Weekly Word Watch: #Avocard, pew, and Hawking radiation

It’s time to hop aboard the Word Watch, and this week, you can get a third off the article if you present your #Avocard – only if you, um, read it before Tuesday next.


It’s official. We’ve reached peak portmanteau. And peak hashtag. And peak avocado. And all in one scheme by Virgin Trains:

Or have we?

This week, the UK’s National Rail released ‘millennial’ railcards discounting most fares by a third for people age 26-30. But with only 10,000 available, the cards quickly sold out.

Virgin Trains was quick to capitalize on the demand­ – and on the ‘millennial’ marketing gimmicks, apparently. From 13th to 20th March, Virgin Trains is offering the #Avocard.

The #Avocard has ‘all the perks’ of the millennial railcard, Virgin Trains explains: ‘Simply present an avocado in place of the railcard at any Virgin Trains West Coast station to a get a 1/3 off our fares.’

As a coinage, #Avocard is a trifecta of trends in the language of contemporary advertising. First, it’s presented as a hashtag, signifying Virgin Trains can ‘speak social media’. Second, it’s a blend word (avocado + railcard), the go-to form of wordplay in our mashup age. Third, it’s based on the avocado, foisted on the millennial demographic as a symbol and watchword of their lifestyle.

But is Virgin Trains actually going for a zeitgeist superfecta? Is #Avocard an earnest neologism, or is actually it an ironic, internet-ready self-reference to the oversaturation of such buzzwords in modern marketing?

Real-life rail-traveling millennials don’t seem care, though, simply wanting affordable transportation over branding cleverness.


Superfans of Star Wars – and lovers of Laura Dern – went wild this week. Commenting on his Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson reportedly said of filming Dern, who plays a resistance officer: ‘You can see Laura Dern say “pew” when she fires the gun, which she could never not do every time she shot it’.

The GIFs had the receipts, as the slang goes:

But Dern’s pew should really be getting lexicographers — and lovers of onomatopoeia — excited.

If you look up pew in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find, yes, the church pew. You’ll also find some other pews that originate as sound imitations.

There’s pew, a now-obsolete term for the thin cry of a bird – which, speaking of Star Wars Animalia, we could perhaps resuscitate for the shriek of the porg. And then there’s pew, issued in contempt or disgust, especially like P.U. upon a literal or figurative stench. The OED finds a form of this interjection, incredibly, in print as early as 1604.

But thanks to Star Wars’s massive cultural influence, pew is a having a new moment in the language.

Dern’s pew is a popular mimicry of the sound firing a blaster gun makes in Star Wars films. Urban Dictionary, for one, entered pew pew for this particular sound effect in 2006, and it had already extended to other fictional guns in gaming vernacular by the following year.

Now, we have a viral GIF of Laura Dern mouthing a singular pew and the mainstream culture knows Dern isn’t holding her nose at something or aiming at chapel seating. It seems the laser-zap-echoing pew has fully arrived as a widely used and recognizable interjection all of its own. Will it join Jedi in the OED one day?


Tensions between the UK and Russia continue to escalate after the chemical poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury last week.

Since the attack, scientists have identified the poison as a nerve agent known as Novichok.

Nerve agents, a term attested since 1960 in a US navy training course manual, besiege the nervous system, with Novichok an especially toxic form. The Soviet Union developed them in the 1970-80s as a new type of nerve agent designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

The meaning of the nerve agent’s name in Russian marks the nefarious novelty of the chemical: Novichok (Новичо́к) is a ‘newcomer’, a kind of ‘new kid on the chemical warfare block’, as it were.

For all the intentions of its name and design, Novichok didn’t elude the experts this time.

Hawking radiation

One of the greatest scientists of our time, the inimitable Stephen Hawking, passed away at 76 years of age this week, but not without shaping our fundamental understanding of the universe first – and shaping the English language.

His name will live on in the scientific term for one of his most significant contributions to astrophysics: Hawking radiation. In 1974, Hawking proposed a radical theory that black holes aren’t actually black, i.e., particles can escape a hole in the form of radiation, causing it to lose mass.

The name for this radiation, and the quantum process by which it takes place, has been described as Hawking since 1976. Hawking’s theory hasn’t been experimentally confirmed, though one physicist claimed evidence for it in 2016.

But the deeper, cosmological concept of Hawking radiation is a fitting honour for the illustrious scientist, isn’t it? Our legacies vibrate on after us, like a little radiation fleeing that black hole of death. Ah, can’t you just hear Hawking making a well-time wisecrack at the treacly sentiment?


Finally, we can’t close this week’s Word Watch without acknowledging the latest iteration of-exit. In the lifespan of this series so far, we’ve highlighted Catalexit and Zumexit, noting both times the continued productivity of -exit as a combining form for a ‘political departure’.

This week delivered Rexit, referring to Donald Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from office. Rexit, a very clean take on the Brexit family of coinages, trended on social media when his firing was announced on Tuesday, though tweeters have used Rexit of Tillerson’s hypothetical departure from the administration when he was only nominated in December 2016:

Before it, Rexit was been used of the relocation of roses at Theresa May’s’ Downing Street garden as well as the sacking of Rex Ryan as coach of the Buffalo Bills American football team.

Of all the -exit blends, only Brexit has properly shown any staying power as its own word. But when lexicographers look back to how we spoke and wrote in the late 2010s, Tillerson’s Rexit will indeed add to the evidence that we popularly processed the various ‘departures’ of our day as -exits, short-lived as use of any one Rexit may have been.

John Kelly March 16 2018

Educator, writer, and word nerd, John Kelly blogs about etymology at www.mashedradish.com and Shakespeare at shakespeareconfidential.com. Follow him on Twitter @mashedradish and @bardconfidensh.

Categories: English in use Word trends and new words
Tags: -exit#avocardastrophysicsavocadoblock holeBrexitDonald Trumpdouble agentHawking radiationlasermarketing ployMillennialnerve agentNovichokpewportmanteauRexitRussiasocial mediasound effectsspyStar WarsStephen HawkingVirgin Trains
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