March 26, 2006

Big hair in the blogosphere

In the April Vanity Fair there's an article by Marie Brenner, "Lies and Consequences: Sixteen Words That Changed the World", which features an interesting quote from Judith Miller. Here's the quote in context:

Back from Iraq in June 2003, Miller realized that she was losing her authority. She had worked with Bill Keller for years, and she admired his reporting. He was a fellow Pulitzer winner. But now Keller was in a sensitive situation. Miller would have to be reeled in. "You are radioactive," she says he told her. "You can see it on the blogs." "Why do you give a shit about the blogs?," Miller remembered asking Keller. "They do not know anything." (Keller responds: "I'm pretty sure I never said any such thing.")

Miller later told me, "The bloggers were without editing, without a way for people to understand what was good, what was well reported—to distinguish between the straight and the slanderous. Things would get instantly picked up, magnified, and volumized.… I was appalled, not by the blogs—that would be like getting appalled at the Industrial Revolution—but by my colleagues, who believed what they read on the blogs."

This being Language Log, the issue is not the invention of pretexts for war, but rather the invention of uses for words. Specifically: volumized.

The word volumize immediately makes me think of hair-care products, and the OED agrees:

2.b. Of a product or styling technique: to enhance the thickness of or give body to (hair or eyelashes).

1991 Los Angeles Times Mag. 3 Feb. (Mag.) 6/3 Magic shampoos that don't just deep-clean -- they restructure, humidify, bodify and/or volumize.
Canad. Living Feb. 83 (advt.) Fluffs up and volumizes natural curls or permed hair.
Evening Chron. (Newcastle) (Nexis) 15 Jan. 4 She applied one coat of architecture mascara and then some natural fibres to lengthen and volumise the lashes.

Checking for "volumized" on the web, I mostly find things like the advice on the "physique stylezone", which tells me that "to maximize volume" I should

Start by using Physique Volumizing Shampoo and Conditioner in the shower to begin creating dynamic air pockets between the strands of your hair. Follow with Physique Volumizing Hair Spray to add even more volume to your styles.

The evolutionary psychologists will blame it all on Darwin, I think, observing that "big hair" is a flamboyant symbol of health and reproductive vigor, communicating that the organism has plenty of biological resources to spare for a spectacular 'do. I suppose they have a point, since the hair-care industry makes a lot of money by helping us transform our hair so as to send the right message, and I don't think I've ever seen an advertisement for a product that promises to make hair seem thin or sparse.

Anthropologists will tell us a similar story, but about cultural rather than genetic evolution. And they've got a point, too, since "big hair" is an important value in some (sub-)cultures and not in others. There are several recent books on the subject: "Big Hair" by James Innes-Smith; "Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self", by Grant McCracken; and "Bald in the Land of Big Hair", by Joni Rogers, which tells us that "the land of big hair" is Houston, Texas. I can't claim any expertise in geo-socio-cosmetology, but I do have the impression that big hair is a sunbelt rather than snowbelt kind of thing.

All this is background to an observation about creative metaphors. I don't think I've ever heard "volumized" used before with respect to stories or ideas; but from Miller's quote I immediately knew what it would mean to "volumize" a story by circulating it in the blogosphere, and I imagine that you got the same idea that I did. The obvious meaning: a thin story was being fluffed and teased and generally puffed out with "dynamic air pockets" to seem bigger than it was.

But I think there's a regional and social tinge here as well. In the red states -- some of them anyhow -- big hair is valued among the dominant social classes. Judith Miller's pictures suggest that she's not a big hair type of person, and I believe that this reflects the values of her peers. In New York City and rest of the northeast, big hair is a working-class or ethnic style. Thus a discussion of "Black Cadillacs, Big Hair, and Pinkie Rings: Dressing (and Speaking) the Part for The Sopranos" defines "big hair" as

A popular hairstyle for women—think teased out, dyed, and hair-sprayed until the hair reaches several inches in height. Considered very sexy and feminine by certain females living in North Jersey and Long Island (note: big hair is not complete without very long fake fingernails lacquered and painted with designs at least once a week).

(For European readers, New Jersey is to New York City roughly as Belgium is to France -- a place that can get a laugh just by being mentioned. I say this as someone who lived in New Jersey for 15 years.)

Thus volumizing is not only a form of false presentation, it's a tacky, provincial, lower-class form of false presentation. As you'd expect from those unedited red-state bloggers...

It wouldn't be right to leave this topic without observing that verbs in -ize have been a traditional bugbear for prescriptivists. Edwin Newman used to rail against hospitalize, and the Plain English Campaign is still making a fuss over prioritize. This adds another tinge of ironic disdain to Miller's complaint.

That's a lot of meaning to pack into one little neologism. You may think I'm overinterpreting, but in my opinion, this is just the usual poetics of everyday talk.

Anyhow, Miller's communicative virtuosity was in vain. Brenner's article continues:

But it wasn't just the blogs. By then a platoon of reporters, including Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, had pounced on the issue of the missing W.M.D. Soon the criticism rose to a critical mass. Miller and the Times's Baghdad-bureau chief, John Burns, another Pulitzer winner, had had an acidic exchange over Chalabi, one of her longtime sources, which was picked up by The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. "If reporters who live by their sources were obliged to die by their sources, New York Times reporter Judith Miller would be stinking up her family tomb right now," Slate's Jack Shafer would later comment.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 26, 2006 03:38 PM