My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus is about The Big Disruption, the satirical novel by Jessica Powell that made waves when it was published earlier this month on Medium, where it can be read at no charge.
Most coverage centered on the unusual publication mode, the Silicon Valley satire, and Powell’s credentials: She’s a former VP of communications at Google. My column take a different view: I’m interested in the names Powell invented for companies, products, and characters, including “Anahata,” the fictional company at the heart of the story.
Access to the column is restricted to VT subscribers for three months; here’s an excerpt:
I reached Jessica Powell by email to ask her how she created Anahata, Arsyen, Galt, Pyrhhia, and other names. Her process, it turned out, was sometimes more intuitive than strategic.
Anahata. Powell didn’t invent this name; it’s a Sanskrit word that in yogic traditions denotes the heart chakra. (A chakra is an energy center. Anahata literally means “unstruck” or “unbroken.”) Powell chose it, she told me, because “it spoke to the hypocrisy of the Valley – picking something that some Westerner thought sounded mystical to describe a service that might actually be far more banal.”
Arsyen Aino. This outsider protagonist is never identified by ethnicity. “I wanted Arsyen to be primarily identified by the reader as a prince and an outsider to the Valley,” Powell told me. “So I didn’t want him to have any of the baggage that might have come from pegging him to a specific country. There are so many things that I'm attacking in this book; I didn’t want his origin to be a distraction. So I looked at a lot of names from different parts of the world – Slavic languages, but also African ones – and then just started playing with sound combinations.”
Democrats “have gone loco, they have gone loco,” President Trump told a crowd in Tennessee on October 1. He added, for the benefit of monolingual listeners: “They have gone crazy.” Earlier that day, at a White House press conference, he had used the same word to disparage another group on his enemies list:
“They’re loco,” he said of the media. “I use that word because of that fact that we made a trade deal with Mexico.”
Two days earlier, Trump had tested “loco” at a West Virginia rally, saying the Democratic Party was “so far left, Pocohantas” – his often-invoked slur for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – “is considered conservative.” The Democrats “have gone crazy. They’ve gone loco.”
And on October 10 Trump wielded his new favorite adjective against the Federal Reserve Bank.
His full comment, in an interview with Fox News: “The Fed is going wild. I mean, I don’t know what their problem is that they are raising interest rates and it’s ridiculous. The Fed is going loco, and there’s no reason for them to do it. I’m not happy about it.”
Faster than a speeding locomotive, reporters were turning “loco” against its source. “Donald Trump’s Loco Attack on the Federal Reserve” was the headline on an article by staff writer John Cassidy in the New Yorker online. (Cassidy’s conclusion: “Rather than acting strategically and respecting an institutional setup that, generally speaking, has served the country well, [Trump] went loco.”) Washington Post opinion writer Catherine Rampell observed that “Trump’s arm-twisting of the Fed is what’s truly ‘loco’.”
That’s a lot of “loco” for a single fortnight, and the reasons for its sudden surge are unclear. Trump often has trouble stringing together a coherent sentence in his native English, and he has no history of demonstrating admiration for the Spanish language or its speakers. (In the only other example I can recall of his using Spanish, he called for deporting “bad hombres” during an October 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. He mispronounced “hombres” as “hambres,” which means “hungers.”) Is Trump a fan of Marcelo “El Loco” Bialsa, the Argentine-born soccer coach now managing Leeds United? Doubtful. Was the recent Spanish incursion was influenced by “Loco,” a new track by Machine Gun Kelly released in August of this year?
I didn’t expect to spot a domain trend when I attendedMad Props, “a night of live storytelling to help us all understand the state propositions on the 2018 California ballot,” held Monday at a funky club near San Francisco’s Civic Center. Honestly, I just wanted to become a better-informed voter. But the trend was too obvious to ignore.
When I checked in I picked up a voter guide published by BytheBay.cool (“Our mission is to transform residents into citizens”); inside was a printed link for voters outside San Francisco, Ballot.fyi (“We're tired of the constant news about Trump. Luckily, California gives us 11* semi-ridiculous ballot initiatives to vote on and make fun of. We'll break them down for you, explain what different sides are saying and why your vote actually matters”).
Have you ever noticed a certain word a couple of times within a short period of time, and then started seeing it everywhere? The Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky calls this the frequency illusion*, and I was afflicted by it last week. The word I kept seeing was stunt, the noun, and the more I looked into it the more it seemed to multiply. What was particularly striking was how it was implemented across the political spectrum to comment on recent events. I even discovered a new-to-me slang definition of the verb to stunt.
The Stunt Man (1980). Delightful movie. Its Spanish title, by the way, is El Especialista.
Mountain Dew, the neon-yellow-green soft drink brand owned by PepsiCo, evidently failed to consult anyone in Scotland before it introduced its new ad slogan, “Epic thrills start with a chug.” If it had, it would have learned that chug is Scottish slang for masturbate. (Jelisa Castrodale for Vice, via Language Log)
That word: It does not mean what you think it means. Not in Scotland, anyway. (Via @jaysebro)
Last month I wroteabout the henchman in a New York Daily News headline, “All the President’s Henchmen.” This week my new Visual Thesaurus column looks at the whole phrase, which is an example of a snowclone, or phrasal template. (Other well-used snowclones include “X is the new Y” and “Eskimos have N words for snow.”)
“All the president’s men” and its variations – including “All the President’s Lawyers” (a podcast), “All the President’s Mess” (a recurring feature on MSNBC), and “All the President’s Mendacity”(another Daily News headline) – trace their origins to the 1974 Woodward-Bernstein book about Nixon and Watergate. And that title was a variation on All the King’s Men (1946), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren … which itself came from the old Humpty Dumpty rhyme, which was popularized by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass (1871) but didn’t originate there.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the renowned British folklorists Iona and Peter Opie quote one of their sources as saying the rhyme may be “one of those pieces the antiquity of which ‘is to be measured in thousands of years, or rather it is so great that it cannot be measured at all.’” There are similar rhymes in many European traditions, the Opies write, “and it seems undeniable that they are connected with the English rhyme.” …
The “Humpty Dumpty” name pre-dates the character in the rhyme. In the late 17th century, according to the OED, humpty dumpty was a drink made of ale boiled with brandy. A century later, humpty dumpty was a jocular term for “a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person."”Because of the latter association, there has been speculation – never substantiated – that the Humpty Dumpty in the rhyme was King Richard III, who was depicted as a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play and other sources. Another faux etymology was proposed by David Daube, a British professor who wrote in a 1956 issue of The Oxford Magazine that Humpty Dumpty was a siege engine that “sat on a wall” and was used unsuccessfully in 1643, during the English Civil War. But the Opies dismissed Daube’s theory as “a spoof” and “ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake.”