Last week in The Atlantic, journalist Stephen Fried humbly apologized for inventing the word “fashionista” in a 1993 biography of Gia Carangi. Well, it’s nice to finally have someone to blame for that madness — even if it’s only tongue-in-cheek blame. After all, the English language is an ever-evolving monster, and there’s no taming it. Here are a few more annoying (and ubiquitous) neologisms and who to blame for their existence.
The now-ubiquitous word first appeared on page 100 of Fried’s biography of Gia Carangi, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia. He explains, “I created it because as I was writing about the fashion industry — and young model Gia Carangi’s immersion in it — there was no simple way to refer to all the people at a sitting for a magazine photo or print ad. I got tired of listing photographers, fashion editors, art directors, hairstylists, makeup artists, all their assistants, and models as the small army of people who descended on the scene. This was also the group that, according to one top fashion illustrator I interviewed, had collectively become ‘the famous non-famous people’ at Studio 54. Since I was re-reading a lot of the newspapers and magazines from the period of Gia’s supernova career in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and remembering a lot of coverage of Sandanistas (and a lot of “–ista” jokes among my mag writer friends), I just decided to try it.” As he points out, the word took hold slowly, but “dramatically expanded” in 1998, when Angelina Jolie starred as Gia in an HBO movie. In 1999, the word was added to the OED, and now it’s everywhere.
Oh, the meme. The word technically means “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” and was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which suggested that our genes’ “selfish” replication models cultural dissemination. Not annoying at the time — but a mere 30-odd years later and it’s hard to hear the word without thinking of I Can Haz Cheezburger.
The earliest recorded usage of “soccer mom” in the American national media is from 1982, when the husband of Ludlow, Massachusetts’s “Soccer Moms booster club” treasurer stole $3,150 raised for the kids. The term didn’t enjoy widespread usage, however, until 1995, when Susan B. Casey ran for Denver City Council with the slogan “A Soccer Mom for City Council.” She won. The next year, a journalist for The Washington Post quoted Alex Castellanos, then a senior media advisor to Bob Dole, as suggesting that Bill Clinton was targeting “soccer moms” — “the overburdened middle income working mother who ferries her kids from soccer practice to scouts to school” — as a key section of swing voters. Either way, the term caught on, and “soccer mom” was voted Word of the Year for 1996 by the American Dialect Society.
This super-annoying term, a combination of “metropolitan” and “heterosexual” was coined by Mark Simpson in a 1994 article in The Independent. He wrote, “Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade. In the Eighties he was only to be found inside fashion magazines such as GQ, in television advertisements for Levi’s jeans or in gay bars. In the Nineties, he’s everywhere and he’s going shopping.” But the world wasn’t ready, it seems, because the term didn’t catch on until 2002, when Simpson mentioned it again in a Salon piece, identifying David Beckham as the epitome of the metrosexual and adding, “He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.” This time, advertisers and the media paid attention, and in 2003 the New York Times ran a story called “Metrosexuals Come Out.”
According to The New York Times, “vajayjay” was first popularized (its actual origins are unclear) via a 2006 episode of Gray’s Anatomy, where it appeared as an attempt by the executive producer to “mollify standards and practices executives who wanted the script to include fewer mentions of the word vagina.” Then Oprah decided she liked the word, and you know what happens when Oprah decides she likes something. The most colorful reasoning behind its rise to ubiquity, however, comes from John H. McWhorter, a linguist and a senior fellow at the libertarian Manhattan Institute: “The reason that vajayjay has caught on, I think, is because there is a black — Southern especially — naming tradition, which is to have names like Ray Ray and Boo Boo and things like that. It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around.”
Though now the province of Gary Shteyngart, the term “blurb” was originally coined in 1907 by humorist Gelett Burgess, who mocked the publishing tradition of having “the picture of a damsel — languishing, heroic, or coquettish — anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel” by showing Miss Belinda Blurb, above, calling out her compliment, the first blurb. The term, needless to say, caught on.
Coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995, this term is just a shortening of “slacker activism” (that is, the practice of doing tiny or easy local activities like signing petitions or planting trees) and was meant to have a positive connotation — though not everyone sees it that way. There’s also the offspring “clicktivism,” which is exactly what you think it is — clicking on stuff.
In 2004, “bootylicious” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (“sexually attractive, sexy; shapely”). How did we get here? Apparently, one of the first known uses of the word was in Snoop Dogg’s 1992 song “Fuck Wit Dre Day”: “Your bark was loud, but your bite wasn’t vicious/And them rhymes you were kickin’ were quite bootylicious.” But that meaning, a negative one, is no longer the vogue. By 1994, it had acquired the “sexy” meaning it has today. And of course, it was Destiny’s Child that catapulted the term to widespread popularity with their hit 2001 song of the same name.