On Wednesday, the New York Post ran a giant, one-word headline, as they so often do: “VIDIOT!”
A young man from Long Beach, N.Y., bitter from losing a video game to another teenage boy, made a prank call to the police, pretending to be his gaming rival and saying he had just killed his own mother and brother. Authorities then launched a SWAT-team style response including helicopters. To reach for record-breaking understatement—yikes.
There is no doubt that the Post was trying to get across the fact that the kid who made the tasteless joke call is an video game-playing idiot, hence vidiot. But this word has been around longer than video games have. In a 1959 issue of LIFE, an advertisement jokingly defines a vidiot as “a person who pays a NEW price for a REBUILT TV picture tube!” Aside from being a reminder that we should all start calling our TVs picture tubes again, this is a testament to the staying power of what might seem like a cheesy novelty word. And this isn’t the only such fusion word that has stood the test of time.
Fusion words, or as Lewis Carroll called them, portmanteaus, are words that squish together portions of two separate words to create a single word with a new, combined meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word vidiot back to 1949 and defines one as “a habitual, undiscriminating viewer of television or player of video games,” a cousin to the lifeless couch potato.
Here are six other portmanteaus that may be older than they seem, with dates taken from earliest citations in the OED:
advertorial (advertisement + editorial) n., 1914: An advertisement or publication giving information about a product or service in the style of an editorial or objective report. This word has been around for at least 100 years, dating back to a time when people said things like “women folk” without a tongue in their cheek.
bullsh*t (bull + sh*t) n., 1915: rubbish, nonsense. The more upbeat hot sh*t, by contrast, wasn’t en vogue until the 1940s. Dipsh*t started making appearances in the 1960s, about the same time as the sarcastic No sh*t, Sherlock. And batsh*t crazy, an adjective today used to describe unfortunate ex-girlfriends, took off in the 1990s.
frenemy (friend + enemy) n., 1953: a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry. This may sound like something that has only been central to pop culture since Lindsay Lohan played a mean girl, but people have been saying frenemy since Dina Lohan was just a twinkle in Grandpa Lohan’s eye.
mockumentary (mock + documentary) n., 1965: a film, television program, etc., which adopts the form of a serious documentary in order to satirize its subject. This word was taking it up to 11 for nearly 20 years before Rob Reiner put out This Is Spinal Tap.
netiquette (Internet + etiquette) n., 1982: an informal code of practice regulating the behavior of Internet users. In 1992, less than 20% of U.S. households had a computer, and yet the early adopters were already using cloying phrases a decade before that. One simply can’t keep up.
sexpert (sex + expert) n., 1924: An expert in sex (in various senses of the noun); esp. a person who advises on sexual relations, techniques, etc. One can only imagine what “sexual techniques” these sexperts could discuss in polite company in the 1920s. The lost art of heavy hand-holding, perhaps.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.