Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Wilf? Yuffer? Get real!

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

A lot of well-publicised new words are fake.

Take the word wilf as an example. It stands for “what was I looking for?” and describes the tendency of people on the Internet to get distracted.

Web users intend to find information about, say, horses but instead end up reading about tortoises, somehow forgetting as they clicked from page to page to read about horses much at all.

In 2006, wilf was widely discussed in the international English press. You’d have thought it was the best, shiniest, coolest new word ever. But now the word that was once much-heralded in the newspapers is still only talked about in the press as a curiosity, as a new word, as something to remark upon. It seems practically nobody really uses the word at all.

What happened was that it was spread by a press release. A company that wanted to attract attention to itself and its business (we won’t name them here: why give them what they’re after?) created the word, put it in a press release, and then the media reported from that press release.

Words that are spread that way are called factitious words. They are created only so that they can be spread; that is, they are created by people who want to sell a product.

Lots of newspaper coverage must mean that a word is heavily used by other people, too, right? Somebody other than journalists?

Well, no. “Wilf” doesn’t appear to be used by anyone else at all. That’s a characteristic of such words: their existence depends upon a constant outflow of publicity and marketing. They are not spread like most other words, which is by natural use and word of mouth.

“Wilf” is a word, of course, but since it had an unnatural birth, it has an unnatural life. It’s just a stunt word, what they would call in the US military a self-licking ice cream cone. It exists only to help itself continue to exist. That, and helping the company that coined it to coin it, so to speak (helping the company that created the word to make lots of money).

Marketers and marketing companies create most of the stunt words that I come across. They want to demonstrate to their potential corporate customers that they know all about a certain kind of individual or family consumer, so they’ll create a name for that kind of consumer. That way, they can spread that new name and ride along with it wherever it goes and get second-hand publicity from it.

One British firm coined the term YAWN to stand for “young and wealthy, but normal”. It describes unostentatious, environment-loving young people who, of course, have money. Somehow all of the terms created by marketing companies always seem to focus on a group of people who have lots of money to spend or are said to control the family’s budget.

Another one of this same type is yuffer, a “young urban female” who overspends, is deep in debt, and likes to party. This term popped up in my word-hunting a couple of years ago. Where is it now? Nowhere. Nobody uses it. Guess who created it? Right: a company that did a consumer survey for a British car manufacturer.

Both words are patterned after yuppy, which stands for “young urban professional”. Like many successful new coinages, it spawned a slew of imitators.

An outstandingly bad example of such coinages is orchid, which stands for “one recent child, hideously in debt”. What possible purpose could identifying that kind of marketing niche serve?

One more example: stressette, which purports to define a market segment of young women who are worried about how they look and who aren’t sure what life has in store for them. In other words, nearly all young women. “Stressette” was coined, of course, by another marketing company.

Momfluential is a more recent one. It purports to describe a group of women who have influence on the way their friends, family, and strangers spend money. They are moms (mothers) who are influential.

Thing is, that pretty much describes every mother I know. They all have a great deal of influence on people who love or like them. Why not just call those consumers “mothers” instead of momfluentials?

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Grant Barrett