In the interviews I’ve done with the press for the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year selection, one word from our runner-up list always seems to draw comment: tase (or taze), meaning “to stun with a Taser (a brand of electroshock gun).” The incident that popularized the word tase is still fresh in the minds of many Americans: at a public forum with Sen. John Kerry at the University of Florida on Sep. 17, 2007, the student Andrew Meyer was arrested by University police after being subdued with a Taser. As millions would later see on YouTube and surrounding media coverage, Meyer shouted, “Don’t tase me, bro!” as the police sought to restrain him. This quickly became a well-traveled catchphrase, appearing on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and the like. Despite all the attention tase has received from this event, the word actually has had a long history predating its moment in the pop-cultural sun.
The word Taser, it should first be said, is a proprietary name currently trademarked by TASER International, Inc. According to the company’s website, the name should properly appear in capital letters and should always be used as an adjective (not as a noun or a verb), as in: “The officer shot his TASER device.” This is standard legal language used by companies seeking to preserve the distinctiveness of their brand names. Google, Inc., for instance, would like you to know that the proper usage of their trademarked name is “GOOGLE search engine,” no noun or verb forms allowed. (Google at least tries to maintain a sense of humor about it.) Despite these legal admonishments, brand names like Google and Taser have become nouns and verbs in common parlance, and it is incumbent on lexicographers to document such usage (while still noting that the trademarks are proprietary).
In the case of Taser, the brand name was coined by the inventor of the device, NASA scientist Jack Cover. Cover reportedly formed the name from the initial letters of Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, after the 1911 juvenile adventure novel Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Since the protagonist Tom Swift never actually revealed his middle initial, we can guess that Taser is something of a backronym, i.e., a word that is “retrofitted” with an acronymic expansion after the fact. Taser appears to be modeled on an earlier acronym, laser (“light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation”), which in turn was modeled on maser (“microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). Another possible inspiration for Taser is phaser, the name of a fictional weapon familiar to Star Trek fans. According to Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry originally wanted to call the weapon a laser but then opted for phaser instead.
The Taser was first marketed in the early 1970s, and it wasn’t long before the brand name began to be used as a verb (much to the chagrin of the company’s legal team, no doubt). The Oxford English Dictionary cites a usage from the Jan. 13, 1976 New York Times Magazine, describing how the jolt from the weapon causes the victim “to become ‘Tasered.'” Though taser has remained a common verb form, about a decade later another verb began to appear: tase. Making the verb tase out of the noun taser is what’s known as a back-formation, and in fact similar back-formations have been created from the acronymic predecessors maser and laser: the OED dates the verbs mase and lase from 1962.
The earliest example of tase that we’ve found in electronic newspaper databases is from 1988. An article in the Houston Chronicle from March 21 of that year quotes a local police sergeant saying, “The prisoner got very violent with us. Then we had to tase him.” But it might have been the Rodney King incident in 1991 that brought tase into wider circulation. As was revealed in the trial of the police officers accused of using excessive force, LAPD transmissions included the line, “You just had a big time use of force … tased and beat the suspect of CHP pursuit.”
So tase had been used in law enforcement circles for nearly two decades before Andrew Meyer so memorably uttered it in Gainesville last September. Compared to some of the fresher neologisms included in our Word of the Year runner-up list, that makes tase a much more likely candidate for inclusion in the next edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary. It’s got a track record, and it has achieved prominence in mainstream usage, thanks in large part to Meyer’s arrest and some other controversial Taser incidents. To be sure, it’s not the most pleasant addition to the English vocabulary, but there’s no denying it was a word on many people’s lips in 2007.
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