The big word we’re watching this week – well, this year – is toxic. It’s the Oxford Word of the Year 2018, notably paired with chemical, connected to the nerve agent poisoning in the UK, and masculinity, in the context of the #MeToo movement. We don’t want to steal its spotlight, so we’re offering some smaller write-ups for a variety show of other noteworthy words this week.
Stan Lee, who helped mastermind the Marvel comic book universe populated by such beloved characters as Spider-Man, pased away on Monday. His signature saying, much used by fans in his tribute to him, was Excelsior!
This Latin adjective means ‘higher’ and related to the word excel (literally ‘beyond lofty’). It was adopted in 1778 as the motto of the state of New York, apparently interpreted as the adverbial ‘upwards’ whose underlying sense of aspiration was popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in an 1841 poem.
Speaking of Lees, a British tourist, Lee Furlong, was spared jail this week after spray-painting Scouser Lee on the gate of a historic landmark in Thailand. Scouser is a name for a person from Liverpool, who answer to the equally delightful demonym Liverpudlian. Attested in the 1940s, Scouser and its variant Scouse comes from lobscouse, a sailor’s stew (whose name is of obscure origin) of meat, vegetables, and ship’s biscuit associated with the city.
From lobscouse we go to chop suey, a Chinese-styled dish of meat stewed and fried with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and onions with rice. It titles a 1929 painting by Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, which sold at auction for $92 million on Wednesday, a record for the American modern artist. Chop suey is the American English rendering of the Cantonese tsap sui, or ‘mixed bits’.
You might have to eat chop suey chop-chop with chopsticks. These chops are ultimately Chinese Pidgin English renderings of Cantonese versions of the Chinese kuai, or ‘quick(ly)’. Chopsticks is recorded as early as the 1690s, chop-chop in the 1830s, and chop suey the 1880s.
Text messages can be sent chop-chop, which is in part contributing to the rise of textavism – or text-activism, especially in the use of text-messages to mobilize voters. In The New Yorker on Monday, Anna Russell covered the textavist efforts of Oliver Butler, who teaches a class on it in New York.
Textavism caught the eye of fellow word-watcher Nancy Friedman, who found the blend modeled on words like slacktivism and clicktivism, in a 2012 Anthropology News article by Robert Sauders, who identifies it with donating small amounts of money over mobile phones.
Elsewhere in word-worthy journalism, Kate Julian provided the December 2018 feature story for The Atlantic. Around the world, ‘twenty-somethings are having sex later and less frequently than previous generations, as she summed it up in a tweet.
Julian also provided a memorable name for this phenomenon: the Sex Recession, which she attributes to living arrangements, internet pornography, and online dating, among other factors. Julian is extending the economic sense of a recession, a period of temporary economic decline marked by a reduction in trade and industry, a sense of the word attested by 1905. Let’s hope, then, we don’t see a Sex Depression.
Instead of having sex, apparently, people are busy too being nano-influencers. Nanos for short, as reported by Sapna Maheshwari for The New York Times on Sunday, nano-influencers are everyday folks ‘who have as few as 1,000 followers and are willing to advertise products on social media’.
Among other benefits, companies like nano-influencers because they come across as authentic and relatable. This stands in contrast – based on the marketing buzzword and social media watchword influencer – to micro-influencers, who may have up to 10,000 followers; macro-influencers, up to 100,000; and mega-influencers, over 100,000.
It’s not an exact science, but marketing is taking a page from the metric system with these prefixes. As a unit prefix emerging in the 1940s based on a Greek word for ‘dwarf’, nano- represents the power of 10-9, or 0.000000001. But as a prefix or standalone word in popular culture, nano- is less precise. It has been characterizing something as ‘extremely small’ since the 1960s, applied to influencer since at least 2016.
Nano- sees us to kilo-, as in the kilogram. The kilogram is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units. Since 1889, the kilogram has been based on the mass of a platinum-iridium cylinder, the International Prototype of the Kilogram (or Le Grand K, “The Big K”), kept outside Paris. But that cylinder has lost mass: 50 micrograms, or 50 x 10-6.
That’s a tiny amount, 50 μg, but it can make a big difference in highly technical measurements, such as, say, when determining whether a substance reaches toxic levels in some solution or system. So, the scientific community announced this week they are forming a new definition of the kilogram will be based on the Planck constant, which concerns the energy of a particle of light.
The word kilogram, meanwhile, has been stable, as it were, in English since 1797. It comes from the French kilogramme, featuring the prefix kilo-, from the Greek word for ‘thousand’. But don’t worry. As much as we cry a lexical Excelsior!, we’re not climbing high that this week, as kilogram is our curtain call.