One of the benefits of a sprawling, vibrant, receptive language such as English is its willingness – even eagerness – to embrace new words and expressions. With its lexicon of more than 600,000 words, English is by far the largest language in history, and its growth shows no sign of abating.
New words can come from everywhere and everything – from any discipline, specialty, or activity. Whatever the source of new words, their course through the language is hastened by the mass media in general and by media writers in particular.
The media not only help spread new language from all quarters, they also produce it when they coin terms to describe themselves and their activities. Media-related words are especially interesting because they often have social “resonance.” They’re not just appropriate or imaginative describers of a certain medium, but they also say something important about our larger world. The hybrid “infotainment,” for example, merges information and entertainment, just as some media increasingly do. The hybrid word not only reflects that fact, but it also tells us something about our society and our society’s values, pressures, and trends.
Infotainment has been around for a long time, but zitcom, a television show that features or appeals to teenagers, is a newer example. (“Word Spy,” a Web site created by Paul McFedries, traces the word to a 1986 Chicago Sun-Times article.) Zitcom is a play on sitcom, or situation comedy, and it of course alludes to acne, the adolescent’s bane. The very existence of a word such as zitcom suggests how important appealing to the young is to the entertainment world and to Madison Avenue. That importance derives from money – specifically, youth’s spending power. But that we even have or need such a word also suggests American society’s general preoccupation with youth. In many cultures, young people have little money, let alone power.
Another revealing hybrid is irritainment, which refers to media events or shows that are at once annoying and compelling. Television’s Jerry Springer springs to mind, but there’s no shortage of abhorrent material on television – a medium that was once the subject of a new term now grown old: vast wasteland. Television has no monopoly on irritainment, though. Most material worthy of the name is shallow, without intellectual content, and debases rather than elevates humankind. The movie “Dumb & Dumber,” in correctly naming itself, showed another aspect of irritainment – not only is it unashamed of its own baseness, it seems oddly proud of it. That response mirrors the defiantly lowered standards of certain segments of society in which being dumb – or even dumber – is a badge of honor. We hear of students in certain schools being ostracized by their peers, for example, because they study and care about their grades.
Another new hybrid is shockumentary, a reality program showing actual violence or accidents. The “can’t look away” popularity of reality shows suggests both our national fascination with, and anxiety about, violence. Adrenaline TV also refers to the telecasting of frightening or horrifying real events.
A blend of carnage and pornography gives us carnography, which refers to extended scenes of violence. The word has been used to describe, for example, the long and graphic battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Blackhawk Down.”
Carnography uses pornography’s suffix, but a handful of new words borrow the prefix “porn” to identify anything excessive, lurid, false, or empty. “Porn” words abound. Eco-porn, for example, refers to advertisements that laud the environmental policies of companies known for gross pollution.
A curiosity dating to the late ’90s is domestic porn – books, movies and TV that present false and idealized images of the perfect home, family and home life. Those images abounded in the ‘50s, and not many scoffed. No more. The reaction to domestic porn probably accounts for the otherwise puzzling but widespread animosity toward Domestic Goddess Martha Stewart well before her stock-selling scandal.
Investment porn and financial porn are related coinages that refer to articles profiling and glorifying financiers, money managers and notable financial success in general. The television show “Pinnacle” is an example, but so is the huge popularity of books such as “The Millionaire Next Door” and “Die Broke.” Investment porn and financial porn content is nothing new – only its labels are. And the new terms suggest a certain canniness in our ability to look at ourselves analytically if not critically.
The converse of investment and financial porn is debt porn – stories profiling people whose massive debt brings them down. Debt porn pieces usually rely on the confessional first person: “I was a Credit Card Junkie”; “How Red Ink Ruined My Life”; “Debt Cost Me My Home and Family.” Debt porn is the credit-card version of confessionals like the movie “Days of Wine and Roses” – or even earlier, “The Lost Weekend.” Both were film stories of alcoholism, old-hat now that we have so many other addicts and addictions.
New expressions are interesting as words, but they’re also interesting as mirrors: They reflect what a society honors and despises, or hopes and fears.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.