Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

July 22 2016 9:30 AM

Brexit Blends Caught Fire. Why Haven’t Pokémon Portmanteaus?

Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s new augmented reality game for smartphones, seems primed for wordplay. Equal parts beloved and bemoaned, the overnight hit is smashing records, grabbing headlines, and even causing deaths. If you’re not playing Pokémon Go right now, you’re talking about Pokémon Go. It’s Pokémania out there.

But what has been less viral since Pokémon Go’s launch is precisely that: a lot more words like Pokémania. This is surprising, given our cultural appetite for blending and insta-commentary. Only a month ago Brexit blends choked social media like kudzu. Where’s the poképocalypse in Pokémongolia? Why aren’t we all talking about Pokémon portmanteaus?


It’s not for lack of trying. Plenty have attempted pokémanteaus. At a D.C. bar, you can order a round of Pokémongaritas. Friends and family might stage a pokevention for an addict. Pokémandering results in an unequal distribution of Pokémon in neighborhoods. A pokémontage shows off a player’s best captures. A Pokémon Go pro studies at a Pokémontessori school. Players unimpressed with the game, meanwhile, are letting out pokéyawns, saying it pokésucks. Citizens outraged by the ensuing public infestation lambaste the pokémorons. Doomsayers are trumpeting society’s pokémadness. Gamers devastated by slow servers have even threatened a pokéxit. The rest of us are simply asking, “What the pokéfuck is going on?”

All of these blends are funny, well-formed reactions to the Pokémon Go phenomenon, er pokénomenon. But they aren’t capturing our broader linguistic imaginations in the way, say, regrexit did. One immediate reason is familiarity. Many are still learning just what this foreign-feeling yet familiar-sounding word Pokémon is, let alone what any of these poké-blends are. As the name of the game, the creatures in it, and a whole media franchise, Pokémon is already working overtime. Dictionary.com recently added Pokémon to its online dictionary: Its entry is impressively concise for a word that requires explication more than definition.

Full blends of Pokémon are also hard to pull off—and overindulgent. As one tweeter provided in a wry spree: Pokémonster, Pokémonographed, Pokémonsoon, Pokémonsplaining, Pokémonday Night Football, and The Count of Pokémonte Cristo. These pokémongrels are clever but absurd contortions of word formation. They read more like Jeopardy’s cumbersome “Before and After” answers than anything meaningful or usable. They are the splitting headache of the Brexit hangover, the inevitable consequence of blending to excess.

The internal linguistics of Pokémon also poses challenges to wordplay. The word Pokémon cleanly snaps into poké- and -mon. The latter part, -mon, can swap with many rhymes; pokéyawn, and more acrobatically, pokémorons are examples. But -mon doesn’t carry enough information on its own, thus limiting blend supply. A zombiemon, say, doesn’t evoke a hunchbacked, Matrixed-in Pokémon trainer; it sounds like a crappy take on a Jamaican accent.

Then there’s the former component, poké-. English speakers, experts in polysemy, are unlikely to confuse it with a fish salad or Gumby’s sidekick. But should we pronounce it with a long E or schwa E? Do we include the accent mark or not? The choices affect what other words poké- sticks to. They also influence how we decode new combinations, especially in text: We approach pokefuck very differently than pokéfuck. And the very fact of choice might further deter wordplay in our fast-paced environments—or at least give us a moment’s pause, that rare filter of thinking before tweeting.

But it’s not just phonetic ambiguity that hamstrings Pokémon portmanteaus: It’s also unambiguity. Pokémon is an effective, successful, and distinctive brand name. Wordplay is in its DNA. Pokémon itself is a Japanese mashup of pocket monster. Its creatures names are mashups, too; Charmander splices together char and salamander, for instance. Blends are part of the vocabulary of gameplay. Players flock to catch PokéBalls in public PokéStops. Teams can compete at PokéGyms.

So, if -mon conveys too little information, poké- conveys too specific of information. Poké- is Pokémon. It’s unmistakable, but it’s branded, which hinders the spread of Pokémon wordplay. We tend to recoil from corporate portmanteaus. Framily (friends and family)? Frushi (fruit and sushi)? #PortmantNO, we revolt. These efforts reek of gimmicks, contrivance and pandering, of adding more din to our noisy lives, of passing off banality as originality. It’s also why Hillary Clinton’s own attempt at wordplay—“Pokémon Go to the polls”—felt forced and hollow, if adorably clumsy in its Marge Simpson squareness.

In our media-saturated lives, we’ve trained our noses to sniff out sales pitches. Otherwise catchy Pokémon Go portmanteaus—like a pokéconomy—still give off a stench, if faint, of capitalism. While many are still registering Pokémon as a new word, many are also registering it as a registered trademark, conjuring up, like Disney, its specific stories and characters, its world, its brand.

The ultimate test for any neologism or usage, finally, is its utility. What gap in the language does it fill? Brexit and the -exit libfix gave needed expression a particular political phenomenon. Will the game radically transform how we use smartphones or think of public areas? If so, then we might talk of Pokémoning a space like we do googling information. A few interesting contenders along these lines are pokébond, poképal, and pokéfriend, which some use to name a distinctively Pokémon Go–related experience: a new relationship or positive social interaction that came about from playing Pokémon Go.

For now, Pokémon wordplay is in keeping with the game: It’s cute, curious, and charming but ultimately encapsulated. For now, blends like pokéxit are a welcome bit of frivolity and disposability in a reality that feels much in need of augmentation these days. For now, Pokémon portmanteaus are—wait, you said there’s a Vaporeon where? Maybe we’re just too busy playing the game to play with its words.

July 21 2016 4:15 PM

What Conscience Means to a Conservative

When Ted Cruz took the stage in Cleveland on Wednesday night, he shockingly offered an anti-endorsement of Donald Trump—and he used carefully calibrated language to do so. “Don’t stay home in November,” he implored the conventiongoers, promoting time-tested ideals of civic engagement and responsibility. “Stand and speak and vote your conscience.” That was it: no subsequent mention of the Republican Party’s official nominee, no rousing foretaste of the glorious changes Trump would enact in office. “Vote your conscience,” Cruz instructed, like a teacher urging students to adhere to the honor code while he stepped out of the room. The arena erupted in boos.

As my colleague Jim Newell noted, Cruz’s phrasing subtweeted a lot of the “Never Trump” tumult that preceded his appearance. The senator’s supporters had attempted to slide a “conscience clause” into the party rule book that would unbind the delegates, relieving them of the obligation to vote Trump. The measure failed, and then a petition demanding a roll call vote on the rules got snuffed. In that context, “saying ‘vote your conscience’ wasn’t just a non-endorsement of Trump,” Newell concluded, “it was a big kiss blown to the anti-Trumpers, thanking them for their service in Cleveland.”


But conscience signified something to Republicans long before it joined the Cruz side of the Trump-Cruz tug-of-war. Since Barry Goldwater’s seminal 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, the word has suggested a uniquely right-wing brand of protest, a principled and individualistic challenge to the status quo. Conscience is how Republicans defy the government—it’s their take on civil disobedience or conscientious objection (two concepts historically aligned with the left). And it has blended in fascinating ways with the GOP’s Christianity, positing the idea that in each citizen thrums a kind of spiritual core that must remain unsullied by politics.

In Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater writes that “the first principle of totalitarianism” is “that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.” (What would he make of Trump’s authoritarianism?) Meanwhile, the ideal government gets out of the way so that its citizens can follow their own lights. Goldwater felt that a person needed to lead a sacred portion of his life beyond the scope of the state, in an autonomous, pristine space devoted to the cultivation of conscience: “Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy” (itals mine).

So when conservative politicians invoke “conscience,” that prize jewel of the individual psyche, they are often staking out a moral objection to something the “majority”—and especially the political majority—seems to support. For instance, John McCain broke ranks with much of his party when he condemned the practice of waterboarding in a 2014 speech on the Senate floor. Terrorists “act without conscience,” he said, “but we must not.”

Or consider Mitt Romney declaring last month that his “conscience” wouldn’t permit him to cast a ballot for either Clinton or Trump. “It’s a matter of personal conscience. I can’t vote for either of those two people,” he admitted to John Dickerson in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Or think of the Conscience Protection Act, a bill proposed by the Republican congresswoman Diane Black and lifted to prominence by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The measure hits back at Roe v. Wade, offering cover to health care providers that refuse to perform abortions as “a matter of conscience.”

In all these cases, conscience is what one might call the personal—especially the spiritualized personal—when it clashes with the political. Even the alternative interpretations of Cruz’s non-endorsement are rooted in the senator’s individual psychology—they are intimate character judgments, not suppositions about his policy aims. “I think it was something selfish,” said Chris Christie after the speech. Meanwhile, radio host Laura Ingraham attributed the never-Trump crowd’s moral distaste for the nominee to “wounded feelings and bruised egos.”

But conscience as a political force is about more than that, and its early historical displays have an almost preternatural resonance with Cruz’s convention address. In 1844, troubled by the rise of the nativist, hate-fueled “Know Nothing” party, Abraham Lincoln convened a gathering of fellow Whigs. “He did not believe the political ostracism of foreign-born voters was Christian,” writes John Wesley Hill in his 1920 book, Abraham Lincoln, Man of God. And so, with a xenophobic movement threatening “to sweep the country and place Proscriptionists in power,” Lincoln introduced a resolution defending his homeland against “intolerance and disorder.” “RESOLVED,” it read, “that the guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable … and that all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights … directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation.”

July 21 2016 3:38 PM

Where the “Spicy Boi” Meme Came From (and Why It’s Spamming Hillary Clinton’s Instagram)

Visitors to Hillary Clinton’s Instagram account over the past couple of days have been treated to yet another instance of the internet run amok. Comments reading “spicy boi” (and all possible variations in spelling and capitalization) had been posted tens of thousands of times under the pictures on Clinton’s account, with some users digging back in the archives to comment on pictures that were more than a year old.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Google Trends tweeted that “What is Spicy Boi Hillary Clinton” was the top Hillary-related query for the search engine on Monday. Several in-the-know publications (i.e. media outlets with a steady supply of millennial interns) felt compelled to run pieces explaining the meaning behind the “spicy boi” meme, and to settle any remaining concerns that Hillary Clinton might be dead. New York magazine correctly reported in its piece that the meme originated with a petition, addressed to Michelle and Barack Obama (and, inexplicably, Mark Zuckerberg), asking that fire ants please be renamed “spicey boys.” That piece goes on to state that it was this image, posted to iFunny.co, that spawned the idea to bombard Clinton’s Instagram with the term.*


At this point, my fellow meme-loving millennials are raising their eyebrows in skepticism, since memes originate on sites like iFunny and 9GAG about as often as they originate on Facebook (i.e. never). More likely, our suspicions tell us, it’s 4chan, right? What did they do this time? Indeed, friends, it was.

4chan is a site that baby boomer journalists often refer to with eye-glazing terms like “anonymous message board,” and is the home to the hacker collective Anonymous. Compared with the site’s previous exploits, posting “spicy boi” on the pictures of a presidential candidate is relatively innocuous. In 2014, users of the site concocted a hoax to convince owners of the iPhone 6 that the device could be charged in any standard microwave. Later that same year, when Mountain Dew held an open online naming contest for their new soft drink, 4chan struck again, voting names like “Diabeetus” and “Moist Nugget” straight to the top. The contest’s site was quickly taken down.

While many of us think of “memes” as an image with a joke written over it (invariably in the Impact font), this is actually what’s called an image macro, which only becomes a meme once it reaches a certain level of notoriety within a community. Memes as such are “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” kind of like an inside joke.

But words and behaviors mean something. The fact that one idea spreads in a community while another doesn’t indicates something about that community. So what’s important about the “spicy boi” meme on Clinton’s Instagram, beyond the humor that, depending on one’s age, may or may not be apparent?

The New York magazine piece concluded, incorrectly I think, that the meme doesn’t actually transcend humor. “It’s just for kicks,” one iFunny user told them. But there is an undeniable political undercurrent to it all. The Twitter handle @OldRowOfficial, an account followed by the unwaveringly conservative demographic of Southern frat boy, was responsible for signal boosting the raid. So was the recently banned conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Many comments followed “spicy boy” with references to the email scandal or the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s an oversimplification to say this meme caught on because it was spread by people who like Donald Trump and dislike Hillary Clinton, or that it was any kind of concerted attempt to help him win the presidency. Rather, what memes like this convey, when a hive of internet users rise up to humiliate or confuse a corporation or public figure, is a deep sense that the current systems are not working (ironically, most of the members of these raids are white educated American men, a group for whom the current systems are actually working quite well). These raids point to the power of the same forces that have allowed Donald Trump to get as far as he has in this election: rebellion against the establishment, a desire to shake up the status quo.

Memes like this tap into those forces, and into the earliest, most anarchic days of the internet, when lawlessness and anonymity were among the culture’s most important virtues. These memes are a reminder, an assertion of independence. An act of protest. An attempt to declare, in coded, meme-based language, “How can you control us? You can’t even understand us.”

*Correction, July 25, 2016: This post originally misidentified the website iFunny.co as iFunny.com

July 21 2016 9:30 AM

How “Show Me the Receipts” Became a Catchphrase for Holding the Powerful Accountable

There are two types of receipt: The receipt you have and the receipt you don’t. They complement each other—supply and demand, triumph and challenge, “I’m here with the receipts” and “Really? Show me the receipts.

We aren’t talking about translucent little slips of paper itemizing expenditures. We are talking about proof, evidence, confirmation. Receipts equal the contraband found under the mattress, the DNA on the trigger, the absolute final word.


When Kim Kardashian leaked Snapchat footage of Taylor Swift apparently approving some lines in a Kanye West song she would later criticize, the internet threw a party. “Looks like she’s got receipts,” crowed GQ, referring to Kardashian, who released the video to defend her husband after Swift publicly took him to task. (Problem couplet, which, sure, partakes of the problematic: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ I made that bitch famous.”) When the track dropped in 2016, Taylor acted mad and even negged Kanye while accepting her Album of the Year Grammy—a feminist “victory” rusted over with the implication that, huzzah, a dewy white woman had overcome a hostile black man to net a prize that rightfully belonged to another black man, Kendrick Lamar.

ANYWAY. Kim Kardashian torched Swift’s I’m-disappointed-in-you-Kanye charade this week, posting a Snapchat story that captured the pop star assuring the rapper, re his lyric: “I really appreciate you telling me about it, that’s really nice.” “Kardashian,” mused the brilliant Damon Young over at Very Smart Brothas, “is actually Swahili for ‘white woman with receipts.’ ”

How to account for the cathartic satisfaction of receipts? Maybe it has to do with the fact that the receipt first manifested in pop culture as an absence—as something yearned for but out of reach. As Alex Abad-Santos tells us at Vox, Whitney Houston introduced the concept of the receipt during a fantastically woozy 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer. Asked to comment on an alleged $730,000 drug habit, Houston tilted her head to the left and cocked her thumb and pointer finger. “I wanna see the receipts,” she said smoothly. “I wanna see the receipts.”

It was a subversive taunt, the equivalent of O.J. Simpson penning a “fictionalized” tell-all with the title If I Did It. Houston called up the specter of the missing receipts to poke fun at Sawyer’s impotence. She wasn’t so much clearing her name as luxuriating in immunity.

But asking for receipts can also express sincere distrust, especially of authorities that might assume they’ll receive the benefit of the doubt.

Interestingly, receipts circa now are just as likely to be present as absent. It’s not only let’s see some receipts; it’s and I’ve got the receipts right here. The year 2016 is flush with documentation, stupid with hard evidence. Tumblrs like Problematic Fave are devoted to curating “celeb receipts”—social media posts that prove a famous person’s wrongdoing. (Recent revelations from the page: “Richard O’Brien says trans people can’t become women.” “Rapper B.O.B. promotes Holocaust denial.”) The receipt boom registers a shift in our society: Where the powerful once exercised their power with relative impunity, now we might be seeing glimmers of accountability.

At least, that’s the spirit in which receipts got started on the internet. Post-Houston, the concept appears to have germinated on LiveJournal—particularly a blog devoted to celebrity shenanigans called Oh No They Didn’t—and moved to Tumblr, where “receipts” referred to screen caps of abusive or offensive comments. Mainstream Hollywood coverage jumped on the bandwagon. In 2013, Page Six reported that comedian Julie Klausner had spiced up a promotional appearance for Difficult People by declaring Gwyneth Paltrow “one of the phoniest backstabbers in Tinseltown.” Klausner refuted the charge on Twitter, writing she had “no idea why Page Six decided to report on an alleged beef I have with Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I have never met.” Journalist Oli Coleman then released the audio in which Klausner clearly dissed the Goop founder. The refrain of the ensuing media tempest-in-a-teacup: Coleman “provides the receipts.”

Now that Melania Trump seems to have cribbed lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, we’re again seeing a snowfall of receipts, in the form of video, audio, and transcript comparisons of the two addresses.

As with Swift and West, here receipts are being procured to make sure a white person doesn’t get away with the kind of nonsense she might have been able to subject a person of color to in the past.

Likewise, in asking to see the receipts, Whitney Houston did something more profound than mock Sawyer’s inability to pin her down. She appealed to a higher authority than a white woman’s suspicions. Much of contemporary race relations is slippery, unspoken, or unconscious, with  bias often wrapped in plausible deniability. But no one can argue with a piece of paper.

And that’s why this bit of slang—which like most U.S. slang has flourished especially in black vernaculars—packs an undeniable punch. Those who deal with a lot of nebulous discrimination have found power in the impartiality of screenshots and audio clips. Without calling them “receipts,” impromptu videographers have been brandishing the evidence, from the bystanders who recorded two police officers pinning Alton Sterling to the ground and shooting him to Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of the Minnesota man who was executed during a traffic stop. In his “I Have a Dream Speech”—excerpted by Beyoncé in a stunning performance that opened the 2016 BET Awards—Martin Luther King Jr. described “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt … So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Perhaps the soaring idealism of his address didn’t permit King to say it outright, but his check-cashers at the bank of justice would be foolish not to ask for a receipt.

July 19 2016 1:08 PM

Where Does “Your Word Is Your Bond” Come From, and Why Did Melania Steal It?

When Melania Trump graced the podium in Cleveland on Monday night, she delivered lines that sounded eerily reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s address eight years before. Among those lines: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond. And you do what you say and keep your promise.”

And here’s Obama in 2008: “And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond, that you do what you say you’re going to do.”

The phrase your word is your bond” has roots in black America, with a rich hip-hop history. The internet consensus seems to be that Trump’s use of the slogan is an obvious “tell”—a clueless bit of parroting from a Slovenian immigrant who would never organically find her way to those words.

July 19 2016 9:30 AM

Feeling Like a Misanthrope? Here’s Shakespeare’s Guide to Swearing Like One.

Shakespeare’s The Life of Timon of Athens is an overlooked gem in his corpus. Though less accomplished than many of his other tragedies, this moral drama is distinctive—and timely—in its focus on the relationship between money and affection. It satirizes some amusing characters, including a churlish cynic philosopher and two artists who only ply their craft to win rewards. The play also features some choice language.

In Timon of Athens, our titular protagonist buys the love of his countrymen with generous gifts, but his largesse is loaned. When his creditors come asking for payment, a bankrupt Timon finds that none of his “friends” will bail him out. Banished by Athens, a disillusioned Timon rejects the human world and becomes a hermitic misanthrope. He dies soon after in a cave.

July 18 2016 11:11 AM

How Did “All Lives Matter” Come to Oppose “Black Lives Matter”? A Philosopher of Language Weighs In.

You don’t doubt that we live in strange times. But if you did, I would direct your attention to the debate currently raging across the United States between the proponents of two three-word slogans—both of which are, in a sense, obviously true and each of which is obviously compatible with the other. (Indeed, one is a logical consequence of the other.) I’m talking, of course, about “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”

How did we get here? I don’t mean: How did Black Lives Matter start? I mean: How did these two phrases come to express disagreement with one another? Some prominent philosophers and social theorists—Judith Butler, Jason Stanley, Chris Lebron, The Funky Academic—have addressed the question. I agree with much of what they’ve said, but I’d like to add my two cents. I think the philosophy of language can help us understand what’s going on, and what I’ve found in some of my research on moral slogans might shed a unique kind of light on the issue.

July 14 2016 1:26 PM

How Diamond Reynolds Transformed Politeness Into Protest

The officer fired four bullets. Diamond Reynolds fired five sirs. In live-streaming the fatal shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by police in a St. Paul suburb last week, Reynolds didn’t just provide dramatic video testimony of police violence: She also transformed a simple term of deference and submission—sir—into a powerful tool for dignity and subversion.

In the opening minutes of Reynolds’ Facebook video, we witness Castile slumped over in the driver’s seat, his white shirt soaked in blood. We glimpse his eyes roll back and hear a low, agonizing groan. The officer, his gun trained on a fading Castile, screams his commands—and his own shock, it seems, at his actions. But Reynolds is narrating with clarity and composure, repeatedly addressing the officer as sir. “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” Her unassuming, polite sir counterbalances the horror of the gun, the blood, the officer’s “Fuck!”

But Reynolds’ sir is more than a straightforward act of obedience: It is literally disarming. It defuses the crisis, demonstrating to the officers she is present and attentive: “I will, sir, no worries, I will,” she responds to an order. Her sir levels out the volatility, following a script all the actors know by heart: “Yes I will, sir.” Her sir even helps soothe the initial trauma, as if creating in its extra syllable a breath-catching pause, a pulse-calming rest—for her, for her daughter in the back seat, for the viewer, for the officer. In expressing deference with sir, Reynold stays in control.

July 12 2016 1:21 PM

Terrorist Is Now a Biased Term. Journalists Should Stop Using It.

All available evidence suggests that when Micah Johnson sniped police officers in downtown Dallas on Thursday, he intended it as a political act.

During the ensuing standoff, he told police negotiators that he was angry about the recent apparently unwarranted killings of black men by police, and “stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown.

Johnson could not have reasonably believed that he’d shoot enough cops to actually diminish the capacity of law enforcement agencies to unjustifiably kill black people. He did it to send a message, to arbitrarily terrorize cops in the way that he felt arbitrarily terrorized by them.

July 11 2016 11:45 AM

Why the F--- Do We Do This and Why the ---k Don’t We Do That?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

OK, look at this f---ing s---. And this f--king sh--. And this f-cking sh-t. And how about this s--t? Really, who are the c---s, c--ts, or c-nts who do that?

And, more importantly, why the ---k don’t those --nts do it another way? What the -uck keeps them from doing this --it? Or, for that matter, fu-- and shi- and cu--? Or, um, -uc- or -un-?