politico.) This week we have another way to dis (white) men, this one instigated by our cousins across the pond: gammon.
Fooled you! Today’s gammon is unrelated to backgammon.
Such a lovely-sounding word; such a subtle, complex, and nearly universal emotion: “acute vexation, annoyance, or mortification, arising from disappointment, thwarting, or failure,” as the OED puts it*; “disquietude or distress of mind caused by humiliation, disappointment, or failure,” according to Merriam-Webster. It found its way into English from French in the late 17th century, and was considered “affected or frenchified” for several decades thereafter. Alexander Pope used chagrin in his 1714 narrative poem “The Rape of the Lock,” where he rhymed it with “spleen.” (Pope may have been singlehandedly responsible for rescuing chagrin from French purgatory: the OED gives two additional example sentences from his correspondence.)
I was surprised to learn that chagrin comes not from the language of moods but from the lexicon of the physical world. You may know its Anglicized form, shagreen (yes, rhymes with “spleen”), which means “rough, untanned leather … prepared from the skin of the horse, ass, etc., or of the shark, seal, etc., and frequently dyed green.” It’s also a color name.
From The Spruce, a home-and-family website: “If you're looking for a fun green paint color, consider Shagreen. This green is right on the cusp of warm and cool, with just enough softness to push it over to the cool side.”
How did a word for a type of leather become a word for a type of feeling?
How best to mark the end of the shitshow that was 2017? With a pilgrimage to an institution that mocks and celebrates all manner of flops, lemons, fiascos, misfires, and fuckups, of course. Which is how I found myself last week at the Museum of Failure in downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District. The traveling installation, housed in the A+D (architecture + design) Museum, is open to the public through February 4; it then returns to its permanent home home in Helsingborg, Sweden.
On March 24, Republican Congressional leaders withdrew the American Health Care Act – H.R. 1628, also known as AHCA, TrumpCare, RepubliCare, and RyanCare (after the House Speaker) – a mere 16 days after it was introduced in committee. The bill had been slapped together as a fulfillment of the “repeal and replace Obamacare” promise that Donald Trump had repeatedly made on the campaign trail, and which Republicans had been clamoring for since 2009, when “Obamacare” (the Affordable Care Act) became law. But it satisfied almost no one, and it was clearly not going to get enough House votes to be passed on to the Senate.
What to call this turn of events? CNN said it was “an epic failure.” Fox Business called it a “stinging defeat.” The Washington Post chose fiasco, a bit of 19th-century theater slang that borrows an Italian word for bottle, although the connection with failure is now obscure. On Twitter, conservative columnist Ben Shapiro it “self-beclowning.”
But many observers summoned up a word with French roots and nonpolitical origins: debacle.
Last week Buzzfeed published a collection of memos, prepared in 2015 by a former British intelligence agent, that make “explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been ‘cultivating, supporting and assisting’ President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him.” The “compromising information” included reports that Trump had engaged in “perverted sexual acts” in a Moscow hotel – acts that had been arranged and monitored by the FSB, Russia’s foreign security service.
The story introduced several terms to the public, including kompromat (a Russian portmanteau meaning “compromising material”) and “golden shower” (defined in the report as “a urination show” performed by Russian prostitutes). But the word that circulated most widely was dossier, which can mean “file,” “document,” “report,” or “case history,” often with detailed information on a specific person or subject.