Friday, March 07, 2008


Slate magazine has a running feature called The Encyclopedia Baracktannica, in which people contribute found instances (I guess) of words coined around the name Barack Obama. A few samples:

The sensation that occurs during or after a speech by Barack Obama, characterized by spasms of hope and a sensation that all will be well—Ed Bush

An Obama supporter who’s older than 21

Anything that Barack Obama says

A Latino who supports Obama—Jeffrey Barton

So, a couple of things here. First, the ink is hardly dry on my recent post about the proliferating usage of the -pedia suffix for all things encylopedic, when here comes Slate with some other new way to suggest, well, encyclopedianess. (Tho really what they're providing a dictionary, not an encyclopedia -- a glo-bama-ssary, we might say. (Or not.)

Which brings up the second point, which is that people are neologizing like mad, trying to think up words that can incorporate obama or barack. Question: what are the rules for this game?

I ask this because of something I read (via the Langauge Log) not long ago about the lolcats phenomenon. When lolcats was all the rage (that was back in, like, 2007), people were making up all sorts of "i can haz cheezburger" and "im in ur RSS feed, ritin mai blog" captions for cat pictures. It seemed like a free-for-all, but as Anil Dash said:
The rise of these new subspecies of lolcats are particularly interesting to me because "I can has cheezeburger?" has a fairly consistent grammar. I wasn't sure this was true until I realized that it's possible to get cat-speak wrong.

Thinking about the barackification of words, it seems like it likewise is a free-for-all, but of course, it's not. Some coinages work; others do not. As Anil Dash says, it's possible to get it wrong. So what are the rules?

Here's an initial stab at a list of constraints for Obama coinages. I don't think this list is necessarily correct nor exhaustive. Or insightful or interesting. I'm just musing, and invite you to, um, co-muse with me.
  • The new word has to be based on a word that already contains sounds that are at least a little like the sounds from the limited pallette in Obama's name. For example: Barackupied (cf occupied). This seems to be a feature of many uses of Barack: Baracktail (cf cocktail); Operation Baracki Freedom; Barackracy (fr bureaucracy); Baracklamation; Obamination (cf abomination - clever, it just reverses);

  • The new word follows a word-creation pattern that's already functional in English: Obameter; Obamasm (#); Baracturnal.

  • The word simply adds a recognizable part of Obama's name onto an otherwise stanadlone word (more often involving Oba-, it seems to me): Obamalaise; Obombre; Obalma mater; Barackolyte.

The test here would be to try to make up words on the -obama-, -barack- pattern that don't work. I haven't thought of any just yet, but I have a bus ride ahead of me, so ...