A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
At a scenic dropoff near the Lounge, whereunder flows the mighty torrent of English, we have lookouts posted whose job is to spot trends. Recently they have reported back on instances of a certain class of words that are ready for a closeup: a handful of nouns formed by fusing the two parts of a phrasal verb. Such words are legion in English (setback, breakdown, frameup, washout, etc.) but we lack a handy term to designate them: snaptos? pairups? glueons? In any case, this month's Lounge is a rundown of our lookouts' pickups.
Have you watched the Food Network program called "Throwdown with Bobby Flay"? Unaccountably, our imagination did not supply the connection at first. What's a throwdown? The word is all over English today, but not always with the same meaning, and a survey of Google News hits wasn't immediately illuminating. We typed it into the search box in the CD version of Random House Unabridged (our fave CD-ROM dictionary). It's not there as a headword but it took us immediately to "throw down the gauntlet." Of course! A challenge. The program, for those who haven't watched it, involves the good-natured celebrity chef turning up in some off-the-beaten-path locale where he cooks his version of a local specialty alongside a local chef. Expert judges then decide which of the two is better. Throwdown is a great choice for the program title: it is not centuries old and somewhat tired, like challenge, it's inspired by a phrase intimately tied to its meaning, and it joins many other phrasal compounds ending with down in which there's an implied lopsided or negative outcome: oldtimers knockdown and shakedown, 20th-century entries lockdown and meltdown, and relative newcomers smackdown and beatdown.
Another thing we've noticed lately is the huge amount of pushback going on — and we don't mean the kind that happens after the jet bridge is retracted from the aircraft door. These days pushback seems to be what you do when you don't like what's just been done to you, or, as the OED has it in its 2007 draft entry,
- orig. and chiefly U.S. Resistance, disagreement; adverse reaction, negative feedback.
It's an interestingly late addition to English in this meaning, considering that pullback has been around since the 17th century; the sort of pushback noted above wasn't so designated until the late 20th century, and only now seems to be really running on its legs, especially in Washington, as these journalism instances show:
Nationwide protests known as "tea parties" are the result of pushback against Democrats' spending.
It didn't take long for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's Internet neutrality roadmap to elicit pushback.
Pushback against the steady hollowing out of proposed [healthcare] reforms has been building.
Again, it's an very apt coinage: it's what you expect to happen if you place a dish of chopped spinach in front of a diner in a high chair, and it's a little surprising that the term did not catch on centuries ago. It shares a quality with many ________back compounds that, like their phrasal verb parents, suggest interaction between two sides: the long-established feedback and payback, or 20th-centry entries buyback and clawback, to name a few.
When pushback doesn't work and the originator of the action carries out his or her original intention, watch out for blowback. The term was originally (late 19th century) associated with firearms, boilers, and internal combustion engines, and it retains its explosive connotations today in extended use:
Gibbs dismissed a suggestion that Obama risked blowback by meddling in local affairs.
Even if they decide not to release [the Madoff report], the blowback will be so intense that they'll change their mind.
There will be some blowback directed at the Vick signing.
The OED's 2006 draft entry sums it up thus:
- (chiefly U.S.) the adverse consequences of a (political) situation or action.
While the word has been with us for some time, its usage is trending upwards — or so say Google News statistics, anyway:
The apparent spike in 2001 seems to be due to pundit jabber about Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson (published in 2000), with some additional fuel supplied various characterizations of 9/11 and its aftermath. Does blowback really mean anything different from backlash? Probably not: as the VT has it, backlash is "an adverse reaction to some political or social occurrence." It's likely that blowback is simply encroaching on some of backlash's semantic space, wielding its novelty sword as it goes.
Lately we also hear a lot about buildout — a term so fresh that even the OED doesn't seem to have put together a knockup of it yet. It appears with some frequency in journalism, especially when the subject is broadband technology or construction:
Will this pairup make it into the big tent? Perhaps not as readily as the others have done; it still has a jargony feel, and the underlying phrasal verb, build out, is also a niche English inhabitant, not treated in any standard dictionaries at present. Thumbnail definition of the noun: the implementation or completion of a detailed plan of construction.
The last starlet in this month's identity parade is mashup. It's been around English for quite a while, but dictionaries have not generally taken note of it — perhaps understandably so, as it is often a nonce word and fairly transparent in use: a noun-of-instance of the underlying phrasal verb that follows the pattern of many such _____ up compounds (hookup, breakup, lookup, sendup, etc.). Lately mashup is settling into a couple of particular uses. One of them involves software: Wikipedia says a mashup is "a Web application that combines data or functionality from two or more sources into a single integrated application." Mashup's other new job is in music, as this 2009 OED draft explains, somewhat wordily:
- A fusion of disparate musical elements. Now usually: a piece of popular music created by merging the elements of two or more existing songs using computer technology and production techniques, esp. one featuring the vocals of one song over the instrumental backing of another.
This use of mashup seems to have grown out of hip-hop culture, and perhaps appropriately so: we looked at early instances of the phrasal verb mash up on one of the Making of America websites, which survey early American literature, and found, surprisingly, that several of the earliest uses of the verb are from transcribed African-American speech. Proof, perhaps, that the genius and ingenuity of English still thrives, managing to find the right term for the right semantic slot and dropping it in when the need arises.