Ad and marketing creatives
The Ever-More-Common "-Core"
On January 7, 2022, following a lively online discussion and a close vote, several hundred members of the American Dialect Society chose insurrection as the 2021 word of the year. The list of runners-up – from boosted to yassify – tells a more complete story about the year that was. Take, for example, the little word part -core, nominated in the Most Creative category and defined by the ADS as a “productive suffix for aesthetic trends.”
Core has been attaching itself to other words for a long time now. In the beginning — the middle of the 19th century — there was hard core, spelled as two words and denoting something intractable or someone fervently committed to something. Hard core became hardcore, and the resulting compound became a modifier. In the fullness of time hardcore spawned other -cores — slowly at first (soft-core as a descriptor for pornography first appeared in the early 1960s)— and then, in the last decade or so, very rapidly. As its usage spread, -core took on a versatile new meaning.
Do you play video games that require some skill and strategy but not too much? You’re a mid-core fan. Do your clothing preferences skew toward the comfortable and unpretentious? You’re wearing normcore. Are you a fan of mid-2000s movies in which the 20-something characters have trouble expressing themselves? You’re into mumblecore.
Or consider two recent coinages, seen in headlines from late 2021.
In all these constructions, -core functions as a stand-in for “style” or “aesthetic.” Linguistically, it’s broken free from mere suffixdom to become what linguist Arnold Zwicky in 2010 dubbed a libfix: a liberated affix with independent significance. Libfixes like -gate (denoting a scandal such as Watergate or Bridgegate), -zilla (any out-of-control thing, from Godzilla to bridezilla), and -preneur (any sort of independent businessperson) carry “much more specific meaning than what you get with affixes like un-, -ly, or -ness,” linguist Neal Whitman wrote in a 2015 article for The Week.
The original hardcore, from the mid-19th century, was a building material consisting of broken bricks or rubble. (Softcore, from around the same time, was looser and more granular.) The core element arrived in English in the early 14th century from Old French cor; modern French spells it coeur, and it can mean “heart” as well as “central part.”
By 1916, hard core was being used metaphorically to represent “a central or fundamental element which cannot be reduced,” according to the OED, whose example sentence includes “…a hard core of anarchism.” By mid-century hardcore began to mean “extreme” or “radical,” which made it an apt descriptor for certain experimental forms of music—from jazz in the late 1950s to punk rock in the 1970s—and for pornography. (See “Core Values” by Neal Whitman for the Visual Thesaurus, for more on hardcore.)
It was music that pushed -core into new directions. In their "Among the New Words" column in the Summer 2012 issue of American Speech, Ben Zimmer and Charles Carson traced this evolution back to speedcore, which first appeared in 1985. (It refers to hardcore rock music played aggressively at a fast tempo.) They identified a clutch of other musical -cores, including sad core, noise core, deathcore, and nerdcore. In his March 2012 keynote address at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, Bruce Springsteen wondered aloud at some of these offshoots: “Huh? I just want to know what Nintendo core is, myself.” (Wikipedia has the answer: “a broadly defined style of rock music that most commonly fuses chiptune and video game music with hardcore punk and/or heavy metal.”) The -core suffix “became a way to assign authenticity to a host of new musical genres from rock to dance music to hip-hop,” wrote Britt Peterson in a 2015 Washingtonian article headlined “-Core Is the Suffix of Our Time.” But, Peterson added, “as we discovered grindcore, thrashcore, skacore, breakcore, raggacore, crunkcore, and so on, ‘-core’ lost its hardness—and, in its ubiquity, became a pop-culture wink.”
Pop-culture wink or pop-culture wiki? Meet Aesthetics Wiki.
Created in 2018, Aesthetics Wiki –an online, group-edited encyclopedia of “visual schema that create a ‘mood’”—is organized by suffix, and -core is by far the largest and fastest-growing category. A February 2021 article in The Atlantic tallied 125 main -core pages; less than a year later there are 158, from adventurecore to zombiecore. The list includes back-in-fashion gorpcore (“characterized by a prioritization of functionality in clothing”), in which the front element, gorp, refers to the trail mix eaten by hikers and campers. (The origin of gorp is officially unknown; it is not, however, an acronym for “good old raisins and peanuts”—that’s a fanciful backronym.) The OED suggests a connection to an earlier U.S. slang word, gorp, that meant “to eat greedily.”) Cottagecore, one of the most popular pages on the site, “is centered on ideas of simple living and harmony with nature.” That may not be as simple as it sounds: an introductory “trigger warning” alerts readers to “politics and political controversy.”
The Aesthetics Wiki directory excludes a few pre-2018 -cores that didn’t make the cut, probably because they aren’t associated with fashion or home furnishings. On my blog, I’ve documented lardcore (“Southern food with hardcore attitude”) and couplecore (“indie rock centered on a romantic pair”). There’s also menocore, in which the front element comes from menopause. In 2017 the now-defunct Man Repeller blog described he style as “a 50-something-year-old woman who doesn’t care what other people think and just wants to be supremely comfortable.”
The common core of this core-nucopia is narrowly segmented tribal identities, often suffused with nostalgia for childhood pastimes. For young adults, this can mean an attachment to fantasy genres—goblincore, fairycore, dragoncore, wizardcore, each with its specific “look” — or wistful affection for the early internet: 8bitcore, for example, is a British streetwear brand whose designs evoke simple eight-bit computer graphics. Although most -cores have originated in North America, there are exceptions, such as Chinese cottagecore, which harks back to traditional forms of farming and cooking; and Kuromicore, based on the Japanese anime character Kuromi.
“The impulse for classification is a staple of internet life,” wrote Kaitlyn Tiffany in a February 2021 article about Aesthetics Wiki for The Atlantic. “You might not know exactly who you are yet, but you can say which hyper-specific collection of images best approximates who you’d like to be.” Identify your -core, and you may discover your self. Any volunteers for wordcore, languagecore, or VisualThesaurusCore?