I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
Most naming advice in the popular media makes me clutch my head in despair, but this Inc. article by Minda Zetlin is different. Zetlin interviewed experienced name developers Anthony Shore and David Placek—both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with—and their real-world examples are smart and helpful. “Avoid names that describe your product” and “Don’t fall in love with one name” are the first tips, and yes, you’ve heard them from me, too. (h/t trademark lawyer Ed Timberlake)
On March 13, 2020, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski noticed that all of the dictionary’s lookups were pandemic related: coronavirus, quarantine, draconian, lockdown, cancel. For the somber one-year anniversary this month, WGBH looked at how the pandemic has transformed the English language, and whether its impact will endure:
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like “doomscrolling” and “covidiot” make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will “COVID-19,” in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by “Covid-19,” in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
“Trade characters” like Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man used to be much more common in American commerce than they are today, writes logo expert James I. Bowie in Marker. They were so common, in fact, that the US Patent and Trademark Office assigned six-digit codes to trademark applications to “capture personal characteristics, including race and gender, as they were perceived in American culture many decades ago”:
There are codes for Native Americans and Asian Pacific people, but not for African Americans. Women, but not men, can be coded as “Hawaiian,” while men, but not women, can be deemed “Famous,” “Cowboys and westerners,” or “Farmers, hillbillies, or hobos” (the second of these terms was recently stricken). The categories for Scottish men and women seem to exist solely to code trade characters representing thriftiness — or, more bluntly, cheapness.
Aunt Jemima pancake mix, circa 1940s. James Bowie: “The Aunt Jemima logo was given codes 020301 (portraits of women) and 020315 (women wearing scarves on their heads).” Read my February 10 post about Aunt Jemima’s recently announced name change.
Speaking of dictionaries, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has compiled a new historical dictionary of science-fiction, and it’s out of this world. Read about it in Wired (Adam Rogers calls Sheidlower “a lexicographical mad scientist”) and in theNew York Times (Jennifer Schuessler calls Sheidlower’s 1995 book, The F-Word, “a cheekily learned history of the notorious obscenity”).
Happy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The traditional Airing of Grievances seems superfluous this year: we’ve been airing and grieving for most of 2020. So let us gather quietly—and virtually—around the traditionally unadorned Festivus pole and wish for feats of strength to get us through the season.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.