Update: what happened to ‘columbusing’?
Those who keep an eye on the world of viral humour videos doubtless remember the verbing of columbus in a video for the website College Humor in July last year, which defined the term as ‘to discover (something) for white people’. We thought we would look a little bit deeper at this coinage, and how well it has fared. You might be surprised at quite how old the verb is.
What is ‘columbusing’?
With our New Monitor Corpus, it is possible to track the use of columbusing from July last year. This shows some usage from July 2014 through to February 2015, dropping off entirely in spring, and resurging briefly in June and July 2015. For a neologism to survive long enough and reach the frequency needed to be considered for entry into a dictionary, the term generally has to fill a gap, and it has to resonate with a language community. Typically, this is achieved by describing a phenomenon that is familiar, but has yet to be named. Columbusing is on our radar, but it still has a long way to go to prove itself.
The coiner of columbusing gives the term as an alternative to discovering. Using the Oxford English Corpus, we can see that the top five noun collocations for discover are: researcher, archaeologist, scientist, astronomer, and investigator. That is, they are the nouns you’re most likely to find alongside the verb discover. The majority of these are obviously using discover in the sense ‘be the first to find or observe (a place, substance, or scientific phenomenon)’. The sixth most frequent noun to do any discovering is… Columbus himself.
Keeping such company as this gives the impression that when we speak of Columbus discovering, we are saying the same thing: that he was ‘the first to find or observe’ the Americas. Given the Americas had long since been found and observed by the time Columbus happened upon them, this is plainly problematic. The word discover, then, may be considered inadequate to describe Columbus ‘discovering’ the Americas, as well as other analogous situations in which someone ‘discovers’ something for themselves that was previously well known to other communities. This leaves us with a gap that could be filled by columbus. However, the more formal cultural appropriation is also used to describe the same phenomenon, and this term has a higher frequency and a more consistent rise in use in recent years. Columbusing may be left behind, and not for the first time…
Other ‘Columbus’ words
You see, Columbus’s name has slipped into general usage before. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has an entry for Columbus as a noun that is ‘used allusively for an explorer or discoverer’. The first citation given for this meaning is from the year 1593: ‘A new-found land of confuting commodities discouered, by this braue Columbus of tearmes’. Researchers at the OED have found evidence for Columbus with this meaning into the 20th century.
Columbus has even been verbed before. In the Memorials of Thomas Hood, published in 1860, Hood writes, ‘Pray present my respects for me to Mrs Dickens. How she must enjoy being at home and discovering her children, after her Columbusing and only discovering America’. This makes reference specifically to the discovery of America, but a broader use can be found in 1908, in volume 20 of Sunset Magazine, ‘To the west of the river lay the country in which I went Columbusing’. Here the meaning seems to be, ‘explore or discover (something)’. Perhaps its revival will see Columbus-as-a-verb boosted enough to finally find its way into everyday speech, as has been the path of such stalwart pieces of 21st-century vocabulary as OMG and unfriend, both of which have unexpectedly long histories. An example for OMG has been found from the early 20th century, while the OED records unfriend as far back as the 17th century. Both only really became common when new life was breathed into them in the 21st century, so columbusing may not have had its day yet. I imagine the eponymous Columbus would not have been very happy to see any lasting success for this renaissance of his name’s legacy, given the negative connotations of the more recent usage. Unfortunately, we do not have much control over how our names come to be used…
Hoover, Bowdler, and Boycott
Having one’s name become a verb is not unique in the English language, though it undoubtedly does show the lasting impact one has had. Many inventors give their names to their works, and William Hoover’s invention became so ubiquitous that people talk of hoovering their homes when using a vacuum cleaner, particularly in British English. Given this is a sign of the success of his product, I think Hoover might not be too put out by the manner in which his name lives on. Dr Thomas Bowdler, on the other hand, might be less pleased to find that the suffix –ize has been added to his surname to give a verb meaning ‘remove material that is considered improper or offensive from (a text or account), especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective’. Though he might not object to the first half of this definition—which is not an inaccurate way to describe his own editing of Shakespeare’s works—he might be less pleased to find that the removal of such content is considered to ‘weaken’ the text.
The French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not invent the guillotine, but proposed its use as a more painless method of execution than beheading by axe or sword. The machine was initially named for its inventor Dr Antoine Louise as Louisette, but the association with Guillotin grew strong enough to overcome this, and this eventually birthed the verb to guillotine. Guillotin attempted to have the name of the invention changed, so the longevity of this legacy (which also hopped from French to English) would doubtless have been a matter of some distress to him.
Captain Charles C. Boycott lived to see his name published in the New English Dictionary on Historical Principals—which would later become the OED—in 1887. Unlike Hoover and Bowdler, Boycott was neither the inventor of the act named for him, nor behind a well-known instance of this act. Rather, he was targeted by boycotting after ordering the eviction of Irish tenants in County Mayo following a dispute over rents. The tenants responded by refusing all communication with Boycott and ostracizing his family. This legacy has breached linguistic borders, with the verb being adopted and naturalized by many other languages, such as the French boycotter, German boykottieren, Italian boycottare, and Spanish boicotear. It is easy to imagine that the fate of his surname would have left Boycott feeling rather sore. Perhaps some publicity is bad publicity after all.