Stoptions and Focos: Play on Words or Play of Minds?

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brangelina beervana

By Natalia Beliaeva, Victoria University of Wellington

Blend words such as Brangelina (Brad + Angelina) or Beervana (beer + nirvana) are more and more often used in advertisements, headlines, TV and radio shows. In a blend, two, or sometimes more, like in Thankshallowistmas (Thanksgiving + Halloween + Christmas) words become one compact and attention-catching form. When people read or hear a blend, it takes them some time to understand it, but usually they can guess what it means and what words it was made of, just as when they read or hear a compound (e.g. bookshelf) they know that its meaning is related to the meanings of the words it consists of (book and shelf)However, what is relatively easy with a compound in which a reader or hearer can recognise separate word components, may not be so easy if these components are shortened, which is the case with blends. In some blends, as in stoption, the words overlap so that each of the two (stop and option) can still be seen or heard in full. In other cases, for example, beervana, only one word (beer) is retained in full, while the other (nirvana) is shortened. Blends like nutriceutical (nutritious + pharmaceutical) have both components shortened, which may cause some difficulty for the readers or hearers to recognise them. Finally, one can find words like foco (food + court) and finlit (financial + literacy) which combine the beginnings of two (or sometimes more) words. Words like foco include very short segments fo- and co-, which makes their components barely recognisable. The question is, are such words also blends, or are they something different, probably of the same nature as abbreviations like FBR or GPS.

There are different ways to approach this question. First, we can try to trace how the words like beervana and foco are created. Second, we can look at how people understand them. Although we may not always trace the exact origin of a word, today’s linguistics has the means to detect some factors that are related to it. In particular, looking up in a large collection (corpus) of texts, we can figure out how often certain words are used together. I carried out such research for blends, and also for a number of words like foco which may or may not be regarded as blends. Interestingly, the components of the latter words tend to be used together relatively often as fixed expressions (many people use the expression food court, for example), while the same is not true of blends such as stoption.

The question of how people understand blend words can be answered with the help of a different tool of modern linguistics – an experiment. In this case, I invited over a hundred adult speakers of English to participate in an experimental session during which they read blends from a computer screen and tried to guess which words they were made of. It was relatively easy for the participants to guess that the blend predictionary was made of the words prediction and dictionary, or to decompose the blend negatude into negative and attitude. As for words like foco and finlit, almost nobody could guess what they stand for.

Both results show that words like foco and finlit stand out from the class of blends. Most blends are coined in such a way that you would understand their meanings with no further cues, although you’d probably spend some time deciphering the play on words. This means the blends attract attention and linger in memory, which makes them very useful as headlines or brand names. On the other hand, foco is most likely a convenient shortening of food court, created in order to save time from multiple repetition of the expression. You can hardly decipher this shortening unless you know exactly what it means. So, it is justified to allocate words like foco and finlit to a separate class of clipping compounds. This is not to say that one cannot use a clipping compound as a brand name. In fact, there are names like AgSpec (Agricultural Specialists)but their function is different from the ones like Beervana. When someone calls themselves something like AgSpec, they probably want to wink secretively at their readers and say ‘Welcome to the club! This is not some PR name, we are serious specialists, you’ll value us once you know us’. So when starting your own business, you might want to think of the name: do you want it to be bright and attractive, or do you want it to sound like a secret code for the chosen ones?

Corinne Seals

Corinne Seals is a Lecturer in Applied Linguistics. Presently, her research focuses primarily on heritage language acquisition, maintenance, and education.

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