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Commentary: Meaningful New Words

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Commentary: Meaningful New Words

Dallas, TX –

New words and expressions constantly enter the language. They come from everywhere, and their progress is hastened by the mass media.

The media not only help spread new language, they also create it, and what they create tells us something about our society and its values, pressures, and trends. Take the hybrid word "infotainment," for example. It merges information and entertainment, just as some programming does to make information more palatable.

Zitcom, which alludes to the "zits," or acne, of adolescence is a concoction that plays on the older word sitcom and identifies a TV show that appeals to teenagers. That such a word exists suggests how important appealing to the young is to the entertainment and advertising worlds. That importance not only derives from the young's spending power but also suggests America's preoccupation with youth. In many cultures, the young have little money, let alone power.

Another revealing hybrid is irritainment, which refers to entertainment that's both annoying and compelling. Television's Jerry Springer leaps to mind, but there's no shortage of irritainment. Most such programming is shallow, without intellectual content, and debases rather than elevates humanity. The movie "Dumb & Dumber," in correctly naming itself, showed another aspect of irritainment - not only is it unashamed of its own baseness, it seems oddly proud of it. That characteristic mirrors the defiantly lowered standards of certain segments of society in which being dumb - or even dumber - is a badge of honor. We hear of certain students being ostracized by their peers, for example, because they do well in school and care about their grades.

Another media hybrid is shockumentary. Like so-called "adrenaline TV," shockumentaries are reality programs that show actual violence or accidents. Such shows reflect the violence in our society as well as our obsession with, and anxiety about, violence.

The hybrid carnography is a blend of carnage and pornography. The term refers to extended, graphic violence and has been used to describe, for example, the battle scenes in "Saving Private Ryan" or "Blackhawk Down."

A handful of new words borrow the prefix "porn" to identify the excessive or false. For example, advertisements that praise the environmental policies of companies known for gross pollution are called eco-porn.

A porn word dating to the late '90s is domestic porn, which is an idealized image of family and home life. "Ozzie and Harriet" images abounded in the '50s, and few scoffed. But no more. Today, there's widespread animosity toward what people believe is an unrealistic or falsified picture of family life.

Investment porn and financial porn often profile the very rich and glorify financial success, however ill-gotten the gains. Think of Michael Douglas saying "Greed is good" in the 1987 movie "Wall Street."

The reverse of investment and financial porn is debt porn. These are confessionals from people who are brought down by massive debt. Debt porn profiles often rely on the first person: "I was a Credit Card Junkie"; "How Red Ink Ruined My Life"; "Debt Cost Me My Home and Family." Debt porn is the credit-card version of the alcohol or drug confessional.

New words are interesting as new words, but they're also intriguing as mirrors that reflect our society and what it honors and despises, or hopes and fears.

I'm Paula LaRocque.

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.