How ‘phub’ made me eat my words
In the 2004 film Mean Girls, high school queen bee Regina George famously chastises one of her minions for using a slang term she has invented (fetch, meaning ‘cool’):
Gretchen: That is so fetch!
Regina: Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!
One of the reasons this scene resonates is that new words can’t simply be willed into existence by one person. Gretchen’s failure to get fetch to catch on is damning because it shows that her social cachet is insufficient to make her an influencer; you can use a word all you want, but in order for it to ‘happen’, other people have to use it, too. Lexicographers are frequently contacted by individuals who have coined a word and want us to add it to the dictionary. But words are only added to dictionaries when they’ve already succeeded in spreading far beyond their original coiner—and that dissemination is an organic, unpredictable process. Which is why, when I first heard about the word phub, I was confident we would never add it to Oxford Dictionaries.
What is phubbing?
Phubbing refers to the practice of ignoring one’s companion or companions in order to pay attention to one’s phone or other mobile device. The word is a blend of phone and snub. It was invented in 2012 as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign to promote the Macquarie dictionary in Australia. Unlike Gretchen, they were savvy enough not to be seen promoting the word directly. Instead, they got other people to use it, targeting journalists through an astroturfing ‘Stop Phubbing’ campaign which succeeded in generating news stories which used the word.
Phub popped up on Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, which is designed to identify emerging vocabulary, in July 2013, and it surged in frequency the following month. By the time the true story behind the campaign was revealed in October of that year, some of my colleagues had even begun to mention it as a potential Word of the Year candidate. But none of us had ever actually heard anyone use the word ‘in the wild’ (i.e., in real life). It seemed like precisely the type of neologism that journalists seize on as a hook in the ledes of trend stories, but which is always followed by a gloss because it never gains enough currency for the author to assume the audience will know what it means. When we found out that the very existence of the word was a publicity stunt, it seemed to prove the point. Surely, now that the cat was out of the bag, the word would quickly fade into obscurity? “Stop trying to make phub happen,” I Regina Georged.
More like portmantNO
Lexicographers aren’t supposed to make subjective judgements about words, but I will admit that I loathed phub. For one thing, its very existence represented a subversion of the natural order of things—lexicographers don’t invent words; they study and record them. But it also seemed to me that phub had some serious counts against it in aesthetics and comprehensibility.
Portmanteau words have become so popular as to be a neologistic cliché, but they tend to work best when the elements forming them are easy to decode and overlap to share a sound. In a case like listicle (‘an article in the form of a list’), a person encountering the word for the first time can quite easily understand which words are being combined, and hence what the meaning is, and the blend overlaps on the –t– which belongs to both words. In contrast, the initial ph- in phub didn’t seem like nearly enough information to signal ‘phone’, since in spoken use it is indistinguishable from f-. The single-syllable ending -ub is also ambiguous; not only could -ub itself correspond to multiple words (blub, rub, dub, scrub), but it’s not clear whether the -u- belongs to the first element or the second. Furthermore, while it was true that phub filled a gap in the lexicon, that alone isn’t a guarantee of success, and there were other contenders around, like nocialize, which was first recorded on our new words watchlist at about the same time and was ostensibly a superior blend (easily decoded as from no and socialize, with the requisite shared sound).
The unstoppable life of phubbing
And yet phubbing refused to die. It never again reached its August 2013 peak on our tracking corpus, but usage continued to accrue with occasional spikes. Examples seen since January 2016 include:
- ‘Ten ways ‘phubbing’ is hurting your family.’
- ‘More than 46 percent of survey respondents said they had been phubbed by their romantic partner.’
- ‘The effects of phubbing are…leaving a major effect on our generation.’
True, many of the articles that use it still feel the need to define it on first mention, but social media shows plenty of unglossed conversational use as well. And users keep searching for phub on the Oxford Dictionaries website. The word has even transcended the language barrier—we’ve seen examples of phubbing in French and Spanish, too. So now, almost three years after it first came to our attention, it meets our criteria for inclusion and we’ve added it to Oxford Dictionaries.
Why didn’t I see this coming? I underestimated the prominence of the lexical gap phub was filling, with the social impact of mobile phone use becoming a huge topic in our cultural discourse. But the dismissal of ph- as a fatally ugly and ambiguous element in the blend was perhaps a bigger mistake, albeit not one I was not alone in making. The word phablet, a blend of phone and tablet, was widely detested when it first rose to prominence in late 2012, and was dismissed by the American Dialect Society as ‘Least Likely to Succeed’ among that year’s neologisms, with the ugliness and opacity of ph- cited as among its flaws. But phablet has unquestionably established itself in the vocabulary of English (it entered OxfordDictionaries.com in August 2013), and phub seems poised to do the same. After all, once we have learned a word, we tend not to think about its etymology when we use it (decimate pedants aside). Once they enter common use, words take their own path.
Once you accept that phub is a word, the impenetrability of the coinage isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It sounds like an ordinary English word, not a cutesy, artificial neologism (which, arguably, was the case with nocialize). Thus, the success of phub not only shows that it is indeed possible to will a word into existence (with the help of a killer PR campaign), it also demonstrates one of the linguist Allan Metcalf’s 5 factors for predicting the success of new words: unobtrusiveness. In fact, phub does quite well in all five of Metcalf’s factors: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. (As Gretchen McCulloch has pointed out, fetch did not stack up nearly so well against Metcalf’s “FUDGE factors”.)
In the end, the saga of phub has reinforced a fundamental principle that I momentarily forgot back in 2013: lexicographers should never, ever make predictions.