Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Longing for the future that was

In the New York Times Sunday Magazine this last week (Jun 13, 2014), Eric Schulmiller has an essay (paywall, probably) about our fondness for the visions in the past of what the future would look like. Unlike a lot of generally sour thinking in latter days about what the future holds (climate change, water shortages, "Blade Runner," Skynet), folks in the past often had a progressive view of what was in store for their grandchildren. As Schulmiller explains:
[I]n addition to our retreat into wishfulness, something else was brewing: a sense that the past was not only better than the present, but that the past’s predictions for the future were also better than what had actually become the present. No longer content to live in (or through) our memories of the past, we also yearned to live in the past’s vision of the future. We were nostalgic for yesterday’s prognostications.
Which he follows with:
You could say that we succumbed to prognostalgia.
The term is a portmanteau (prognostication+nostalgia). I don't love it as a word to say out loud, but it's a good combination, and it's hard not to like the way that it plays with chronological logic—indeed, the way that the title "Back to the Future" does, a movie around which Schulmiller crafts his essay. The concept is understood well enough; people are engaged in prognostalgia (ironically or otherwise) when they ask Where's my jetback? or cast fond thoughts onto the iconic tho short-lived Jetsons[1]:

Schulmiller does not claim in the essay that he invented this term. The blogger "Prog Nostal" has a blog named Prognostalgia that first appeared on June 8—that is, less than a week before Schulmiller's essay appeared. (We might be able to assume that Schulmiller had by then already penned his essay.) Blogger Prognos describes the process that he went through to arrive at prognostalgia and his proposed definition, which he promptly put up on Urban Dictionary:
Prognostalgia: "Longing for a predicted future for either selfish or utopian ideals."
It's not the first, tho. Back in 2009, the blogger Chris Adams wrote about how well ads by AT&T predicted the future. He doesn't use the term prognostalgia, but he links to a now-defunct entry on the RealityPrime site that suggests that Avi Bar-Zeev once wrote about the term. But for now the trail goes cold here.

I guess I'm doing my bit here to give the term some legs. The next time someone mentions jetpacks or taking vacations on the moon, tell them they're engaged in prognostalgia and let's get that term out there!

[1] There's a surprising (to me) number of pages on the web devoted to studying how accurately "The Jetsons" portrayed the future.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Some herstory of sheroes

I ran across a terms recently that was new to me but not particularly new in absolute terms. This was shero—a combination of she + hero that is defined (M-W) as "a woman regarded as a hero." The M-W entry says it made its first appearance in 1982, but provides no cites; the OED does not have the term. A Wiktionary entry has some actual cites, but the earliest is from 1998. But there's reason to think that M-W is probably correct, since an ngram search shows the term skyrocketing starting in the early 1980s:

There are a couple of things about shero that I find interesting. The first is that there is already a term for [female]+hero, namely heroine. The second pertains to the well-known debate about whether sex-specific terms are needed (e.g. actor/actress). Is there a even particular need for a word that singles out a female hero?

Consider one of the cites in the Wiktionary entry:
He talks about how we must remember the unsung heroes and sheroes of the Talahassee boycott, of the movement in general, and finally, he wonders how C. K. Steele would be accepted here.
Suppose that the cite had simply said "unsung heroes"—what does adding "and sheroes" do for the cite? You could argue that it reminds the reader that there were both men and women involved in the boycott, and that leaving it at "unsung heroes" might not have left that impression. (As a side note, the OED does have this to say in its first definition for hero: "A man (or occas. a woman) of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; esp. one regarded as semi-divine and immortal," emphasis mine.)

Could the previous cite have read "heroes and heroines"? My sense is that in this particular context, that would have worked, at least, if the intention really was just to remind readers about both the men and women involved.

Does shero have a connotation that heroine does not? Perhaps shero is modeled on herstory, which plays on morphological coincidence (hero starts with he-, history starts with his-) to surface a term that can then be interpreted to focus on women's experiences or concerns.

I do like that theory, but I'd need quite a few more cites to try to determine whether that's actually the intended meaning.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Poring over the straits of spelling

There are a couple of words that I feel like I see misspelled with some frequency, including among people who "should know better," which includes editors. These are pore and straitjacket. (Well, there are others, but these are the ones I'm thinking about today.)

I began thinking about pore when one of the kids, who was a tween at the time, reported to me with some pride that she'd found a typo in one of the Harry Potter books--namely, they'd misspelled "pour" in an expression like pore over a book. That alerted me to the idea that pore and poring were encountered seldom enough that even an avid reader might not have consciously encountered the terms by the age of, dunno, 13 or so.

I can't think of a clear (well, easy) way to research whether this is a change or whether it's always been so, especially since pore as a noun is extremely common, especially in the beauty industry. Nonetheless, indirect evidence is that pore shows up on lists of commonly misspelled or commonly confused words (#).

For straitjacket, it's slightly easier to see a trend of the increasing use of straightjacket, thanks to the Google ngram viewer:

As with pore, I think that the comparative rarity of the term strait (and straits) contributes to the confusion, as another chart suggests, this in spite of the bump that Mark Knopfler's group Dire Straits might have given the term around 1978, haha.

Arnold Zwicky contributed the entry in the Eggcorn Database on strait > straight, and if there's anyone who's given thought to the Recency Illusion, certainly it's him.

It's not an unreasonable mistake, not only due to the relative rarity of strait, but because it isn't hard to make some sense of the term straightjacket, perhaps (dunno) in the sense that it keeps your arms straight, or something like that.

If nothing else, it's evidence (as if we needed any) that spelling in English is hard. Even for those who work with it all day long.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Frecking awesome

Here's a term you'll be seeing a lot in the near future: frecking, as in Google Frecking. Here's the definition from what seems to be the originating source (Google Frecking: The Week in Pandas):
Google Frecking is an info-gathering game we devised — at the suggestion of our creative editor — for drilling a little deeper into a subject that intrigues us.
So far, 99% of the hits pertain to investigating pandas. But there was a new hit this morning on the NPR site in a story about Google Frecking the KKK:
So you set up a Google Alert – as part of an infogathering method you call Google Frecking — for the Ku Klux Klan, imagining you might get a dozen or so obscure hits over the week. As of today, you have received scores and scores and the alerts just keep coming.
  • Is it Google Frecking, Google-Frecking, Google frecking, or just frecking?
  • Why that term?
  • Do we think this has legs?