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September 23, 2016  |  Friday words, 2016-09-23  |  4595 hit(s)

Boy, Fridays seem to be coming at me with ever-greater velocity. Is it that summer is gone? Oh, well—it just means opportunities come around seemingly faster for contemplating words.

The new-to-me word this week is striminal, a mashup of streaming and criminal. This term is attributed to Gabriella Mirabelli, who runs Anatomy Media, a marketing agency. Mirabelli was quoted in an article that reported that 61% of people aged 18 to 24 get streaming content from unauthorized sources—i.e., that they're not paying for it—and 63% of them use ad blockers. Mirabelli doesn't like this behavior.

I'm generally ok with people taking a stab at a new word, but I don’t love striminal. It fails the test of being "semantically transparent," which is one of the criteria proposed by an article in The Guardian about what makes a good portmanteau. To my mind, if you hear "striminal," you can guess that it's some sort of criminal, but it seems unlikely that you could work your way back to "streaming." Would stream-inal work? Maybe, but that word ain't no beauty queen either.

Bonus new-to-me word: A couple of weeks ago, one of John McIntyre's "In a Word" columns introduced me to the word hebdomadal, which is a pretty fancy way to way "weekly." This uses the stem heptá, which means "seven" in Greek and is related to Latin septem, as in September, and, well, seven in English.

This week's unexpected etymology is for the word debunk, which has a surprisingly (to me) specific origin, and which sent me on a bit of an etymological wander that I'll share with you. I ran across it while reading an article in Harper's (paywall) that starts off with a longish disquisition on this term.

To begin: according to the article, debunk was coined by the writer W. E. Woodward in 1923 in his novel Bunk, where the main character apparently "takes the bunk" out of things. Bunk is in turn short for bunkum, meaning "nonsense." The origin of bunkum, in turn, is also surprisingly specific. I'll just cite the OED here, which has the story, with bits I've interspersed for clarity:
The use of the word [bunkum] originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress [1819-1821], when the member from this district [F. Walker] rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.
So: A congressional speech around 1820 on behalf of Bumcombe, North Carolina begets bunkum, which begets bunk. Then in 1921, Woodward coins debunk.

A final turn on this story is that a later project of Woodward's was a biography of George Washington, which apparently was not in keeping with other Founding Father hagiographies, and was written up as "debunking" Washington. (Not Woodward's intent at all.) When he later went on to write about Thomas Paine, he was likewise said to have "debunked" Paine, again a mischaracterization of the intent. Woodward got exasperated at seeing everything he wrote about being labeled as "debunking." The Harper's article says it this way:
He tried to disassociate himself from the word he had created. […] In his memoirs, which also appeared more than two decades after his novel, he was still bemoaning his unhappy invention: “If I had it to do over again I would hesitate a long time before creating the word ‘debunk,’ and would make an effort to find another way to express the idea."
I guess there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Like this? Read all the Friday words.

Anneliese   13 Nov 16 - 7:36 PM

Interesting. I'd never heard hebdomadal, but knew instantly what it meant. It's used in French: hebdomadaire (they like to shorten it to "hebdo"). Took me a long time to learn that word, as I had nothing to "pin" it to in Spanish or any of my other languages. I'll file it away with the word "polyglot" -to be used when people need to know what a language dork I am.