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Pouring New Wine Into Old Phrasal Bottles


Erin McKean, who is OUP’s chief consulting editor for American dictionaries when she’s not busy being “America’s lexicographical sweetheart,” filled in this past Sunday for a vacationing William Safire, devoting the New York Times Magazine’s “On Language” column to a subject that should be familiar to readers of this column: the Oxford English Corpus and the fascinating things that it tells us about our changing language. Among Erin’s gleanings from the Corpus are the surprisingly violent associations people have with the word spork, and why we chide ourselves but lambaste others. I’d like to pick up where Erin left off to talk about some more ways that the Corpus can be “a microscope to show us patterns in language that aren’t visible to the naked eye.” One sort of patterning that the Corpus can illuminate is the way that writers and speakers of English often use an established phrase as a template for creative variations on a theme (even if those variations never make it into the dictionary).

Take the phrase inner child. Though the Oxford English Dictionary traces the expression all the way back to 1955, it really took off in the therapy-speak of the 1980s, used to characterize the childlike aspects of a person’s psyche lurking under the adult surface. Before long Iron John author Robert Bly was urging men to release their inner warrior. Since then, as the Corpus reveals, the floodgates have opened on the phrasal pattern inner X. In order of popularity in the massive collection of texts found on the Corpus, we find inner geek, inner nerd, inner diva, inner dweeb, inner slut, inner cynic, inner hippie, and inner brat. Clearly there are a lot of hidden personas that are struggling to come out and express themselves.

The writer Tom Wolfe coined the phrase radical chic in a 1970 New York article, as a way to poke fun at the affectations of affluent liberals. That spawned a new phrasal template, X chic, and now we have an efflorescence of subcultural fashions. Topping the Corpus list are geek chic, heroin chic, shabby chic, retro chic, urban chic, lesbian chic, casual chic, cheap chic, cutie chic, and porno chic. One online wag has even combined the inner X and X chic templates, exhorting readers to “embrace your inner geek chic.” (That’s geektastic!)

When physically challenged and mentally challenged became popularized in the ’80s as more positive alternatives to words like disabled or handicapped, some observers found the expressions to be little more than “politically correct” euphemisms. To satirize what critics felt was rampant PC-ism, X challenged (where X is an adverb) became a popular template to describe a shortcoming in quasi-euphemistic terms, such as describing a bald person as follically challenged. The most popular examples in the Corpus are: vertically challenged, intellectually challenged, ethically challenged, geographically challenged, mathematically challenged, technically challenged, technologically challenged, linguistically challenged, hormonally challenged, and grammatically challenged.

Every commuter knows about road rage, and the steroid scandals of recent years have also brought to prominence the similar sounding roid rage. But it turns out there are all sorts of X rages to characterize people’s furious reactions to modern annoyances: there’s air rage, spam rage, trolley rage, phone rage, surf rage, pavement rage, desk rage, golf rage, and parking rage. On his website WordSpy, Paul McFedries supplies us with a handy term for the passionate reaction one might feel when faced with all of these new rages: rage rage!

So far these examples have all hinged on phrases consisting of two words, with one slot filled with a new word of the writer’s choosing. In next week’s column I’ll examine more elaborate phrasal patterns beyond simple two-word combinations. I can’t promise it will be the mother of all columns, but I hope you’ll find it a kinder, gentler column and not the column from hell.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Scott Belyea

    I came across a construction in a newspaper a while back that bemused me – “a person of size.”

    This referred to being “overweight.” I find it an interesting euphemism because all reference to the condition being described has been leached out, and the expression says nothing if taken at face value.

  2. Rajeev Vaid

    just like bollywood (the Bombay Film industry) is part of the dictionary is Lollywood (Lahore) And Tollywood (kalKutta)also part of the dictionary. How about sharing some gyan on this. Words popular because of strange concoction of cities (Hollywood) and Industries (Film). Are there any similar words other than Film industry.

  3. Will

    Rajeev – one similar thing that comes to mind is the Watergate scandal, and how other government scandals in the US have acquired the -gate suffix (e.g. Monicagate) in the media. The name of the place (or part of the name, in your example “wood”) becomes associated so strongly with what happened there that it takes on connotations far beyond what the name itself means.

  4. Ozzie Maland

    RV queried about other conflations of city names with industries, besides Hollywood-video (“film” is now virtually extinct). “Detroit” used to be a term for the auto industry, but that usage is quickly disappearing, like “film.”

    Aloha ~~~ Ozzie Maland ~~~ San Diego

  5. […] for generating new concoctions, with some parts kept constant and other parts swapped out? Last week I discussed some simple two-word “templates” that allow for creative choices in filling […]

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