Generalized word rage

A new comment on “Dubious portmanteaus” (from last July):

I know this is an older article but I was just thinking today how much I hate portmanteaus. I hate ‘fandom’ and ‘cosplay’. I also hate the word ‘kidlet’, although I’m not entirely certain that it is a genuine portmanteau. I asked some friends who are parents and they seemed to think it is a combination of kid and piglet.

Two things here: the rage at a whole class of words (in this case, at portmanteaus in general), and the three specific examples that set off the commenter’s rage: fandom, cosplay, and kidlet.

1. Generalized rage. As Mark Liberman has observed, a number of times, word rage

seems to be an intrinsically social reaction — not a nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling about a word itself, but rather an intense irritation at the people who use certain words (or constructions or pronunciations). (link)

In this case, Mark was responding to a blogger who wrote:

Around 1995, a word appeared in our language which makes me want to beat someone every time I hear it. That word is “guesstimate”.

(Note that this is a portmanteau, and what the blogger is objecting to is the word as a showy, and unnecessary, innovation — that is, to show-offs who use the word. For the record, OED2 has cites for guesstimate from 1936 on; in the 1936 quote, the word was attributed to “statisticians and population experts”.)

In that same posting, Mark reported generalized word rage, from a blogger who objected to coup d’état, saying

 I just really really dislike French

(presumably because English speakers who use French expressions are being pretentious — and this judgment holds regardless of the utility of the expressions).

(A partial inventory of the many postings on language rage, language peeving, word aversion, and word attraction, on Language Log and this blog, through November of last year, can be found here.)

Elsewhere, you can find objections to verbings as a class, to nounings as a class, and to back-formations as a class. In fact, these objections are only to such words when they’re perceived to be innovations — English is jam-packed with words that are historically verbings, nounings, or back-formations, but have become fully naturalized — and in fact to the sort of people who would innovate such words: they are pretentious show-offs, or jargon-obsessed technocrats, or whatever. Much the same is true of objections to portmanteaus as a class.

A number of portmanteaus are now fully naturalized — smog, brunch, and a large collection of proper names, for instance, Tanzania, Eurasia, Texarkana, Calexico and Mexicali, Wikipedia, Microsoft, Comcast, Velcro, and Cambozola cheese. It would be silly to object to this body of words. Instead, the objections are to portmanteaus that are seen as innovations, presumably on the grounds that people who invent these words are annoying show-offs.

In fact, innovative portmanteaus are certainly fashionable, and many of them are clearly playful, displaying linguistic ingenuity. But (like verbings, nounings, and back-formations) they also serve the end of brevity and usually have the virtue of social specificity (via ties to particular contexts) and frequently the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity as well (summary discussion here).

If you don’t like innovative portmanteaus, fine; no one is forcing you to use them. But why rage about them? Mark Liberman’s answer (among other places, here) is that your protestations of hatred are ways of pointing fingers at those who use them and shaming those people. Since your attempts at shaming are massively unlikely to change anyone’s behavior, apparently the real point of the exercise is to let you feel superior. That’s not pretty to watch, and it paints you in a bad light.

2. Cosplay. Now on to specifics. Cosplay is certainly a portmanteau. From the Wikipedia entry:

Cosplay (コスプレ kosupure), short for “costume play”, is a type of performance art in which participants don costumes and accessories to represent a specific character or idea. Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture centred around role play. A broader use of the term “cosplay” applies to any costumed role play in venues apart from the stage, regardless of the cultural context.

Favorite sources include manga and anime, comic books, video games and films. Any entity from the real or virtual world that lends itself to dramatic interpretation may be taken up as a subject.

… The Internet has enabled many cosplayers to create social networks and websites centred around cosplay activities, while forums allow them to share stories, photographs, news and tips. The exponential growth in the number of people picking up cosplay as a hobby since 1990 has made the phenomenon influential in popular culture. This is particularly the case in Asia where cosplay influences Japanese street fashion and popular culture.

… The term cosplay is a portmanteau of the English words “costume” and “play”. The term was coined by Nobuyuki Takahashi of the Japanese studio Studio Hard while attending the 1984 Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon. He was impressed by the hall and the costumed fans and reported on both in Japanese science fiction magazines. The coinage reflects a common Japanese method of abbreviation in which the first two moras of a pair of words are used to form an independent compound. Costume becomes kosu (コス), and play becomes pure (プレ).

The word evokes a very specific context, in a way that the English compound costume play might not, since the English compound could be used to refer to, say, children’s dress-up play or Halloween costuming. Cosplay calls up the appropriate context; it’s brief; and it’s semantically specific. What’s to object to? (Well, probably, the sort of people who engage in cosplay.)

3. Fandom. This one isn’t a portmanteau, but a use of the derivational suffix -dom. From Michael Quinion’s affixes site on the suffix:

Forming abstract or collective nouns.

[A Germanic root related to the Old English dom, originally a decree or judgement.]

Older examples imply a state or condition (as in freedom, the state of being free, or wisdom, the condition of being wise) or denote a rank or an area controlled by a person of that rank (so earldom is either the rank of an earl, or the domain controlled by one; other examples are fiefdom and kingdom). The suffix is active, but modern creations most often describe a class of people, or of attitudes linked to them, such as officialdom. Some of these — such as stardom or fogeydom — have achieved a permanent or semi-permanent status. But many transient compounds are created in popular writing, most of them destined to be used just once: groupiedom, touchie-feeliedom, wifedom. One relatively new example that might achieve permanence is computerdom, for the whole group of people associated with computers and computing.

The word fandom is scarcely an innovation. Here’s the OED2 entry:

orig. U.S.

The world of enthusiasts for some amusement or for some artist; also in extended use.

1903   Cincinnati Enquirer 2 Jan. 3/1 (heading)    Fandom puzzled over Johnsonian statements.

1928   Publishers’ Weekly 30 June,   Ty Cobb, the idol of baseball fandom.

1958   Times 13 Sept. 7/6   The same editor calculates that at least half his British writers have been recruited from ‘fandom’.

1963   Philos. Rev. 72 520   Morality has or ought to have its fandom.

The objection is probably not to the word, but to celebrity fandom.

4. Kidlet. The history of this one is again straightforward: the word has the derivational suffix -let. From Quinion’s affixes site:

A thing of a smaller or lesser kind.

[Originally from French -ette, added to nouns ending in -el.]

Some words were formed in medieval times from French diminutive nouns, but that sense has largely been lost in English. Examples include bracelet (French bras, arm), gauntlet (French gant, glove), hamlet (French hamel, little village), tablet (Old French tablete, from a diminutive of Latin tabula, table), and toilet (French toile, cloth).

The ending became popular in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth century it became — and remains — a common word-forming element in the language. Most suggest something small of its kind, though this idea has softened in some with the passage of time. Examples include booklet, cloudlet, droplet, hooklet, leaflet, moonlet, notelet, piglet, ringlet, rootlet, starlet, statelet, streamlet, and wavelet.

And kidlet has been around for over a hundred years. The OED2 entry:

A young child. Also fig.

1899   ‘J. Flynt’ Tramping with Tramps ii. 31   The other ‘kidlets’, as they were nicknamed, were as deformed morally as was the adopted girl physically.

1903   J. Dewey Let. Mar. in R. B. Perry Thought & Char. W. James (1935) II. lxxxi. 521   We won’t attempt to father you with all the weak kidlets which are crying in the volume to be born.

1959   C. MacInnes Absolute Beginners 165   A lot of kidlets helping him to do so.

Now there’s the possibility that some people don’t appreciate the history or the morphological analysis of kidlet and have cast about for an explanation for the -let in it — and hit on the reasonably common word piglet as the source of the -let. Voilà, a portmanteau! Not very complimentary to the kidlets, but there it is.

I’m guessing that my commenter’s objection to kidlet has to do with its cutesiness — that is, with the sort of people who talk about their kids in that cutesy, jokey way.


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