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Hibernating words and linguistic cicadas

Most words develop along fairly predictable paths. They may be quotidian words, such as set, which accrue new shades of meanings along the course of a very long life, and which end up with so many dozens of definitions that it is extremely difficult to see where one begins and another ends. Some words may be coined for a specific reason at a specific point and time, such as laser or x-ray, and appear to have entered as a creation that was intended to describe a single discernible thing.

Sleeping words

And there are other words that appear to have entered the language briefly, and then gone dormant for an extended rest, only to wake up decades or centuries later, when some event brings them out from sleep. The verb unfriend, for instance, shows but a single citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1659. Of course, that was a quite different world – one without social media. It reappeared with a vengeance after lying fallow for about 350 years, when Facebook became popular, and the practice of removing someone from a list of social media contacts became known as unfriending (or defriending), and is included in the free dictionary on this site. Such words are like linguistic cicadas, emerging when the opportunity arises.

Super-PAC is another one of these hemipteran words – its lineage is not nearly as old as those of political action committee, or the acronym PAC (which date back to 1839 and 1939, respectively, according to the OED), but it, like unfriend, entered the English language in fits and spurts before a turn of events caused it to rise to prominence.

Super-PAC not Pac Man

Super-PAC appears to begin being used in the early 1980s (an article in Newsweek from 1982 describes ordinary PACs being transformed into ‘super-PACs’ due to their ability to raise unlimited amounts of cash), but their appearances in print at that time were quite infrequent. Then in 2010, a fateful Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) decided that corporations and unions could not be prohibited from making political donations, helping to clear the way for the creation of super-PACs. One indication of how this word’s use has expanded since then may be found in the fact that the New York Times used super-PAC a total of five times prior to 2010 (and three of these five instances were referring to a video game); since 2010 super-PAC has been used four hundred times.

Stick around

Given that the term super-PAC is not yet included in most dictionaries, one might well ask the question of what is the difference between a PAC and its super cousin. The flippant answer would be ‘about a million dollars’. The lexicographic answer might allude to its hibernating tendency and fashion something along those lines.