October 30, 2005

The first "Fitzmas"

Tracking neologisms in American English has a long and distinguished tradition. An early master was Dwight Bolinger (1907-1992), who began keeping tabs on the latest words and phrases in 1937 with his regular column "The Living Language" in the journal Words. In 1941 he moved the feature to American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Society) under the title "Among the New Words," where it continues to this day, currently entrusted to Wayne Glowka. One able inheritor of Bolinger's mantle is Grant Barrett, project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and keeper of the entertaining and illuminating website Double-Tongued Word Wrester.

As a repository of "undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English," DTWW offers both completed entries and a queue of new citations that may eventually warrant full treatment in the entry section. One recent item in the queue is an unusually successful neologism, exploding out of nowhere into seeming omnipresence in a matter of a few weeks: Fitzmas.

Pending a full DTWW entry, let's turn to Wikipedia for a definition:

Fitzmas is the name given by some liberal American bloggers to the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation primarily among Democrats and some others preceding the announcement of results of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Plame affair. On October 28, 2005 Fitzgerald announced that the grand jury had indicted Lewis Libby, who was then the Chief of Staff and assistant for National Security Affairs to Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States (Libby also served as Assistant to the President). The word "Fitzmas" is a portmanteau of Fitzgerald's name and "Christmas".

Staggeringly enough, Fitzmas currently yields in the neighborhood of half a million hits from both Google and Yahoo. So who coined Fitzmas? The DTWW queue lists an Oct. 6 blog entry from 2Millionth Web Log, while the most recent version of the Wikipedia entry cites a different source from Oct. 6, a forum post on Democratic Underground. Clearly what we need here is a tick-tock, as they say in the news business. And thanks to blog trackers like Technorati and Google Blog Search, we can provide just that. (Keep in mind, however, that only the first two entries specify the time zone!)

Oct 6, 2005, 1:04 AM PDT: Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zúniga, on his immensely popular left-leaning blog Daily Kos, starts the ball rolling:

I get up at around 8:00 a.m. pacific time, or 11 a.m. Eastern. I hope I wake up to good news. This makes me feel like the night before Christmas:

The federal prosecutor investigating who leaked the identity of a CIA operative is expected to signal within days whether he intends to bring indictments in the case, legal sources close to the investigation said on Wednesday. [etc.]

Oct 6, 2005, 1:07 AM PDT: A few minutes after the Kos post, a contributor in the comments section named "Bob" takes a stab at what would be the first of many parodies of Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," with other commenters following suit:

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even the louse...

Oct 6, 2005, 4:20 AM: A blogger named "Attaturk" writes a longer parody of "The Night Before Christmas" in a post on the Rising Hegemon weblog:

KOS mentioned that this story made him feel like the night before Christmas.


'Twas the night before Fitz talked,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse;
[etc., etc., with words and pictures]
But I heard Fitz exclaim, ere they drove out of sight,
"You're crooks one and all, and each I'll Indict."

Oct 6, 2005, 8:24 AM: "Michael" on 2Millionth Web Log links to the Rising Hegemon post and provides the first known example of Fitzmas:

The Night Before Fitzmas, or a Visit From The Special Prosecutor
Rising Hegemon interprets an old classic.

Oct 6, 2005, 11:46 AM: In an apparently unrelated development, "seemslikeadream" gets into the Christmas spirit (inspired by Kos and his commenters?) in a forum post on Democratic Underground:

The 12 Days of Christmas Indictments
I wonder if I could get a little help on this, been thinking of it since last night
On the first day of indictments my true love Fitz gave to me
One Rovian Frog March

Oct 6, 2005, 12:56 PM: In a follow-up post in the Democratic Underground forum thread, "SpiralHawk" offers the second known attestation of Fitzmas:

These are the 12 Days of Fitzmas
Get your Fitzmas On !

So it looks like this is a case of independent invention. Once the "Christmas" meme was planted by Kos, it spread along two different branches, both of which happened upon the Fitzmas portmanteau in short order. The Democratic Underground branch probably had more to do with the continued dissemination of the term after Oct. 6, as other forum posters continued coming up with Fitzmas parodies (e.g., on Oct. 9, "Botany" offered "Happy Fitzmas," a play on John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," as well as yet another version of "The Night Before Fitzmas").

But the Fitzmas explosion didn't really hit until Oct. 18 when the meme returned to Daily Kos, this time in a widely linked post by "georgia10" with the title "Dealing With Fitzmas." Anticipation about impending indictments was high at that point, and it would only increase as bloggers and the news media continued to speculate about the timing and nature of Fitzgerald's announcement. On her own blog, "georgia10" commented on Oct. 22 about the spread of Fitzmas (a term she credited to Democratic Underground), noting that a Google search just four days after her Daily Kos post already yielded a whopping 51,500 hits.

We've come a long way from the days of Bolinger, when neologism-hunting was a laborious enterprise requiring eagle-eyed readers scouring newspapers and magazines for the latest lingo. Of course, not all coinages will deliver up their provenance as easily as a blog-driven term like Fitzmas. And it goes without saying that this kind of blogospherese may have an exceedingly short shelf life. Now that the announcement of the Libby indictment has passed, I would expect that Fitzmas will die out quickly — unless, of course, an indictment of Karl Rove or another high-level official is in the offing, in which case be prepared for Fitzmas II: A New Beginning.

[Update, 10/31/05: Goodness, those Wikipedists move fast. The Wikipedia entry has already been revised to include the 2Millionth Web Log citation.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 30, 2005 06:56 AM