December 29, 2005

Does sisomo have sisomomentum?

Sometimes it's easy to spot neologisms that are bound to fail. But there can be a multitude of reasons why a freshly minted word or phrase turns out to be a nonstarter. As noted here previously, Allan Metcalf discerned five factors necessary for a neologism to catch fire, acronymized as FUDGE: Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. To these five we might add a sixth criterion: Resistance to public backlash. Of course, that's mainly a concern for coinages that are foisted on the public for possibly cynical marketing purposes. One recent example was Cyber Monday, specifically designed to boost post-Thanksgiving online purchases. Now comes the latest self-conscious creation from the world of advertising: sisomo.

No, it's not some new variant of sudoku (or suduko, or sudoko, or soduko, or...). It's the brainchild of Kevin Roberts, CEO of the advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, and it's an acronymic blend of "sight, sound, and motion," trumpeted as "a new word for a new world." The website that Roberts created to popularize the word supplies the pronunciation upon loading, whether you want to hear it or not: it's /sɪsoʊmoʊ/, with roughly even syllabic stress (though that stress pattern is likely due to the synthesized voices that contribute to the site's earnestly techno-futuristic flourishes).

Strike one against sisomo: it's a graphemic blend rather than a phonemic one, taking the first two letters of each of the component words regardless of the resulting mismatch between sound and spelling. (Perhaps they test-marketed the fully diphthongized sighsoumo and it didn't fly.) Graphemic blends do occasionally crop up in English, particularly those of the acronymic type that take the first letter or two from words in a phrase, such as sonar from "sound navigation ranging," or COBOL from "COmmon Business-Oriented Language." But extracting the first two letters from each word in a series is not a productive source of English neologizing. (You never know, though — sisomo could be thought to have a particularly "modern" sound, as sonar and COBOL were no doubt considered at the time of their coinage.)

The word was introduced at last month's Ad:Tech conference in New York, where Roberts unveiled it as his label for a purportedly new advertising imperative: the need to combine sight, sound, and motion in an emotionally captivating package, now typically mediated by multiple video screens (TVs, cellphones, computers, etc.). Unsurprisingly, he also announced that his buzzword is the topic of a new book he was plugging, Sisomo: The Future on Screen.

Roberts further explained his push for the new word in an article in the Dec. 29 New Zealand Herald:

"Revolution starts with language," he said - quoting publisher Alan Webber. "So, creating a new word was a deliberate move."
It's technically a noun, but Roberts has no shortage of ideas for how it can be dropped into casual conversation as a verb. How about: "We're sisomoing all our ideas" ... or "The story sisomoed up really well."

I think Roberts might be jumping the gun in his pursuit of one of Metcalf's five factors, "generation of other forms and meanings." He's not only imagining a transition from noun to verb but also to an idiomatic phrasal verb, sisomo up. (And not just a phrasal verb but an intransitive one. Even particularly successful neologisms like google usually stay transitive when making the phrasal-verb leap, though there are scattered examples of people talking about the things that google up when they're a-googlin'.)

Roberts is also fond of blending upon his blend: the text of his Ad:Tech speech reveals sisomovers, sisomojo, and sisomotivators. One blogger at the conference, who also mentioned Roberts' use of sisomoments and sisomovies, thought that this made it a "fun" word; others might find these strained attempts at whimsy to be mildly annoying. And again, isn't this jumping the gun just a bit? Has Roberts forgotten the cautionary tale of 2004 presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and his self-defeating proclamation of Joementum?

A cardinal rule of neologizing is that one person can't carry the load of hyping the coinage, even a master hyper (a hyper-hyper, if you will) like Roberts. Others may be building on the blend, however. Another blogger from the world of advertising has suggested the further acronymic elaborations of misisomo (marketer-inspired sight sound and motion) and cisisomo (consumer-inspired sight sound and motion).

Obviously, Roberts is going to need recognition beyond advertising circles if he hopes to achieve neologistic nirvana with sisomo. In the New Zealand Herald article, he claims that the buzz is building:

Roberts said a lot of the interest in the concept was coming from the news media, the big retailers and the electronics companies. ...
Roberts launched the word sisomo at an advertising industry conference in New York last month.
Since then he has made two US TV appearances and attracted many articles in business sections. One internet-based English dictionary has sisomo on its list of candidates for inclusion. But Roberts is hoping for more of a global linguistic splash.
"I've just been in Russia and Korea talking about it and they can all say sisomo," he said. "We just want to see it becoming part of the lexicon."

I'm pretty certain that the "internet-based English dictionary" mentioned in the article is none other than Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Word Wrester, a favorite at Language Log Plaza. DTWW was on the case almost immediately, with a citation posted Nov. 9. (The citation was from a live-blogger at the Ad:Tech conference, whose mention that Roberts "coined a word" must have set off bells at DTWW's blog-tracking facilities.)

I'm not so sure that inclusion in the DTWW citation queue is really an indication of the incipient popularization of sisomo. After all, the queue has room for such marginal coinages as hideawfulous and charmesty. But Roberts might be on to something with his realization that sisomo presents no pronunciation problems for Russians or Koreans. Even if sisomo proves to be a dud stateside, it could be the neologistic equivalent of movies like Kingdom of Heaven: disappointing domestically, but an impressive performer overseas.

[Update: More on the history of such orthographic blends in this post.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 29, 2005 01:24 AM