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.”
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)
Mystified by bitcoin, satoshi, token, and cryptocurrency? Follow me into the blockchain mines to discover and polish some linguistic nuggets. I also look into one of the newer applications of blockchain: Voatz, which is offering voting by smartphone app to military servicemembers from West Virginia who are stationed overseas.
Token. This very old word is used in three novel ways in the blockchain universe. In a general sense, it describes any cryptocurrency. (Bitcoin is a token; Ethereum is a token.) It may also describe a unit of value (“I have 100 Bitcoin tokens”). And it may, according to CryptocurrencyFacts.com, refer “to the fact that the creation, transfer, and storage of cryptocurrencies use strings of data called tokens.”
Token goes back to Old English, where it was spelled tacen and meant a sign, a symbol, or evidence; it could also mean “a characteristic mark.” (During the plague years of the Middle Ages, the purplish spots on an infected person’s body were called “God’s tokens.”) The idiom “by the same token” – meaning “in the same way,” “for the same reason” – first appeared in the mid-15th century. By the late 16th century, a token was a coin-like piece of stamped metal,” a meaning we still see in “subway token.”
Token became an adjective meaning “nominal” or “symbolic” in the early 20th century; token payment (of a small or nominal sum) was first recorded around 1933. This “minimal” sense carries over to tokenism, a word that appeared in the 1960s to describe the practice or policy of making only a minimal effort toward racial or ethnic integration.
I regret that I learned about the fifth Global Fact Checking Summit – indeed, that I learned that there was such a thing as a global fact-checking summit – only after it took place last month. It sure would have been a good excuse to get myself to Rome. (What? There are other excuses?) The summit was sponsored by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida, and one of the panels I’d have liked to attend was devoted to “the coming fake videogeddon,” which will be brought to us (or not) by a technology known by the convenient nickname deepfake.
Deepfake videos are a concern for fact-checkers, but they're not as easy to create as the media let on. We should know — we tried to create one https://t.co/fEQEglSLoe#GlobalFactV
You’ve probably seen the emoticon, a stripped-down rendering of a half-smiling skeptic.
The symbol’s official name is shruggie (or, alternatively, smugshrug). In an appreciation published in The Awl in 2014, Kyle Chayka noted that it could be used to express nihilism or “bemused resignation,” and was even “a Zen-like tool to accept the chaos of universe.”
I’m seeing the shadow of a shruggie in a new generation of ads whose dominant feature is a copy-intensive combination of insolence and indifference. The ads are aimed at digital natives – people under 35 – yet appear in traditional non-digital media: print magazines, public transit. Their grim forerunner, now 18 months old, is the Fiverr campaign, which I wrote about last year, calling it “mean spirited”; the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino went further and called it “dystopian.” The current crop is slightly less cynical but still snarky and smug with a hint of that existential shrug.
A century ago, dozens of American girls were named Milady because of the success of a new product: the Milady Décolleté Gillette safety razor, developed to remove underarm hair. (And did you know that “underarm” was coined as a euphemism for “armpit”?) (Baby Name Wizard)
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.
If you’re just a tiny bit aware of blockchain, it’s probably thanks to Bitcoin, the peer-to-peer virtual currency introduced in January 2009 and rising sensationally, if erratically, in value ever since. (On November 25 a single bitcoin was worth US$8,770.) Bitcoin was made possible through blockchain technology, which, put as simply as possible, is a linked and cryptographically secured list of transactions.
Blockchain – also known as advanced digital ledger technology, or ADLT – makes obvious sense for currency. But it’s much more than the core component of a quirky monetary system with an enigmatic inventor. “Simply put,” The Economistexplained in an October 31, 2015, article, “it is a machine for creating trust.” And that means blockchain’s potential for secure transactions of many kinds is seemingly limitless. In fact, “blockchain for X” is fast becoming the new “Uber for X.”