January 20, 2007


Time Magazine recently revamped its online presence, relaunching Time.com with a host of new features. One of them is a daily news aggregator summarizing top stories from newspapers and blogs. But since "aggregator" doesn't sound particularly hip, they're calling it "The Ag." So far, there are only five categories for items in "The Ag": "National," "World," "Politics," "Iraq," and, curiously, "Celeb-u-Gossip." Why not a more straightforward blend like, say, "Celebri-Gossip"? Where did that -u- come from? The likely story is that this is a blend upon a blend, grafting gossip to the end of the combining form celebu-, which owes its current popularity to celebutante and its many spinoffs.

Let's start with celebutante, a blend of celebrity and debutante. (Like many successful blends, there happens to be some phonological and graphological overlap, in this case -eb-, to help cement the connection between the two base words. See my post "Blawgs, phonolawgically speaking" for more on overlapping blends.) The original celebutante was Brenda Frazier, whose debut into New York high society on December 27, 1938 was accompanied by unprecedented hype. The columnist Walter Winchell coined the term celebutante in Frazier's honor, though it didn't appear in his widely read "On Broadway" column until the following April. In a list of "Faces About Town" he included:

Brenda Frazier, who inspires a new 1-word description: Celebutante.

(Newspaperarchive currently turns up at least three iterations of Winchell's syndicated column: Charleston [W. Va.] Daily Mail, Apr. 6, 1939; [Burlington, N.C.] Daily Times-News, Apr. 7, 1939; and [Reno] Nevada State Journal, Apr. 11, 1939. The OED entry for celebutante cites the last of these.)

It would take nearly half a century for celebutante to become repopularized in the American popular press. The second time around it cropped up in a June 3, 1985 Newsweek article about New York's flamboyant "club kids," who shared only the vaguest lineage back to Brenda Frazier. (Club kid James St. James, who was featured in the Newsweek article, wrote a memoir called Disco Bloodbath, later serving as the basis for a documentary and feature film both under the name Party Monster.) Newsweek wrote:

Young 'celebutants' hope to win the approval of full-fledged downtown celebrities like Dianne Brill, a voluptuous 26-year-old menswear designer who reigns over the New York night in red vinyl evening gowns.

By using celebutants instead of celebutantes, the writer was apparently trying to uphold a gendered distinction, as between male debutants and female debutantes. These days, however, one rarely sees the e-less version of celebutante, regardless of the person's gender (though celebutantes tend to be young women anyway).

Celebutante caught on in the wake of the Newsweek article, eventually getting yet another boost with the rise of such "famous for being famous" celebs as Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. And in the hyperactive celebrity-watching of the Internet age, celebutante has spawned a multitude of second-order blends with celebu- as the first element. Some of these new blends are innocuous enough, such as celebumom (noted on the American Dialect Society mailing list in Sep. 2004). More often than not, however, the new celebu-blends have been intended as snarky put-downs of the Hilton-Ritchie set. One prominent example is celebutard, which uses the unpleasant -tard element of retard. The same element has also shown up recently in debutard, fucktard, and lactard. (The last of these, winner in the "Most Creative" category in the 2006 ADS WOTY voting, is a self-effacing term for someone who is lactose-intolerant.)

The gossip-bloggers at Gawker enjoy using another colorful put-down: celebuskank. (Skank, of course, is meant to be interpreted in the sense given by American Heritage as: "One who is disgustingly foul or filthy and often considered sexually promiscuous. Used especially of a woman or girl.") As part of a faux-lexicographical roundup last July, Time Out New York supplied a helpful definition (complete with a silly etymology and inaccurate pronunciation):

Gawker hasn't stopped with celebuskank, however, also introducing celebu-architect, celebu-cuisine, and celebu-lurker, among others. But another gossipy blog, Steve Hall's Adrants.com, has really gone celebu-crazy. Adrants has featured celebu-bash, celebu-billionaire, celebu-campaign, celebu-face, celebu-fashion, celebu-fragrance, celebu-lusting, celebu-media, celebu-model (or celebu-spokesmodel), celebu-obsessive, celebu-publishing, celebu-rag, celebu-sneaker, and last but not least, celebu-shit. Hall has evidently been spreading the celebu-gospel for quite a while now. Back in Sep. 2003, when Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers was fielding names for a new Manhattan-based gossip blog, Hall's suggestions included "Celebu-blog" and "Celebu-snark." (Spiers eventually went with "The Kicker," now defunct.)

So a celebu-blend seems to have a certain trendy cachet that you wouldn't find in a more mundane celebri-blend. And celebu- is close enough to celebri- to maintain a resemblance, with only a change of the unstressed syllable that serves as a bridge to the second blend element. (The first two syllables carry the semantic weight, especially since celeb has been a clipped form of celebrity since the early 20th century.) New celebu-formations may also be helped along by the fact that the medial syllable -u- [ju] seems particularly blend-friendly, whether it's part of the first element or the second: think of docudrama, rockumentary, edutainment, Blacula, and AccuWeather.

Time.com further highlights the -u- syllable by setting it off with hyphens. "Celeb-u-Gossip" has a bit of a retro feel, reminiscent of "While-U-Wait" signs on old storefronts. At the same time, it suggests the many websites prefixed by You- or U-, from Youtube to Uclick. Unfortunately for Time.com, it also brings to mind Time's much derided selection of "You" as Person of the Year. Leave it to a Gawker commenter to drive the point home:

The U stands for "You," as in Time's Persons of the Year -- as well as in "You report gossip and we'll repeat it in our own words, just as if we had reported it ourselves."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 20, 2007 12:59 AM