Posts Tagged ‘Ben Zimmer’

Some weeks back as one of my tweets as @etyman I called BS on the word game changer and officially declared it a candidate for Cliché of the Year, 2011. I know, I don’t have much clout when it comes to “declaring” things, but then again, I also have nothing to lose if it turns out to be “favorite word of the year.”

Can I be first to officially declare “game changer” as “Cliché of the Year?” Apparently now anything new is a “game changer.” Bah, humbug! (April 5th, 11:40 am EST)

The word seems to have reached that critical mass needed to catapult it from “descriptive” to “mildly annoying” and then “for the love of God, Montresor!” I’m not suggesting capital punishment for users of the phrase – well, not yet anyway – but forcing users to eat a bar of soap might be one option.

Windows 7 image

Windows 7: It's a game changer!

A quick ghit count shows 3,240,000 results for the exact phrase “game changer,” which is depressingly about 900 times more than “Etyman” but less than “Charlie Sheen,” who comes in with a staggering 58,900,000 mentions, eclipsing such do-nothings as Mother Teresa (4,980,000) and Martin Luther King (23,500,000). Celebrity, it seems, has nothing to do with actions.

Charlie Sheen and Mother Teresa

Charlie Sheen Outgoogles Mother Teresa

The Corpus of Historical American English has an entry for game changer that appears in the Chicago Tribune of 1995. In an article that covered the development of oil industries in Cuba, we find;

In the Obama administration, Cuba’s oil development is likely to be seen as an issue for the future. Says a senior State Department official, ” If it’s a game changer it’s not going to be a game changer for a while.

In one of his On Language pieces for the New York Times, William Safire refers to a Washington Post article baseball reference:

Singleton hit his game-changer… fair by eight yards.

In the same piece, Safire says that Ben Zimmer had tracked it back to 1930 and a discussion about changing the game of bridge: “Seldom are the game-changers idle.”

Ultra light bed

Ultra-light bed: It's a game changer!

What is clear is that although it’s use may not be further back than the 1930’s, it’s certainly hit its stride over the past two years. The excellent  Corpus of Contemporary American English shows the following number of examples:

2003 – 3 examples
2004 – 0 examples
2005 – 0 examples
2006 – 1 examples
2007 – 7 example
2008 – 26 examples
2009 – 16 examples
2010 – 13 examples
2011 – 7 examples

From 2008 onwards we can see a significant increase in the use of game changer in comments about politics, electric cars, lasers, Iran, vaccines, and even stuffing on corn bread! OK, I know you’re curious so here’s the corn bread piece taken from the CBS Early Show on November 26th, 2009:

HARRY-SMITH: I’ve nibbling on this stuffing all morning and I have to say I never had it with the corn bread before and that is a game changer.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Really, really —
RUSS-MITCHELL: Really. I got to try that.
MICHAEL-WHITE: Yeah. And — and I tell you, once you — once you put a little bit of the broth on it, you get this really great consistency. Okay?

When stuffing on corn bread is a game changer, I think you need look no further for evidence that a cliché is at hand!

Tractor transmission ad

Tractor transmission: It's a game changer!

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The ability of human beings to find patterns in life when none exists is called apophenia. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive process whereby people try to impose order on the world, even if such order does not exist. In the absence of an objective pattern, people will impose one.

As a phenomenon, it can take the blame for conspiracy theories, supernatural beliefs, rumors, myths, and all the posts during the past six years related to ABC’s phenomenally successful “Lost” series. Apophenia is what fuels the psychoanalytical Rorschach test and continues to have some people believe that the destruction of the twin towers in New York on 9/11 was planned by George W. Bush, the Jews, and aliens from Area 51.

Lost in Apophenia

So powerful is apophenia that people will cling to their erroneous beliefs even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary. Cultists who predict the End of the World on a particular date hardly seem fazed when the day comes and goes and they are still around. They simply reconstruct their patterns and create a new “truth.”

A more modest example of linguistic apophenia is with what are called “folk etymologies.” The OED defines it as;

the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant

Over at dictionary.com, the definition on offer is;

1. a modification of a linguistic form according either to a falsely assumed etymology, as Welsh rarebit from Welsh rabbit, or to a historically irrelevant analogy, as bridegroom from bridegome, or

2. a popular but false notion of the origin of a word.

The origin of company names and product names positively bristles with folk etymologies. A recent article for the New York Times by Ben Zimmer takes a peek at some dodgy etymologies in the corporate world.

And acronyms and bacronyms are a fruitful source of yarn spinning. Adidas is often quoted as being an acronym meaning “All day I dream about sport,” but the truth is that it is named after one of the founders, Adolf Dassler, whose nickname was Adi.

In his article entitled, Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, Laurence Horn of Yale University offered the following comment:

The human animal loves a good story and in particular cherishes a narrative embedding privileged knowledge. Etymythology is the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable—or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom—not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer). (p.39)

Such examples of bogus etymologies are not random but seem to be based applying previously known or used patterns that seem to be related to the word in question. The belief that the word crap comes from Thomas Crapper, who allegedly invented the flush toilet (he didn’t), may well be totally bogus, but it sure sounds plausible – with sound being the appropriate word. The false etymology is based on the word crap sounding like Crapper.

Which brings us to lavender, a word used to describe ;

The plant Lavandula vera (family Labiatæ), a small shrub with small pale lilac-coloured flowers, and narrow oblong or lanceolate leaves; it is a native of the south of Europe and Northern Africa, but cultivated extensively in other countries for its perfume.

The word sounds and looks very similar to the Italian lavanda, which means “to wash,” and in a recent tweet from the word-loving languagebandit, he notes that one suggested etymology for lavanda is actually lavender, based on the belief that people would wash their clothes in water containing the plant in order to add fragrance to the fibers.

Lavender's blue dilly dilly...

But is this either true or even likely? Certainly we do know that in the 14th century, a lavender was the name given to a washer-women who did the laundry. In his Legend of Good Women (1358), Chaucer wrote;

Enuye I prere to god yeue hire myschaunce
Is lauender in the grete court alway

In this sense, the word is fairly interpreted as coming from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash.” It therefore seems unlikely that the name of the plant was the origin of things to do with washing when the Latin root was already around. You might make a more cogent case that the name of the plant came from the word used for a washer-women, who may well have used it for cleaning clothes.

A more plausible etymology is that the name of the plant comes from a different route altogether than the “washing” strand. Other Latin spellings included livendula and livendola, which bear similarities to Latin livere meaning “to be livid or bluish.” Hypothesizing that lavender is based on the notion of being blue in color seems much better than supposing it was used as a washing agent.

What we may be seeing here are TWO words that look and sound the same but come from different origins: lavender the washer-woman from lavere, and lavender the plant from livere.

Of course, one might argue that even the livere origin of lavender could be a false etymology, but if I were going to place a bet on the table at the yet-to-be-built Las Vegas “Casino Etymologica,” I’d stack my chips higher for the livere camp.


Horn, L. R. (2004). Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics, American Speech, 79, 1, 33-58.

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