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December 07, 2018  |  Friday words #150  |  3169 hit(s)

Does it ever seem to you that the text on packages is overly friendly? Like this:

Lots of other people have also noticed, and the journalist Rebecca Nicholson even came up with a name for it: wackaging. The type of casual copy that we now see so often originated (or so goes the story) with a British smoothie company in 1999. As the company's copywriter recounts, "None of us were copywriters back then, we didn't have an agency to write stuff for us, and we had this space on our labels that we had to fill with something."

It started a trend, obviously, not that everyone loves it. As one definition has it, wackaging features copy that has a "cutesy and overly familiar tone" and is "infantilised." These are not admiring terms. But as always, we can be happy that we have a name for it.

Update  On Twitter, Tony Thorne reminds me that he wrote about wackaging a couple of years ago. (And from his post I just learned the word hypercasual.)

And for origins, another word history I learned recently from the Twitterverse. The editor MedEditor shared recently that he'd learned the origins of taser, the electronic weapon used to incapacitate someone. This word is actually a trademark, so to be correct, you should write it as Taser.

The story goes back to a series of books written for boys that featured the main character Tom Swift. Tom is in the vein of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, except that instead of solving mysteries, he has adventures. (Like Tintin, it occurs to me.) The plots of the books revolve around his technical bent—he tinkers with and later invents many gadgets that play a role in his adventures.

The Taser weapon was invented in the 1970s by a scientist named Jack Cover who was looking for a non-lethal weapon. Having been a fan of the Tom Swift books, he named his weapon Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, or TASER for short. This alluded to a specific book—Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle—published in 1911 and featuring a rifle invented by Tom that shot electricity instead of bullets. One thing that Cover seems to have done is to posit a formal name for Tom Swift (Thomas A. Swift) that might not be supported in the source materials, so to speak.

There are many interesting things about this whole Taser business. One is cultural—the original book has what we would now consider a pretty racist storyline about white men saving the poor natives. But there's also linguistic fun to be had. If you use a Taser on someone, you have … tased them? That's an excellent example of a back-formation: creating a word by chopping off part of an existing word and then using it in a new way. (Compare to burgle.) We might also speculate that taser could have been partly inspired by the word laser, which also began life as an acronym ("lightwave amplification [by] stimulated emission [of] radiation").

And since we're talking about Tom Swift, it would be sad not to take the opportunity to mention Tom Swifties, which are language jokes based on a stylistic quirk of the book series. In the presumably stringently imposed style of the books, Tom often says things with adverbial emphasis: "Come on!" cried Tom impulsively. A pun-type joke developed out of this in which the adverb is the joke:

"We have no oranges," Tom said fruitlessly.
"I forget what I was supposed to buy," Tom said listlessly.

If you like this sort of thing—and really, who wouldn't?—you can find a good selection of Tom Swifties on the ThoughtCo site.

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Michael Edits   09 Dec 18 - 5:31 AM

"I'm coming," Tom ejaculated.

mike   10 Dec 18 - 8:15 AM

According to at least one source, a pun of this sort that's based on the verb, as opposed to based on the adverb, is called a "croaker." I'm not sure how widely this distinction is observed, tho.