The increasing influence of the word ‘influencer’
Good or bad, there is no denying the influence social media has on many of our lives – a fact that has not escaped the notice of marketers around the world. This has seen the rise of a new type of marketing: the influencer. An influencer, in this specialized use, refers to ‘a person with the ability to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the items on social media’, particularly when they do so in exchange for money or for samples of the product they are promoting.
This is the next step in celebrity endorsement, but the celebrity need not be a household name; instead they may simply be someone with a large following on social media, allowing news of a particular product to reach a wide audience directly, whose opinion will be valued and trusted. The effect of influencers in the market is unquestionable, with Snapchat stock losing $1.3million, a drop of 6%, after a single negative tweet by celebrity influencer Kylie Jenner. This new marketing trend has led to a dramatic increase in the use of the word; in 2017, the number of hits for influencer each month in our new words corpus was typically more than double that of five years ago, in 2012.
sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad.
— Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) February 21, 2018
This sudden rapid increase in use put a seemingly simple derivative onto our lexicographers’ radars and we defined influencer on Oxford Dictionaries last year, with the entry covering both its original general sense and the new sense responsible for its huge rise is usage. However, while the marketing sense of influencer is undeniably new, the word itself has a much longer history than some might guess. The Oxford English Dictionary’s research has so far found usage of influencer (in the more general sense of ‘a person or thing that influences another’) dating all the way back to the 1660s, when Henry More referred to ‘The head and influencer of the whole Church’.
In over three hundred years, we have seen a great deal of change in the way influencer is used. Our language data shows that influencer now often appears in compounds. As well as demonstrating the platform used – with combinations such as social-media influencer, Instagram influencer, YouTube influencer, and Vine influencer proving to be amongst the most common – we are also seeing influencer modified to indicate scale, for example in micro-influencer, uber-influencer, super-influencer, and mega-influencer. This sort of linguistic innovation shows the extent to which the word has become integrated into normal language use.
In fact, the innovation even goes one step further: -fluencer is starting to become a productive suffix on its own, appearing in new blended words like thinkfluencer, Pinfluencer, fitfluencer, techfluencer, and manfluencer. Though each of these words individually is still quite rare, together they form strong evidence of -fluencer’s growing frequency as a combining form.
Of course, being in common use does not always correlate with being perceived in a positive light. So far, much of the linguistic data around influencer is practical – detailing location, size, and topic. However, we are also starting to see some associations between influencer and more negative and devaluing terms such as wannabe and so-called. As the conversation around social media is coloured by negative news stories relating to privacy concerns, we may see this have an impact on how the influencers who use this as their platform are perceived.
When we document the rise and fall of a word, it is important to track not only its frequency, but also changes in how that word is perceived; on rare occasions, these changes may make it necessary to update how the word is defined or to the types of examples of usage that we give. For example, when snowflake was first applied to a person, it typically was used only to call them unique (building on the idea that no two snowflakes are exactly identical). However, in a short span of time the word snowflake came to mean something much more derogatory, carrying connotations of being oversensitive and acting as though entitled to special treatment. With the storm of negativity surrounding social media, it is possible that related terms like influencer may be headed the same way.
Header illustration by Edith Pritchett.