December 11, 2017
Monday, April 14, 2014

The return of the word machine

By Pablo Toledo
For the Herald

Staycation or bleisure? Travel loves made-up words

Hotels advertise "bleisure" packages. The Thai Tourism Authority is promoting "honeyteering." And a Mississippi TV anchor told advocates of gay equality to "go on gaycation."

Whatever you're doing on vacation, chances are there's a made-up word to describe it. Combine honeymoon and volunteering, you get honeyteering. Combine business and leisure, you get bleisure. Add glamour to a camping trip with wine, steak and scented candles, and you're glamping.

Lexicographers call these blended words portmanteaus. The travel industry doesn't have a monopoly on them — think "brunch." (1)

But they do "come in handy (2) in a business sector where there's often a need to come up with clever marketing spin (3)," said Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. "It's niche marketing (4). You're trying to appeal to different sectors of the public: 'Well, we have a special kind of tourism for you and it has a special name.'"

Sometimes heavy marketing can make these blends seem like "stunt (5) words," said Katherine Connor Martin, head of US Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

Their overuse can even lead to a backlash (6), as with staycations, a term that often elicits an "UGH!" response — mainly because most of us would rather go away than stay home if we could afford it. The word staycations was used before the recession, but it was only when people cut back on vacations during the economic slowdown that destinations started using the term to market themselves to locals.

But how do portmanteaus (*) go from being terms nobody can figure out at first glance — like honeyteering or bleisure — to words everybody loves to hate, like staycation?

"People coin (7) many more words than we end up adopting," Martin said. "It's hard to predict which will catch on and which won't. It's about seeing people actually using the word in an un-self-conscious way, expecting people to know what they mean."

A made-up word crosses over into acceptability — and maybe consideration for a dictionary entry — "when it's used for a period of time and in a variety of contexts in independent use, and not just the same magazine trying to make it happen again and again," Martin said.

Adapted from a story by Beth J. Harpaz, AP Travel Editor

(1) Brunch
Nowadays, any self-respecting restaurant catering to the hipster/foodie population offers this combination of breakfast and lunch that you eat late in the morning, usually on Sundays. Still, the word is not new: it originated in England in the 1890s, and became popular in the US in the 1930s.

(2) Come in handy
When something comes in handy, it is useful. On its own, something handy is useful or convenient.

(3) Spin
To spin something means to make it turn. Here, a spin on some piece of information means a way of presenting that information, ideas, situation, etc. that makes it look good – used very often in marketing and politics, in the hands of specialists called “spin doctors”.

(4) Niche
A niche market is a small group of people who are interested in something specific – not “people who like sports” but “people who like English football teams”. In niche marketing, companies focus on making and selling products which are targeted at the precise interests of a niche

(5) Stunt
A publicity stunt is something unusual that is done just to attract people's attention.

(6) Backlash
A backlash is a strong negative reaction to something.

(7) Coin
To coin a phrase, word or expression means to invent it.

(*) New words for a new world
Dictionary writers (called lexicographers) will always have a job: new things and ideas are born every day, and those new ideas will need new words to identify them. At the same time, some words grow obsolete or they go out of fashion, so lexicographers need to delete them from some versions of dictionaries.

At the same time, some very old words come back to life with new meanings, or evolve over time. When it first appeared in English, the word “meat” described all meals, and not just what we now call meat. In the 16th century, “bully” was a synonym for “sweetheart,” and not the aggressive, abusive child that we call a bully today – in between those two, in the mid-19th century, the expression “bully for you” meant “good for you”.

So, whether it is a portmanteau or a new coinage or a new meaning to an old friend, the essential lesson to remember here is that language is a living, always-changing thing. That is one of the most beautiful things about it – and the reason why lexicography may not pay well, but will always be a good career!


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