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Scholarly reflections on ‘vape’

Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity around the world. With the announcement of vape as our Word of the Year, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

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“Electronic cigarettes (ECIGs) are a rapidly evolving group of products that are designed to deliver aerosolized nicotine to the user. If ECIGs are used in the short-term to help smokers quit tobacco use completely and then eliminate all nicotine intake, they have some potential to reduce the health risks that smokers face. However, ECIGs also present a potential public health challenge because of uncertainty regarding the long-term health effects of inhalation of an aerosol that contains, in addition to the dependence-producing drug nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorants, and a variety of other chemicals. Very recent data demonstrate that ECIGs can be as effective as tobacco cigarettes in terms of the amount of nicotine delivered, raising the possibility that they also may be equally addictive. If ECIGs are as addictive as tobacco cigarettes, quitting them may be difficult for smokers who used them to stop smoking and for non-smokers, young and old, who began using them because ECIGs are marketed aggressively and flavored attractively. The rapid evolution of the product, coupled with the unknown effects of long-term inhalation of the aerosol highlight the need for ongoing, objective, empirical evaluation of these products with the goal of minimizing risk to individual and public health.”
Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Co-director, Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, at Virginia Commonwealth University

Electronic Cigarette Smoking by Michael Dorausch. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Vape is a practical solution to a recently-arisen lexical gap that points up the genius of English lexical expansion. It supplies a simple verb with predictable inflections (vaping, vaped), built on an already familiar pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (as in bake, file, poke, rule, and hundreds of others). Vape also conforms to the one-syllable pattern of many verbs, standard and informal, denoting ingestion: eat, drink, chug, quaff, smoke, snarf, snort, whiff. Although the root vapor is from Latin, speakers have effortlessly nativized it by removing the unneeded second syllable.”
Orin Hargraves, lexicographer, researcher of the computational use of language at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of many books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches.

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Vape is a great choice for Word of the Year, not just because 2014 was the Year of Vaping, but because it is aesthetically perfect for marketing vaporizing paraphernalia and taking over the eroding market for traditional smoking products. Think about it: smoking. It’s really an unattractive word related to other unattractive words, like choking and hacking. Hold that /o/ long enough and you’ll cough by the time you hit the /k/. Vape is hip — new vowels, new consonants, new look, same old addiction. It’s a stunning verbal makeover.”
Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

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“How compact to squeeze a two-syllable noun into a monosyllabic verb! (If you’re busy puffing on an electronic cigarette, you want to keep your mouth as free as possible.) I suspect, though, that vape’s longevity will be like that of the mayfly. The word is too close to vapid, whose negative ring reminds us that electronic cigarettes may not be as healthy as advertised.”
Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

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Vape, slacktivism, and bae all neatly demonstrate how new words emerge in language as we actually live it, despite a predictable sense many will have that they don’t qualify as ‘real words.’ So often, new verbs come from truncating a noun — peddle came after peddler, burgle after burglar. Vape fills a need, based on perfect sense. Slacktivism can’t help but sound a bit like a joke now, but surely that’s what smog (smoke + fog) and motel (motor + hotel) sounded like not so long ago; all it takes is time. Then bae — yet another Black English pronunciation that takes on the status of a word of its own among the wider population (sometimes with a certain awkwardness). Today’s ratchit from wretched is a perfect example; note also, for better or for worse, ho’ from whore, and also baby mama from baby’s mama. English, as always, moves.”
John H. McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and author of many books, including The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

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Headline image credit: Electronic Cigarettes by George Hodan via Public Domain Images.

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