Speculative word nerds, keep your dotted eyes fixed on “betwixt,” the Old English utterance enjoying a semi-comeback, thanks to insights gleaned from from Google’s word search.
Giving the likes of Dictionary.com a run for their money (let alone Wiktionary, sans the money), Google has for many years displayed a definition at the top of its search page for any word whose meaning it suspects one might enjoy clarification — stygian, for instance.
Realizing, however, that everything is better with infographics, Google now adorns definitions with a tempting-looking down arrow, begging for the click. To this I say: user, be thyself tempted, and click thyself to a cavalcade of etymological joy.
First drops down the word’s origin, illustrated in March-Madness-style tournament brackets, tracing the roots of the word through branches of time and space. Betwixt itself proves an excellent example, arriving betwixt a confluence of wordlets:
This is what office betting pools look like at the OED.
Offering, after this, an option to translate the word into any which language — including Welsh (rhyngof), Finnish (yhdessä jkn kanssa), and Bulgarian (изправих между) — Google then offers the Googliest insight of them all: trending usage through time.
As one can see in the abovemost picture, betwixt has seen better days, but like that of the proverbial British empire, the sunlight twinkles at the edge of the horizon.
Enjoying a newfound popularity — a moderate popularity, to be sure; a restrained popularity, a Canadian-esque sort of ascendancy — betwixt breezes upwards from the trough years of the aughts, caught as it seemingly was in recessionary mires. (Betwixt bubbles up in the jollier of times, when credit default swaps comport themselves more suitably.)
Could this be a mere aberration, or might boring, overused “between” finally be falling to its zestier, twixtier cousin?
Thanks to a hat tip from #sfbeta Managing Producer Dellaena Maliszewski, I recently stumbled upon the Experiments section of Google Analytics, a nifty and powerful tool that helps webmasters test multiple versions of a single page, in order to track and optimize performance. Think Optimizely, but, like, run by Google.
Smack dab in the midst of the page appears the phrase, “A page along the goal funnel,” contextualized in wonderfully recursive terms:
Your experiment can focus on any single page that helps visitors accomplish a specific goal.
Via the goal funnel, obviously.
Dropped into a succinct bullet point so nonchalantly, reverberating with a distinctive, subtly poetic, yet cosmically meaningless timbre, “a page along the goal funnel” enters the sociotechnical milieu with subtle grace and a twinkle of arrogance, becoming the liveliest phrase to dance about the internet since Williams-Sonoma popularized the light mist of tangy juice.
Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.
Language giveth, language taketh away; as new words percolate into popular speech, others fade into vernacular’s Valhalla, joining the erstwhile if long-forgotten ranks of eath (a nifty Scottish word functioning both as adjective and adverb meaning “easy”) and the still-comprehensible, if alliteratively gangly, landlubberliness (“the state of being like a landlubber”).
The high priests of English officialdom reside where they have always resided: in the hallowed halls of dictionary editorial boards. (Not all countries follow suit, by the way: French is governed, quite literally, by the L’Académie française, an arcane committee established in 1635, ruled by forty lifetime-appointed members called immortels.)
Each year, English dictionary boards determine, to fanfare approaching the lexical equivalent of Oscar nominations, which newbies (first known use: 1970; defined in already-quaint terms as “a newcomer to cyberspace”) might join the ranks of “ranks” and “the,” among a hundred-thousand-or-so brethren that now include such technology-infused utterances as:
woot (“used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph”)
MMORPG (clumsily, “an internet based computer game set in a virtual world, which can be played by many people at the same time, each of whom can interact with the others”)
cyberbullying (“the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages”)
mash-up (“something created by combining elements from two or more sources”)
sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”)
Sometimes, however, the internet serves a second role: that of preservationist. The very threat of extinction can serve as a word’s revivalist champion, rekindling obscure vocables via a process whose moniker itself has yet to enter the dictionary, but is surely in contention: the Streisand effect, in which ”an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”
In 2003, Mirriam-Webster quietly laid to rest a dated gem: snollygoster, a nineteenth-century Americanism that, in 1895, the Columbus Dispatch creatively defined as, “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” (Neither “talknophical” nor “assumnancy” have any known usage outside this definition, making this phrase as mimsy as the borogoves.)
More broadly referenced as “an unprincipled but shrewd person,” snollygoster enjoys a newfound popularity, a tweedy, rejuvenating hipster moment in which someone, somewhere, probably in Brooklyn, indignantly huffs that they said snollygoster before it was cool. Quoting an Atlantic article quoting Mirriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, “We have, oddly enough, seen more unironic and unself-conscious use of snollygoster in print in the last few years.”
With a decisive +1 from The Atlantic (not to mention a TED talk), snollygoster may be approaching an Arrested Development / Grover Cleveland moment, becoming one of the few words to enter, leave, and re-enter the bindings of Mirriam-Webster’s tome. M-W’s own Stamper waxes optimistically about the odds of this happening — that if snollygoster continues to resurge, the dictionary’s curators will “certainly consider adding it back.”
Much of snollygoster‘s triumph may be attributed to the ephemeral, viral pull of the internet, an attention engine that, in a manner similar to Cupid (the god, not the dating site), strikes immortel-likepopularity into words, memes, clips, and so on, seemingly at random, but often with delicious irreverence.
As with words, so with names, as Greenpeace discovered in 2007 when inviting the internet to vote on the proposed name of a humpback whale in the South Pacific. Inserted amongst 29 other candidates, with benign, whale-sounding names like Aurora and Kaimana, was “Mister Splashy Pants,” likely intended as a joke, but one that the internet took very, very seriously.
From Facebook to Twitter, and particularly on Reddit, Mister Splashy Pants became a cause celebre, spiking traffic on Greenpeace to “near-untenable levels” and capturing an oceanic 78 percent of the vote, rivaled only by “Humphrey,” who bogarted a second-place 4,329 votes, less than three percent of the total.
When the internet refuses to let something die, it lives. The fate of snollygoster seems now to fare as swimmingly as that of Mister Splashy Pants, and it’s only a matter of time before the term is dropped by a New York Times columnist, before turning into a verb — “Bob snollygostered his promotion to Assistant Manager with monumental talknophical assumnancy.”