Revisiting 9: ¡-ola!

A comment on the vulgar noun crapola in yesterday’s posting “A portmantriple”, from David Preston:

[cited by AZ] “-ola, a suffix used humorously to extend standard words.”

Wasn’t the original ‘ola’ the shoe-polish brand Shinola? Then it became humorous with the phrase “know shit from Shinola.”

Actually, playful -ola didn’t start with Shinola, though Shinola appeared fairly early in the history.

From Michael Quinion’s Affixes site on 9/23/08, about -ola:, which lists [a] diminutives; [b] trade names; [c] humorous or dismissive formations:

[a] A few words in this ending come directly from Latin, usually with a diminutive sense: areola (Latin, diminutive of area, area), a small circular area, in particular the ring of pigmented skin surrounding a nipple; cupola (Latin cupula, small cask or burying vault, diminutive of cupa, cask), a rounded dome forming or adorning a roof or ceiling; pergola (Latin pergula, projecting roof, from pergere, come or go forward), an archway in a garden or park.

[b] This diminutive sense may have been the inspiration for various US trade names (Pianola, a mechanical piano [late 19th c.]; Victrola, a type of phonograph [ca. 1900]; Moviola [ca. 1925], a type of film editing machine; Granola [late 19th c.], a kind of breakfast cereal), mostly now generic or obsolete. [Crayola crayons from 1903. Shinola shoe polish: name trademarked 1903, company founded 1907; went out of business in 1960.]

[c] From the 1920s in the US the ending began to be added to a variety of nouns and adjectives to make humorous slang terms. Many of these were only temporary, but two of several that have survived are boffola (from slang boff, a hearty laugh), a joke or a line in a script meant to get a laugh, and crapola (from crap, excrement), total rubbish. One that has become standard English is payola, the practice of bribing someone to use their influence or position to promote a particular product, from which have evolved drugola, payola in the form of drugs, and plugola, payment to get favourable mention or display (a plug) for a product in a film or on radio or television. The ending is mainly limited to the US.

And then the idiom (not) know shit from Shinola ‘be completely ignorant’, of WWII vintage — which has been subject to scientific investigation. From the Neatorama site on 2/11/14, “Spectroscopic Discrimination of Shit from Shinola”, quoting an article from The Annals of Improbable Research by Thomas H. Painter, Michael E. Schaepman, Wolf Schweizer, and Jason Brazile. With the conclusion:

… it is evident that to the human eye, shit and Shinola are inseparable given similar morphology [‘form’]`, whereas with near-infrared spectroscopy shit is easily known from Shinola.


3 Responses to “Revisiting 9: ¡-ola!”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    The suffix may denote a music box, derived I suppose from Victrola, a trade name RCA abandoned when it became generic. I remember Rock-ola juke boxes in the 1950s. Wikipedia: the company was founded under that name in 1927, and is still in business. I remember a Monkey-ola toy music box from around 1955 – a single citation of this Mattel toy on Google. And of course Motorola, originally car radios.

    I would regard the suffix as still productive, though rare. In my personal experience it’s more commonly used in Texas – I think Molly Ivins used it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      From Wikipedia on Motorola:

      Motorola started in Chicago, Illinois, as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation (at 847 West Harrison Street) in 1928 when brothers, Paul V. and Joseph E. Galvin, purchased the bankrupt Stewart Battery Company’s battery-eliminator plans and manufacturing equipment at auction for $750.
      … Paul Galvin wanted a brand name for Galvin Manufacturing Corporation’s new car radio, and created the name “Motorola” by linking “motor” (for motorcar) with “ola” (from Victrola), which was also a popular ending for many companies at the time, e.g. Moviola, Crayola. The company sold its first Motorola branded radio on June 23, 1930, to H.C. Wall of Fort Wayne, Indiana, for $30. The Motorola brand name became so well-known that Galvin Manufacturing Corporation later changed its name to Motorola, Inc.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Both Pianola and Granola antedate Victrola, and Crayola is roughly contemporaneous with Victrola, so I don’t think you can pick Victrola out as the source of tradename -ola. Quinion’s suggestion is that the tradename uses (as a group) are historically based on the diminutive uses, with something of a fashion for -ola names in the early 20th century.

      Your association of playful -ola with Texas looks entirely like a report of your personal experiences with this version of the suffix (which you associate with Molly Ivins). But that’s not an account of its historical development. (My own personal associations are strongly with -ola in the payola scandals — but that’s just a fact about me, not a description of cultural history.) Actually investigating the inception and spread of playful -ola would be a seriously hard task; you’d have to search systematically for occurrences in texts and reports (a tedious search through tons of newspaper archives would be called for) and understand the way -ola words are used in their sociocultural context.

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