A Poptastic Geekfest for Infoholics
As we here at Oxford try to keep track of the torrent of new words entering the English language, we notice certain peculiar patterns developing. One of the most popular methods of forming a new word these days is by fusing the parts of existing ones like Frankenstein’s monster. The two winners in the “New Word Open Mic” I mentioned a few weeks ago are good examples of this blending process in action: hangry is a blend of hungry and angry, while newsrotica blends news and erotica. Sometimes a piece of a word can get downright gregarious, uniting with a whole slew of fellow members of the lexicon. Juice manufacturers rely on us to recognize that the cran- of cranberry can mix it up with other fruit names to form cran-raspberry, cran-strawberry, cran-grape, cran-apple, cran-pineapple, and so forth. And the fast food industry has inundated us with all manner of burgers since the original hamburger, like turkeyburger, chickenburger, baconburger, steakburger, and veggieburger. (Of course, it was inevitable that someone had to come up with the cranburger.)
This type of combining form has skyrocketed in the past several decades, with fresh words spawned with a prodigiousness that is positively Biblical: alcoholic begat workaholic, marathon begat telethon, economics begat Reaganomics, Watergate begat Monicagate. If you want to see how forms like -holic, -thon, -nomics, and -gate are flourishing, you could use a search engine like Google or Yahoo!, but they’ll only take you so far. Searching on -tacular (from spectacular), for instance, will only turn up cases where the suffix is separated from the main form by a hyphen (spook-tacular) or a space (spook tacular), but not when it’s used in a single unbroken word (spooktacular). Short of simply guessing at which coinages might come up, what are word-hunters to do? Once again the Oxford English Corpus comes to the rescue. The Corpus can be analyzed with search tools that let us see which pieces of words are combining with others in contemporary English. And a look at the most popular coinages formed in this way can be quite revealing about our interests and obsessions.
For instance, beyond workaholic, the Corpus tells us that the most addictive terms are shopaholic, chocoholic, sexaholic, rageaholic, spendaholic, blogaholic, bookaholic, foodaholic, webaholic, readaholic, and carboholic. Another good example of this formation is the current New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Week: infoholic, defined as “a person who feels compelled to search out news and information, especially online.” (I’m afraid that definition hits a little too close to home. If they ever form an Infoholics Anonymous, I’ll be the first in line!)
Popular marathon-like activities other than telethon include: blogathon, walkathon, swimathon, slimathon, readathon, skipathon, bikeathon, radiothon, cyclethon, and danceathon. The danceathon may have peaked in the mid-20th century, but the blogathon looks like it’s just building steam. As for different flavors of economics, the best-selling book Freakonomics has successfully popularized the title coinage, to stand alongside such others as infonomics, bionomics, and greenomics. But most of the common forms ending in -nomics attach to the names of prominent politicians on the model of Reaganomics (and Nixonomics before it). Hence in the US we get Clintonomics, Bushonomics, Kerrynomics, and Rubinomics (after Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin). It’s popular outside of the US as well, as illustrated by Rogernomics (after New Zealand Finance Minister Roger Douglas), Thaksinomics (after Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra), and Manmohanomics (after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh).
The suffix -licious, from delicious, is prominent enough to merit an entry in recent additions to the Oxford English Dictionary, cropping up alongside the words bootylicious (found in song lyrics by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Destiny’s Child) and babelicious (traceable to the first Wayne’s World movie). Some of the other top -licious formations are proper names, like Blackalicious (the name of a hiphop duo), Bubblicious (a brand of bubblegum), and Ninjalicious (the alias of Jeff Chapman, founder of Infiltration magazine). Others include babylicious, hunkalicious, yummilicious, funkalicious, and sacrilicious. That last one isn’t just a typo for sacrilegious, by the way — as any Simpsons fan will tell you, it’s the inspired blend used by Homer to describe a waffle that he mistakes for God and then eats. (For the history of such -licious words, see my Language Log post on the topic.)
There’s plenty more where that came from: on this page you can find what the Oxford English Corpus gives as the most common uses of -fest (as in geekfest), -tastic (as in poptastic) and -ville (as in dumpsville). And with all of these combinable chunks of lexical matter at your disposal, there’s no reason to be shy about stitching together your own Frankenwords.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.