Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Not-So-Fabulous "Phablet"

Last week, the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year honors went to the Twitter-friendly hashtag. But another techie term emerged in a less prestigious category, Least Likely to Succeed. Finishing in a virtual tie with the much-maligned acronym YOLO was phablet, a blend of phone and tablet coined for new devices that are not quite smartphones and not quite tablet computers.

I included phablet in my wrap-up of the year in words, calling it "an odd concoction." Then when I was presiding over the nominating session for Word of the Year (in my capacity as the society's Chair of the New Words Committee), I put phablet forward as a nominee in the Least Likely to Succeed category. The following evening, at the big WOTY vote, phablet was forced into a runoff with YOLO, the "You Only Live Once" acronym that faced tremendous backlash after its rapid success in 2012. When phablet finished with 92 votes to YOLO's 91, ADS executive secretary Allan Metcalf declared the two words co-winners, as the results were "within the margin of error."

While YOLO had its chance to shine last year, phablet may be shot down before it gets its moment in the sun. Though the word has been in circulation on tech blogs for about two and a half years now, the neologism has received heightened exposure in the past few months with the success of such smartphone-tablet hybrids as the Samsung Galaxy Note II. Reactions to the word have been almost universally negative. "Galloping into the annals of bad portmanteaus comes the word 'phablet,'" wrote Greg Sterling on Marketing Land last October. Earlier this week, Quartz tech reporter Christopher Mims referred to phablet as "the terrible name granted to this class of 5-inch and larger phones by a derisive press corps."

Who actually was responsible for granting the name? It appears that a few people can claim credit. The earliest example that I've been able to find (corroborated by Paul McFedries of Wordspy) is from June 1, 2010, shortly before the release of the Dell Streak, the first of the new wave of supersized smartphones. On that day, Ian Scales of TelecomTV said of the Streak, "Is it a phone? is it a tablet? ..no, it's a phablet." But just a few days later, on June 4, Scott Webster came up with the term independently in a post on Android Guys about the Huawei S7:

If there is one thing Android has certainly become very good at, it's blurring the line between tablet and smart phone. Where exactly does one decide to stop calling something a phone? Is it five inches? How about 5.5-inches? What if the device was 7-inches and still had the ability to make and receive calls? I would like to go ahead and take the initiative to coin a new term, "phablet".

Webster was evidently unaware that Scales had beaten him to the punch. And later in 2010, other tech writers took to the term, such as John Davidson of the Australian Financial Review and Rohan Naravane of Techtree.com. I'm not sure if any of them would claim ownership of phablet at this point, even if the coinage was tongue-in-cheek: success, as they say, has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.

"What is it about the word 'phablet' that inspires such rage?" Slate tech reporter Farhad Manjoo wondered on Twitter this week. "Nobody likes it. Why?" Oxford University Press lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin suggested "portmanteau fatigue" as the reason, pointing to a column by Gary Nunn of the Guardian lamenting the recent prevalence of portmanteau words.

But not all portmanteau words receive such a negative reaction. One of the most successful words of the digital age is, of course, blog, a blend of web log. And as I described in an "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, blog sparked a blending boom:

Blog soon begat a whole new generation of techno-neologisms in the blogosphere, where bloggers compile blogrolls, celebrate blogiversaries and suffer from blogorrhea. The vowel of blog can mutate, as when law blogs are called blawgs or requests via blog posts are called blegs (combining blog and beg). The "b" in these words is all that remains from its ancestor, Berners-Lee's Web, and even that slim vestige can be lost when blog blends with other words, as in vlog (a video blog) and splog (a spam blog).

Some of these blends have been more popular than others: vlog is tough to pronounce, thanks to the unusual vl- consonant cluster. The v- of video shows up in another odd blend, vook for video + book, which Nancy Friedman examined in a 2009 Candlepower column.

Phablet strikes me as ill-conceived as vook: grafting initial consonants of one word onto the middle and end of another word generally isn't a good strategy for making a euphonious portmanteau (brunch and smog notwithstanding). And using ph- to indicate the phone element looks strange and sounds even stranger, despite the fact that there's some history behind it: the word phreak, used as early as 1971, blends phone and freak to refer to hacker types who fiddle (usually illegally) with telephone networks.

Even if phablet is a morphological phail, as Lane Greene recently suggested on The Economist's Johnson blog, the success of products so designated may override people's dislike of the term. Already, phablet is being used as a matter-of-fact descriptor within the tech world, and no alternative (e.g., tablet-phone, or Nancy Friedman's favored term tabloid) seems to be challenging it in the namespace. So it may be that phablet ends up succeeding in spite of itself. Those present at the creation of blog probably didn't think much of it either.

Update #1: You can read more of my thoughts about people's aversion to the word phablet in this piece on The Atlantic Wire.

Update #2: Dan Warren, director of technology for GSMA (a UK-based association of mobile operators), says on Twitter that he was the first to use phablet  ("with tongue firmly in cheek") and introduced the term to Ian Scales. Scales, however, may still have been the first to use the word online.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 11th 2013, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
If you'd written this column in verse, we could have called it a phableau.
Saturday January 12th 2013, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Erika H.
I think a key to the failure of phablet (apart from manifest lameness) is that there is insufficient phonetic association with "phone". It sounds like fablet which, working from likely English associations, might mean either a particular groovy tablet, or something that is just a little bit fabulous. It *looks* like a term for the hardware preferred by the Phillie Phanatic. No long o, no sense of "phone".

And, it feels fussy to say.

While "blog" in inelegant, it's short, strong, and unfussy, and has a clear relationship to its predecessor "weblog"

I am amazed people who name new products and companies so often neglect the essential test everyone employs when naming their dog: "Will I sound like a total tool when I yell it across the park? And is it sufficiently unambiguous that the correct dog will respond?"

Teletablet would have been a far superior choice.

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