My June column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the brand names and specialized vocabulary of electric vehicles (EVs, BEVs, ZEVs, and their kin). As you may recall, I’ve become a little obsessed with this subject ever since I researched and (finally) bought a PHEV—that’s a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
Full access to the column is paywalled for three months; here’s an excerpt:
October 2019 marks the centenary of the Volstead Act, the federal legislation that led to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution—and to the misguided 13-year social experiment known as Prohibition. From January 1, 1920, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration in March 1933, the manufacture, sale, and importation of “intoxicating liquors” were officially outlawed. As everyone knows, all of those activities flourished illicitly.
My May column for the Visual Thesaurustalks about how we talk about e-scooters, the rentable two-wheelers from companies like Lime, Bird, Skip, and Spin that have swooped into San Francisco, Oakland, and many other cities.
Lime e-scooters at a downtown Oakland BART station.
Full access is restricted to subscribers for three months; here’s an excerpt:
Today’s electric scooters weigh between 25 and 40 pounds and are sometimes called LEVs, or “light electric vehicles.” (Almost all of them have four-letter brand names, for no reason I can discern other than copycatting.) Proponents tout them as a solution to the challenges of first-mile and last-mile transportation, terms that originated in the freight and supply-chain industries and now refer to getting people from their starting point to a transportation hub (bus stop, train station) or from the hub to a final destination. Naysayers have taken to prophesying scootergeddon: an aggressive “invasion” of two-wheeled vehicles as dire as the End of Days.
Then there are those who look at the big picture, regarding e-scooters as a necessary element of the micro-mobility movement, which seeks to shift the balance of city transportation from gas-powered cars to human-powered bicycles and to scooters and small cars powered by electricity. There’s even serious talk about Universal Basic Mobility, or UBM. Modeled on the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI), UBM recognizes freedom of movement as a basic human right. It might be implemented through a platform called mobility as a service (MaaS), a term modeled on “software as a service” (SaaS), which emerged during the late 1990s in the first dot-com boom. MaaS combines transportation services from public and private transportation providers “through a unified gateway that creates and manages the trip, which users can pay for with a single account,” according to a Wikipedia entry.
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.
“Picking a product name is all agony and no ecstasy,” writes Trello founder Dan Ostlund (“The Agonies of Picking a Product Name”). His detailed account of his own DIY effort is a cautionary tale, although he doesn’t explain why the company felt it necessary to jettison its perfectly good placeholder name.
Top executives writing about verbal branding may be a trend now. Here’s Larry D. Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California, on how his organization developed a new tagline (“What’s in a Tagline?”):
When I first proposed reexamining the tagline, I felt almost sheepish. The Hewlett Foundation pays little attention to self-promotion (that itself is a core value here), so why bother putting time and effort into something so marginal. Instead, the project proved to be both interesting and fruitful—an opportunity to reaffirm and remind ourselves about who we are and who we want to be.
You’ll have to scroll down to the tenth paragraph to learn what the new tagline is. Otherwise, nice process story.
This parody trailer for the new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, aired during Sunday night’s live Golden Globes broadcast, and it was so smart and funny I wished I could hit the rewind button. AdFreak says the promo “does a double public service by also making fun of all the mass-media self-adulation that studios crank out during Hollywood awards season.”
The Oxford University Press blog has a comprehensive words-of-the-year roundup that includes words of the year in Spain, Norway, France, and elsewhere. I’m fond of “plénior,” the mot nouveau pour 2014; it’s a more positive word for “senior citizen” that implies “full of life.”
While we’re in Oxford, check out the Oxford English Dictionary birthday word generator, which scours the OED database for words’ first occurrences, 1900 through 2004, and offers up one for your birth year. If you were born in 1984, for example, your word is “shopaholic.” Happy 30th, you crazy shopper, you!
“Unneeded warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who actually don’t know how to identify instances of what they are warning against, and the people they aim to educate or intimidate don’t know enough grammar to reject the nonsense they are offered. The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger.” That’s linguist Geoffrey Pullum in “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive.” It will be published later this year in the journal Language and Communication; but you can read the PDF now.Pullum cites 46 examples of tsk-tsking about “passive” constructions that aren’t passive at all.
It’s Portmanteauber! But first, let’s welcome the return of the Name of the Year Tournament, “a celebration of unconventional names and the people who wear them.” After a 30-year run, NOTY’s originators stepped down in 2012; the tournament is now run “by two recent graduates of a university near Chicago” with “boring names” who are carrying on the tradition under a new URL. This year’s brackets include Hurricane Weathers, Fancy English, and Leila Bossy-Nobs. Go forth and vote!
“One of my biggest language pet peeves is the phrase ‘That’s not a word’,” writes James Callan, a content strategist and linguistics aficionado in Seattle. So he launched the Nixicon “to find and retweet people on Twitter who claimed that something isn’t a word.” In less than a week he’d discovered and circulated more than 200 “not a word” tweets.
A few days after starting this, one thing is clear: people really hate irregardless, ain't, and mines.
As for the Nixicon name, James says it’s “a portmanteau of ‘nix’ (meaning ‘no’) and ‘lexicon’.”
Speaking of non-words and portmanteaus, in May 2012 a group of lexicographers, poets, and authors coined “phubbing”—a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”—to describe “the phenomenon of ignoring people in front of you in favor of paying attention to your phone,” according to an article in Advertising Age. Since then, the ad agency McCann Melbourne has been seeding the word—on Facebook and the StopPhubbing website, among other platforms—as a way to create interest in, and sell more copies of, a new edition of Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. The Wordability blog (which slightly misrepresents the word’s origin) calls phubbing “the best new word of the year” and says the word’s rise demonstrates “all that is good about modern word formation.”
Watch Macquairie’s video about the birth and spread of “phubbing.”
Why do some invented words—gobbledygook, blurb, and smog, for example—catch on? Ralph Keyes writes in The American Scholar that “need and usefulness” and the ability to “capture a widespread sensibility” are key indicators. So is playfulness: “A remarkable number of terms we use today originated in the speech bubbles and captions of cartoonists,” Keyes observes.
Thirty days hath Septaper? In Word Routes, Ben Zimmer looks at “the financial word of the moment,” taper, and how it gave rise to the portmanteaus Septaper (a gradual slowdown of bond-buying in September) and Octaper (ditto, for October). “September through December seem to lend themselves to creative blending,” Ben writes, “perhaps because the names form a prosodic pattern: each is a three-syllable sequence with a stressed middle syllable (i.e., an amphibrach) and ends in -er.” My own “portmonthteau” sightings include Socktober, Sharktober, OAKtober (celebrating the Oakland A’s), and Archtober (pronounced, perplexingly, ark-tober). (And see my 2012 post on X-toberfest.)
Another sadder-but-wiser tale: How not to name your restaurant. Author David Lizerbram, a trademark lawyer, leads off the story by observing: “It’s always astonishing to me that businesses will invest countless dollars in every aspect of their operations while relying on a name that will only bring legal issues.” Hear, hear!
If you’re launching a fashion brand, should you follow the traditional route and name it after yourself (which worked fine for Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Betsey Johnson)? Or should you follow the lead of some younger designers and choose a quirky name like Creatures of the Wind? Mark Prus, guest-blogging for Duets Blog, weighs the costs and benefits of “strange” as a naming strategy.
The Atlas of True Names “reveals the etymological roots, or original meanings, of the familiar terms on today's maps of the World, Europe, the British Isles and the United States. For instance, where you would normally expect to see the Sahara indicated, the Atlas gives you ‘The Tawny One’, derived from Arab. es-sahra “the fawn coloured, desert’.”