September 07, 2006

From the annals of lexical spread

Again and again, people decide to invent a word and see if they can get it to spread.  This kind of deliberate seeding rarely works at more than a very local scale -- you end up with, at best, a "family word", used literally within a family or within another small group of intimates (but not outside it) -- though occasionally someone achieves at least a moderate success.  Here's one story.

This is Susan Dennis, telling a story on her livejournal three years ago about a seeding from some years ago:

Years ago, I was a communications manager for IBM. There was one of us at every plant and every division hq making about 50 of us total around the United States. We were a kind of club. One member of the club had this theory about word usage. He allowed as how if you made up a good enough word and got three people to use it, within a year it would get back to from a fairly untraceable source. I'm obviously forgetting the details of the deal but I do remember the word that proved his theory.

Festuche. It's pronounced fess-toosch (accent on the second syllable). A festuche is a brohaha or a big deal or a tado. "He forgot to get the approval and pretty soon we had a major festuche." or "She's such a drama queen. She could make any staff meeting into a real festuche."

It's a great word and one that doesn't have much competition. When something is a real festuche, the other options for describing it just do not measure up.

About two years after this guy introduced festuche at a bar in White Plains, NY (a few of us gathered to discuss the day long meeting we had just been subject to), the head of communications at IBM stood before a gathering of about 300 IBMers and urged us not to make 'a festuche out of today's announcement'. It was a major coup and one that called for a festuche of a celebration.

This morning I had to use the word with a guy here at work. He allowed as how he had never heard the word before and thought it was a great word and planned to use it a lot. Maybe we'll see a revival?

(Yes, I noticed "tado" in there, for "to-do".  Looks eggcornish, with "to-do" reshaped to echo the "ta-DAH" that introduces some big announcement, imitating a trumpet flourish.  Googling on <"a big tado"> gets 43 raw webhits, most of them relevant; the more clearly onomatopoetic <"a big tadoo"> gets even more, 95; <"a big ta-do">, with its visual separation into two parts, gets 267, of both "a big ta-do" and "a big ta do"; and <"a big ta-doo"> gets 54 more.  Not (yet) in the eggcorn database, though we do have an entry for "ado" >> "to do, to-do".)

Well, it looks like it's achieving some success within the IBM world.  Here's Dennis, in her livejournal of 8/30/06, telling her readers about a

comment I got yesterday that is still making me smile...:

Hi - just wanted to comment about your (three year old) entry about the origin about the word "festuche" - my mother (an IBM employee) used it when talking to me last weekend while I was home visiting, and caused quite a dinner table discussion. We broke out the OED and couldn't find it there, and my little brother booted up the computer and tried Failing that, he googled the term. Imagine my surprise when the usually somber and sullen 22 year old burst out in hysterical laughter upon finding your story...

Isn't that the most wonderful comment? Festuche is a gift that just keeps on giving!

(Thanks to Dean Allemang for the pointer.)

[Follow-up.  Nothing is simple.  When I read Susan Dennis's blog entries, a little bell went off in my head, but I didn't know why it was ringing.  Now Ben Zimmer has written to tell me why: we discussed festuche / festouche / festoosh / festush on the ADS-L back in 2001.  Joan Hall posted a query from someone asking about festouche and festush, both of which could be found on the web at the time.  ADS-Lers noted that the word looked a lot like a dialectal variant of Italian festuccia 'little party' (festa + -uccia), and numerous Italian Googlehits for festuche supported this idea.  The point is that maybe Dennis's acquaintance didn't just make the word up out of thin air, but might have been retrieving a dimly remembered word.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 7, 2006 11:50 AM