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Can -core survive normcore?

What do President Obama, Steve Jobs, and the Toyota Camry have in common? In recent weeks all three have been described as “normcore,” a supposed fashion trend in which the sartorial elite eschew their usual sui generis styles for dowdy clothing of the type ordinary people wear. The concept may have originated as satire, but it is well on its way to becoming the most successful New York neologism since the cronut. Of course, as applied to the President, who is often pilloried for his lack of wardrobe acumen, the use of the term is ironic (a middle aged man shopping at the Gap isn’t normcore—it’s just normal), but the commentariat has embraced normcore as a genuine style trend: the Nexis database records more than 260 articles mentioning the word since February. Although onomast Nancy Friedman has unearthed an example of the word from 2005, the catalyst of its recent ubiquity was apparently a report by a New York-based trend-forecasting group which posited normcore as a “post-aspirational” response to “Mass Indie”. The norm in normcore is, of course from normal. The -core comes by a more roundabout route.

In the beginning, there was hardcore

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the 19th century hardcore referred to rugged material suitable for use in applications such as the foundations of roads. By the early 20th century, it had taken on a metaphorical meaning, used as an adjective or a noun to refer to the most unwavering or intractable elements of a group, and in particular to the most diehard or stalwart adherents of a movement or ideology. By the late 1950s, it was also being used to denote extremism of another kind: explicit pornography.

Terms for philosophical or aesthetic radicalism tend to build on spatial metaphors that emphasize distance from the center or mainstream: fringe, edgy, extreme, far right or left. The word hardcore is an exception. It envisions radicalism as the center: the nucleus of a peripheral sphere, rather than the periphery of the norm.

In the late 1970s, another new strand of usage developed. In reference to popular music, hardcore came to denote what the OED describes as “harsh, aggressive, or extreme versions of various types of popular music (originally punk, now also rap, techno, etc.), typically faster, louder, or more experimental than related forms, and determinedly less mainstream” (emphasis mine). Soon after hardcore moved into the realm of music, it became so well established that the -core part alone was recognizable enough to produce new words; that was the first step in the evolution that eventually brought us normcore.

-core proliferation

It has become a common pattern in English for highly recognizable pieces of words to take on a new function as combining forms, or what the linguist Arnold Zwicky has dubbed libfixes (from ‘liberated affixes’). Well established libfixes include -holic (as in chocoholic), -tini (as in appletini), -tastic (as in funtastic), and -gate (as in Bridgegate). In the 1980s, -core came to be used in this way, eventually forming a dizzying proliferation of new names for musical subgenres.

When the noun core is used as a modifier, as in “core values” or “core beliefs” it designates essential and universally accepted qualities—the antithesis of the radical fringe. But the affix -core, fixed to the end of a musical genre, as in skacore, metalcore, or rapcore, suggests the extreme qualities of hardcore music and its attendant “deliberate rejection of the mainstream”. The precise nature of the first element varies; it often denotes the theme of the lyrics (as in queercore, horrorcore, nerdcore, Krishnacore) or qualities of the music (emocore, Nintendocore). As the -core suffix became more productive, it was often used in self-consciously humorous (often mocking) coinages for musical trends, like cuddlecore, vomitcore, or sadcore, without necessarily indicating any relationship whatsoever with canonical hardcore music. The meaning of -core was weakened to something like “non-mainstream musical subgenre”.

By the 2000s, the meaning of the -core suffix became so diluted that it no longer necessarily denoted a musical genre. Mumblecore, denoting a genre of low-budget independent filmmaking, was the first non-musical -core coinage to achieve widespread use. Normcore represents a further step in this semantic dilution, in that it doesn’t refer to a genre, but to a trend.

Oxymoron-core?

If normcore persists as an English word (Vogue has already declared it over as a trend), it may finally collapse the distinction between core and -core, erasing hardcore’s legacy associations of “radical” and “fringe”. After all, what could be more mainstream than “normal”? A recent article on normcore in the New York Times featured a slideshow comparing “normcore” (ordinary sensible sneakers and sweatpants) and “fauxcore” (trendy and expensive versions of the same). In this context, -core is derived directly from normcore, and loses all connection whatsoever with its hardcore progenitor. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to predict whether the normcore trendlet will lead to a further expansion of -core, or spell its doom. After all, when a word (or an affix) can mean everything, it doesn’t really mean anything.

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