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A smorgasbord of fusion words for the Twitterati

In March 2011 the social networking site Twitter, launched in 2006, celebrated its fifth birthday. Amid all the media discussion of tweeters, trending, and followers, the term Twitterati has cropped up quite a bit. It’s an odd-looking word, and an example of an interesting and creative variety of word formation, where a word is borrowed from another language and then modified to produce a curious semi-foreign hybrid.

Twitterati is ultimately derived from literati, a term borrowed from Latin in the 17th century and used to describe people who are well-educated and well-read. Punning on this, the term glitterati was coined in the 1950s to refer to the ‘glittering’ stars of show business and smart society. More recently appeared the digerati (the digital literati, as it were), experts in information technology. And so to the Twitterati themselves, the ranks of Twitter-users, particularly the influential ones with many followers.

So –erati has become a useful little suffix, a convenient way of giving a name to some elite group of people in a particular sphere. There has been a profusion of these words over the last twenty years or so, but by no means all of them have caught on: chatterati, soccerati, glamourati, bloggerati… Well, you get the idea.

Double-dip dress style: frugalistas and recessionistas

And, in these difficult economic times, have you perhaps become a frugalista or a recessionista? Both these terms have emerged in the last few years to describe people who manage to dress in a fashionable and stylish way without spending a lot of money on clothes. Each is in turn a play on fashionista, a word dating from the early 90s which describes a person involved in the fashion industry or who wears fashionable clothes. The Spanish ending –ista (as in Sandinista) has been used productively in English for a while to describe a devotee or admirer of something or someone, especially in political contexts. For example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had his Blairistas and US politician Sarah Palin has her Palinistas.

A surge of linguistic borrowing

Following the recent dreadful events in Japan, another loanword that has been much in the news is, of course, tsunami. This Japanese word, now well-established in English, denotes a long, high sea wave caused by an earthquake. But, as in the above cases, this has also formed the basis of a composite word. A massive increase in the number of flu cases was reported in Canada in January 2011, and this surge in patient figures was inevitably referred to as a flunami (combining flu and tsunami).

Of course, new English words are regularly formed in this way, with two words clamped or stitched together to create a blend. Think of edutainment, guesstimate, mockumentary, staycation, and countless other examples. What particularly intrigues me about the likes of Twitterati and frugalista, however, is the cross-lingual aspect. In fact it makes me think of fusion cooking, in which more than one style of regional or ethnic cuisine are combined to produce dishes incorporating elements of both. And the delicious-to-say smushi is a delightful example to end with, as it fuses not only two culinary styles (it’s a snack that combines the Scandinavian smorgasbord open sandwich and the Japanese sushi) but also the two words themselves, one Swedish, one Japanese.