Making "Fetch" Happen: What Makes New Words Catch On?

Lexicon Valley
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May 1 2014 12:44 PM

Making "Fetch" Happen: What Makes New Words Catch On?

stop_trying_to_make_fetch_happen_1

Gretchen Wieners: That is so fetch! 
Regina George: Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen! 
 

In the ten years since Mean Girls came out, we’re still no closer to having "fetch" as a common slang term, though the quote "stop trying to make fetch happen" has achieved its own popularity as a means of mocking the out-of-touch. But why didn’t "fetch" happen? Or, more generally, why do certain slang terms catch on while others languish in obscurity?

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In his book Predicting New Words, linguist Allan Metcalf identifies five factors that make a new word or phrase more or less likely to become a widespread part of the language, which he abbreviates with the acronym FUDGE. Let’s see how "fetch" stacks up against each of them.

1. Frequency. Pretty simple: how often is it being used? There’s a ripple effect when a new word is gaining popularity: the more people use it, the more other people are exposed to it and potentially pick it up.

In Mean Girls, Gretchen uses "fetch" fairly often—often enough to make Regina notice it—but she’s the only one, so it ends up simply getting annoying (see Diversity). Protip for new-word coiners: if other people don’t start picking up on your word pretty quickly, just let it go and try for something else.

2. Unobtrusiveness. Although it’s fun to coin punny expressions like humbug for "a song that gets stuck in your ear" (it’s like humming but it bugs you!), the expressions that ultimately catch on tend to be those that aren’t quite as clever and slip more unobtrusively into the language. Especially contagious are new uses of old words, such as 2013’s Word of the Year, "because x," as in "because science."

"Fetch" isn’t too bad at unobtrusiveness, actually: it is indeed just a new use of an existing word in English, so it’s not punny and everyone already knows how to spell it. However, a high score in one category isn’t enough to make it win overall.

3. Diversity of people using it: the more unrelated people and groups the better. If a new word is used frequently but only by astrophysicists, for example, it might catch on there, but it probably won’t reach the general population unless it starts spreading to other professions.

"Fetch" really fails here, since Gretchen is the only person using it, although she tries to score it diversity points by claiming that it’s from England. Realistically, she probably would have been satisfied if even just her friends had picked up on it, but not even that happened.

4. Generating new forms and meanings. Many popular new words are created by combining forms of other words, especially productive parts like -holic (chocoholic, shopaholic) or -pocalypse (snowpocalypse).

Although "fetch" looks like it probably came from "fetching," it’s not an existing combining form like -holic and as a single syllable it would probably be hard to combine with other words. Gretchen tries to piggyback on a different generative trend though, by pairing "fetch" with the already-trendy "so" as an intensifier, as in "that’s soooo fetch," but to no avail.

5. Endurance of the concept. Does it refer to something that is likely to continue to be talked about for the long term? For example, Thanksgivukkah is already on the way out, since the co-occurrence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah won’t happen again for centuries.

"Fetch" is supposed to mean something like "cool"—a concept that is certainly enduring, and which has had lots of slang synonyms over the years, including groovy, rad, neato, wicked, bad, sweet, and awesome. Unfortunately, each generation of teenagers tends to come up with its own synonym for coolness to distinguish itself from its parents, so even if Gretchen had managed to make "fetch" happen, her success would likely have been temporary at best. And coining a new slang term for "cool," only to watch it become the antithesis of cool, well, that's not exactly the bomb now, is it? 

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

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