August 28, 2006

Playing with your morphology

Advertisers like to play with language.  People notice, and maybe, they'll then remember.

So we get the latest Snickers ad campaign, in which striking invented words appear (on billboards, sides of buses, etc.) in the characteristic Snickers font and colors, on a chocolate brown background that looks like a Snickers wrapper.  The words:

[see correction below]

We here at LLP are not the first to comment on the phenomenon; google on "Snickers" plus one of the words (especially the last), and you'll find lots of discussion, ranging from admiration to annoyance to mockery.  Most of the commentators see the words as combinations of two contributing existing words (combinations that Lewis Carroll called "portmanteau words"), but that's not quite right, and the Playful Morphology office at LLP (which produced "Plain morphology and expressive morphology" [Berkeley Linguistics Society 13.330-40] back in 1987) is here to tell you about it.

Start with hungerectomy.  This combines a base hunger with the medical suffix -ectomy, referring to a surgical removal, as in appendectomy and tonsillectomy.  The (vivid, perhaps over-vivid) imagery is of a candy bar that physically removes hunger from your body.  Not really a portmanteau, but instead an extension of the noun bases eligible for combining with -ectomy, from medical ones to anything goes.  There are plenty of other nonce formations on non-medical bases: truthectomy, funectomy, zitectomy, for instance.  [Ben Jackson notes that the -rectom- piece of this word is homophonous with rectum -- not a good thing.]

Peanutopolis is similar.  The base is peanut, the suffix -opolis, used for city names (Greek polis 'city' with a combining vowel -o- for bases ending in a consonant, as in English metropolis and necropolis).  So it conveys Peanut City, which is pretty good.  Once again, the base isn't of the Greco-Latin sort that you'd expect, so it's noticeable.  In this case, there's a fairly long tradition of such combinations in place names (based on nouns), often jocular: porkopolis, cornopolis, cottonopolis, steelopolis, and more.

Nougatocity is several steps more complicated.  My guess is that the ad agency's impulse was to combine nougat with the Latinate suffix -ity, which forms abstract nouns from adjectives, to get something conveying 'the state or essence of being nougat'.  This would be noticeable in two ways: the base is from the wrong stratum of the vocabulary, and it's of the wrong category (noun rather than adjective).  Ok, that's playful morphology for you.

But there's a phonological problem.  The suffix -ity is one of those that requires accent on the syllable immediately preceding it, so the accent on the base will shift to accommodate this requirement (compare ACtive with acTIVity).  But that obscures the identity of the base word, not a desirable outcome for the Snickers people, who would want nougat to stand out clearly: NOUgat, but nouGATity.  Ugh.  There's a fix for this: use another suffix in between the base and -ity, so that nougat can keep its accent, and the extra suffix will get the accent required by -ity.  I'd expect -ic to be the intervening affix, as in multiple - multiplicity.  That would give nougaticity.

The ad agency didn't go for nougaticity, maybe because the high front vowel in -icity sounds too small or precious (the symbolic values of vowels have long been known).  Instead they went for a nice big back vowel in -ocity, despite the fact that the reasonably common words in -ocity (precocity, velocity, ferocity, reciprocity, atrocity) aren't likely to be ones they wanted to evoke.

[Update, 8/29: Suzanne Kemmer writes to supply a much simpler account.  Since 1988 she's taught classes on English words, in which she collects student reports on neologisms.  She says, "-ocity is one of the current favorite suffixes deriving nouns from adjectives (and now, from nouns too).  It seems to have the flavor of a humorously faux-Latinate derivation. It is very widespread among college students."  She suggests a connection to bogosity, a word that Mark Liberman has now posted on, and concludes, "The coiner on the ad campaign was probably young and knew the popular -ocity suffix; or found a test group of youths who suggested the word."  Sounds good to me.]

Now, substantialicious.  This looks like a portmanteau of substantial and delicious, and maybe that was what the writers were after.  But there's also an evolving jocular suffix -alicious (also spelled -ilicious and occasionally -elicious), conveying a high degree of some desired property, as in the (fairly widely attested) crunchalicious, crispalicious, and yummalicious (and probably others; these are just the ones I've noticed), and that might be the analysis of substantialicious.  [Turns out that the ads actually have the spelling substantialiscious, maybe to evoke luscious.  Google sources have both spellings, and this is one I hadn't seen on the hoof, so I was misled.  The ad strategy seems to have been to throw in as much as possible and hope that some of it sticks.]

[Further addenda, 8/29: Jason Parker-Burlingham and Jim Wilson write, separately, to say that the -alicious words remind them of the coining sacrilicious (a portmanteau of sacrilegious and delicious) on "The Simpsons" in 1994 (for the story, see the Wikipedia site on Simpsons neologisms).  Wilson suggests, in fact, that the -alicious words are cloned from sacrilicious.  I'm a bit dubious about this, since my impression is that crunchalicious, at least, pre-dates this Simpsons episode.  But I don't have any actual evidence, so I'm keeping an open mind.  As for echos and reminders, Jack Hamilton tells me the word reminds him of Mary Poppins: supercalifragilistic!]

(That 1987 BLS paper by Geoff Pullum and me looked at some evolving jocular suffixes that had already been discussed in the morphological literature: -orama/-rama/-ama and -eteria/-teria/-eria for shop names.  A variety of suffixes created from pieces of existing words are now inventoried in Michael Quinion's Ologies and isms: Word beginnings and endings (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).)

Substantialicious is merely not very compelling.  But satisfectellent, apparently some sort of odd portmanteau of satisfaction (or satisfying) and excellent, is a real stinker.  For a lot of people, this one evokes, not these words, but fecal and repellent, not a good thing in a word that appears on a brown background.  [Addendum: you might hear an echo of infect in there as well, also an unfortunate effect.  Further addendum, 8/29: J.D. Stephens suggests that you might hear the unpleasant feculent in there too, if you know the word.]

Just a reminder: these words are not to be found in dictionaries.  That's the whole point; they should be ostentatiously novel, but still interpretable.  They should be crunchalicious inventions.

[Thanks to Doug Kenter for encouraging me to post on the Snickers ads.  They were, as he put it, carefully, driving him nuts.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 28, 2006 01:44 PM