Don’t call me a “creative”

Today’s (2/5/23) Doonesbury strip  shows us artist J.J. Caucus and her husband Zeke Brenner in her studio, with J.J. fuming about being labeled a creative:

(#1) “I’m a noun, not an adjective!” But then Zeke shifts the ground from be a creative to be creative, noting (in effect) that be creative denotes a characteristic, not an identity, so “less pressure”

J.J.’s complaint is about the nouning of the adj. creative, yielding a C[ount] noun creative that apparently just means ‘creative person’, but she’s more than a creative person, she’s a professional creator, an artist. As it turns out, the C noun creative is a great deal more specific that ‘creative person’ — and in its established usage it refers to a type of professional in the advertising industry, so in fact doesn’t apply to J.J. at all. Gripe on, J.J.!

(J.J. doesn’t complain that the C noun creative is merely trendy, a recent fashion in usage, though others have. There’s some point in this, but the ascendance of the C noun creative to everyday use in certain contexts is indeed something that has happened in my lifetime, but not especially recently; the textual evidence indicates that it was well-established 30 years ago.)

An instance of the C noun in its natural habitat. From the US Campaign site, “The Lists 2020: Top 15 creatives” by staff on 12/8/20:

(#2) [caption:] The best of the industry in 2020; top creatives: Kolbusz, Brim, A Balarin, H Balarin, Tait, Davidson, Leonard, Maguire, Grieve, Doubal, Thomson, Bailes, Brooke-Taylor, McClure, Sobhani, Simon, Vega, Tudor and Elliott

Lexical background. From OED3 (Nov. 2010) on the noun creative, where we discover that there are two nouns creative: a M[ass] noun creative ‘creative work’; and the C noun creative ‘creative person’. Here I reproduce the entire OED3 entry, in which I’ve boldfaced the first cites in which these usages are treated as unremarkable and established (and both firmly located within the advertising industry) — 1987 for the M noun, 1989 for the C noun.

Origin: Formed within English, by conversion [specifically, conversion of Adj to N, aka nouning]. Etymon: creative adj.

— 1. [the M noun] The creative faculty; creative work; (Advertising) creative material produced for an advertising campaign, such as the copy, design, or artwork.

1903 Westm. Gaz. 3 June 5/2 It may be observed that the development of the critical creative is somewhat inimical to the purely creative, as appears from the case of the author of ‘Emilia Galotti’ and ‘Nathan der Weise’.

1987 Bottomline Nov. 35/1 Good creative for bank advertising is similar to any other creative.

1989 New Yorker 15 May 41 (caption) Bruce, you look fabulous! Who’s doing your creative?

1993 Chicago Tribune 29 Jan.  iii. 4/2 Icon Marketing, a Chicago-based firm, was identified as providing the creative behind the spots, with Turner doing the production.

2001 Revolution 1 Aug. 5/4 Youth web site is using ‘in-your-face’ ads to drive users to the service… The creative was designed by agency Digital Outlook.

— 2. [the C noun] A creative person, a person whose job involves creative work; (Advertising) a person who carries out creative work on an advertising campaign, esp. a copywriter, art director, or designer.

1938 T. Dreiser in W. S. Maugham Of Human Bondage (new ed.) I. p. v our best novelist and our best biographer… Only it does not write them [sc.novels and biographies] — except and perforce … through one of its creations or creatives.

1965 Listener 20 May 747/1 May not teachers be thought of as creatives manqué rather than failed doers?

1970 New Yorker 12 Sept. 29/2 (advt.) The media used will be those that ‘creatives’ consider their own.

1989 Campaign 21 Apr. 5/3 Planners write the brief on screen, creatives read it, then visualise and copywrite on one of the various enhanced computer graphics systems.

2000 M. Johnson Drop iii. 160 Could you send a portfolio over, a client list and such?.. And could you tell me the name of the head creative? Thank you.

Beheading. The particular type of nouning at work in the etymologies of both M creative and C creative is what I called at first “nouning by truncation” — nouning by truncating a head element (like material for the M noun, person for the C noun). Compare, say, the nouning attending ‘attending physician’. Discussion in my 1/6/10 posting “Conversion by truncation”, in particular nouning by truncation. Later I coined the label beheading for this type of conversion.

There’s a Page on this blog with an annotated inventory of my postings on

the word-formation scheme: Mod + Head > Mod ‘Mod + Head’, especially Adj + N > Adj ‘Adj + N’ (nouning by truncation), N1 + N2 > N1 ‘N1 + N2’

Why beheading? Well, beheadings have the virtue of brevity, and that’s useful, but it’s clear that the beheadings M creative and C creative aren’t just shorter ways of saying the same old things, but are in fact highly specialized, in special senses in the advertising industry. As it turns out, this sort of specialization isn’t some fluke of the history of the nouns creative, but illustrates a larger phenomenon, which I took up in my 2010 Stanford SemFest 11 talk. The abstract, in my 2/15/10 posting “Brevity plus”:

The innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions. (And for some reasons not having to do with formal considerations: they have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness; and they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.)

But these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity. The innovations usually allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years). This point is scarcely a new one, but it tends to be buried by usage writers and language peevers who are hostile to innovations and treat them as “unnecessary”.

The handout for the talk can be viewed here.


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