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Greece map with Euro coins

Grexit, Spanic, and clown: July 2012 on the radar

Each month we reflect on some of the new words Oxford’s lexicography team has been tracking—words that are being used in English but are not yet sufficiently established for inclusion in our dictionaries.

Would-be words of the eurozone crisis

The Eurozone economic crisis which has dominated headlines this summer has yielded a bumper crop of blended neologisms, from Grexit to Eurogeddon to Spanic and beyond. Will any of them survive as English words?

Eurogeddon (the demise of the eurozone) appears to have been first on the scene, dating back to at least the summer of 2011, but it isn’t the most robust of the eurozone portmanteau words.  That title is held by Grexit (the exit of Greece from the eurozone). Grexit appears to have been coined in February 2012, but it quickly gained traction and now has about 10 times as much evidence as eurogeddon in Oxford’s specialized corpus for monitoring new vocabulary (though eurogeddon is more popular than other upstarts, like Drachmageddon (a Greek return to the drachma) and Spanic (economic panic caused by Spain’s crisis)).

Grexit has become widespread enough to spawn offspring on the same model (first two letters of country’s name + exit). These include Spexit and the unlovely Itexit. The first of these has begun to gain ground in step with the increasing attention paid to Spain’s plight, but the most successful Spain-oriented blend so far, based on database and corpus evidence, seems to be Spailout (a bailout of the Spanish economy). Even if Italy were to become center stage in the developing crisis, it is difficult to imagine that Itexit will ever overcome its deficit of euphony to become established in our vocabulary.

When did clown go adjectival?

In June, the American Twittersphere erupted with an apparently novel use of the word clown, as a disparaging adjective meaning roughly ‘stupid, contemptible’. The impetus for this was baseball player Bryce Harper’s response to an overly inquisitive journalist, the immediately legendary phrase “that’s a clown question, bro.” Media attention to the new usage was so intense that it engendered an almost immediate backlash, and the phrase was declared dead after just a week. The rise and fall of clown question is a lesson in how overexposure can kill a novel usage, but it also made us wonder, how new is this usage of clown?

The conventions of English usage allow clown, like other nouns, to be used as a modifier of other words in a transparent sense (of or relating to a clown), as in clown costume, clown makeup. The relationship in ‘clown question’ is more abstract, related not to a literal clown, but to the depreciative use of the word in the sense ‘a foolish or incompetent person’ (their company is run by clowns). It is hard to find evidence of this prior to Harper’s outburst, but we did track down one earlier example, in a 2008 novel set in Brownsville, Brooklyn:

2008 ‘Divine G’ Baby Doll 106 After some serious contemplating, he realized that he was about to do something he saw as a clown move.

This evidence of earlier use suggests that the ultimate fate of this use of clown may not rest on the shoulders of Bryce Harper alone.

Other words on our radar this month:

Dox v.: to release personally identifiable information about someone on the Internet, typically in order to facilitate malicious action against them offline. A respelling of ‘docs’, short for documents, this word is also used as a noun, referring to the information itself. It originated as hacker slang, but made numerous appearances in the mainstream media last month in relation to an FBI sting operation against a ring abetting online financial fraud.

MOOC n.: massive open online course, a university-level course offered via the Internet to the general public. This acronym (pronounced muːk) has been around since at least 2008, but has rocketed to prominence in recent months, and in particular since last week’s announcement by the online education company Coursera that it had signed on a dozen more major US research universities to its  MOOC program.

Schmeat n. (also shmeat): synthetic meat. This word tingles with faux-Yiddish derision—‘meat, schmeat!’ Man-made meat is more commonly (and neutrally) known as “in-vitro meat” or “cultured meat.” Whether the general public ever has occasion to use this more colloquial term will depend on whether lab-grown faux meat does in fact make it into our supermarkets.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.