Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Trump-mentum? Bernie-mentum? The Return of a Popular Electoral Suffix
Do you feel the Trump-mentum? (If so, please adjust your tinfoil hat.) Do you feel the Bernie-mentum? (I need to read more about Bernie Sanders to think of an appropriate joke.) Or are you playing it safe and enjoying a more centrist political force like Hillary-mentum or Jeb-mentum?
Whether you like or loathe it, I bet you've at least noticed the return of –mentum: a suffix that fills the Internet during election season much as a sulfurous smell fills hell. This suffix is also a terrific reminder of a sad truth: the media will never, ever treat a presidential election as anything more than a sporting event with fewer concussions.
While –mentum words fill Twitter—often as hashtags—they're far from limited to the fringes of English. You can find plenty of such terms in the headlines too, especially when it comes to Sanders and Trump:
ABC Excited Over 'Bernie-Mentum' That Feels 'Like a Rock Concert'
Newsbusters, July 7, 2015
Feel the Trump-mentum: The Donald is surging in the polls
Salon, Jul 1, 2015
The One Thing Bernie-mentum Can't Overcome: Demographics
Bloomberg, Jun 29, 2015
Trump-mentum Storms the Granite State…Sort of
The Fiscal Times, Jun 24, 2015
Of course, there are synonyms for the common Bernie-mentum and Trump-mentum. My favorite alternative shows up in a Washington Post blog: "Another new Washington Post poll finds that The-Donald-Mentum is soaring among Republicans, but with a caveat…" If you don't like Bernie-mentum, you can also call it Bern-mentum or Sanders-mentum. Of course, front runners Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are represented by Hillary-mentum (or Hill-mentum) and Jeb Mentum (or Bush-mentum). And you can find a –mentum word for just about any candidate running. These terms include Marco-mentum, Kasich-mentum, and Chafee-mentum.
Mentum mania can be traced back to 2004, when presidential candidate Joe Lieberman made a groaner of a joke, referring to his Joementum. This coinage was so awful and perfect that it got a lot of attention, and soon –mentum found itself attached to anyone trolling for votes. The failure of Lieberman only added to the meaning of the suffix: -mentum is inherently a little untrustworthy. You have momentum now, but what does that really mean? It's the nature of the endless election season for the wind to shift on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. Meaningful momentum is hard to find.
Though Lieberman deserves the credit (and blame) for the current popularity of –mentum, there are a few primordial predecessors, as is usually the case with language. In 2000, the word Met-mentum turned up in reference to the New York Mets, and way back in 1976, Moe-mentum was a natural anthropomorphization of momentum. More recently, this suffix likely peaked—at least in terms of creativity—during Barack Obama's first run for president. As I mentioned in the Boston Globe a few years back, Barack Obama spawned a remarkable diversity of words, such as Barack-mentum, BHO-mentum, Mo-bama-mentum, Obama-mentum, Obama-rama-mentum, Oba-mentum, and O-mentum. We may never see such a momentous mentum man again.
The suffix has flourished beyond politics too. A popular coinage is popementum, which has been used as a hashtag for many of Pope Francis' newsworthy statements. Here's a use that brings -mentum to the appropriate subject of the stock market: "As soon as the VIX-mentum washed upon our shores, it vanished. Yes, we can officially close the books on our latest overbought CBOE Volatility Index (VIX)." Jossmentum refers to the geeky movies and TV shows of Joss Whedon. The ever-increasing popularity of Taylor Swift has been called Swiftmentum. Sometimes people take the trend in a different direction by using an adjective, as in crazymentum and evilmentum. I've also seen examples of hairmentum, but they sadly don't reference Trump.
A total lack of momentum—or a mockery of the concept of momentum—can be labeled nomentum, a word that was nicely applied to the sports world in an article by Bill Barnwell. Barnwell's distrust of momentum in sports could be easily transferred to politics and should be absorbed by all terrible journalists who only care about who's surging: "I can't prove that momentum does or does not exist in sports, because it's an arbitrary, abstract idea that you can mold into just about anything you want to tell the story you're looking to tell." As Barnwell goes on to say: "There are really no rules for momentum. You just need to have something good — not even good, actually; just something meaningful — in the past and the hope of possibly succeeding in the future. And the more I look, truthfully, the less of an argument for momentum I see."
(By the way, I haven't found them anywhere, but I can't resists coining some synonyms for nomentum myself, such as zeromentum, zilchmentum, nadamentum, and squatmentum. This is the beauty of a versatile, fresh suffix: you can do just about anything with it.)
Just as -gate is permanently linked to scandals, it's likely that mentum has grafted itself onto the electoral process from now till eternity. And why not? It's a useful term for a useless process: endlessly discussing who's winning or losing while totally avoiding ideas, issues, substance, and anything that would actually be beneficial to a democracy. In the current climate and any future climate I can imagine, momentum trumps journalism.