Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Kanye": Rebirth of an Eponym

If you watched the Oscars on Sunday, like many other viewers you were probably left scratching your head when, after "Music by Prudence" won for Best Documentary Short, there was a struggle for the microphone between two of the film's creators. Elinor Burkett snatched the microphone from Roger Ross Williams, in what was almost immediately dubbed a "Kanye moment." Or you could say Burkett "pulled a Kanye," or that Williams simply got "Kanye'd."

First, some background for anyone not up to speed on American pop culture. At the MTV Video Music Awards last September, Kanye West notoriously hijacked the acceptance speech of Taylor Swift for Best Female Video, with the immortal words, "Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!" (That came in at #6 on the list of most quotable moments of 2009, as compiled by Fred Shapiro of the Yale Book of Quotations.)

The original "Kanye moment" spawned countless mashups and parodies, and, not surprisingly, it also led to Kanye becoming an eponym (a word derived from a person's name). "Getting Kanye'd" became the equivalent of "getting bum-rushed." Such eponyms seem to crop up whenever there's a high-profile media-driven flareup: in the past we've talked about new verbs being created out of Salahi (the name of the White House gate-crashers last December) and Blagojevich (the disgraced former Governor of Illinois). These eponyms hardly ever stick around longer than the media cycle that generated the news in the first place — you don't hear about people Salahi-ing their way into official events these days.

And so, at last January's American Dialect Society meeting, when the eponym Kanye (meaning "to interrupt someone else's speech") was suggested as a nominee in the 2009 Word of the Year voting, it didn't get too much attention. The word ended up as a candidate in the "Most Creative" category, but it finished far behind Dracula sneeze ("covering one's mouth with the crook of one's elbow when sneezing, seen as similar to popular portrayals of the vampire Dracula, in which he hides the lower half of his face with a cape"). Kanye did have some enthusiastic supporters, though, as you can see in this Washington Post video on the ADS meeting.

Now, six months after the VMA Awards, Kanye the eponym has gotten an unexpected shot in the arm from Elinor Burkett's Oscar outburst. (You can read more about the conflict between the filmmakers here.) Bloggers and commentators were quick to label the uncomfortable incident a "Kanye moment," and Burkett was judged guilty of "pulling a Kanye." Showing the expression's international appeal, the Telegraph, a British newspaper, told its readers that "Williams said he was stunned when Burkett 'pulled a Kanye.'"

As a verb, Kanye has typically been used in the passive: Mediaite reported that "The Best Documentary Short speech was interrupted — Kanye'd as the lingo now goes — by red-headed Elinor Burkett." But it also has shown up in the active voice, as when Slate movie critic Dana Stevens referred to Burkett as "the redhaired lady who Kanye'd the best documentary short director and finished his speech for him."

I leave you with some graphic evidence, courtesy of Blogpulse, that Elinor Burkett is the new Kanye.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer 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.

The history behind the title of the Best Picture winner.
Quotable Moments of '09
Kanye's "Imma let you finish" comes in at #6.
"Kanye" finished out of the running in the Most Creative category.
"Salahi" was the eponym of the moment last December.