Left to Our (Many) Devices

Sometimes dismissed as the dullest parts of speech, nouns appear to be ready for their close-up. The language blogger Nancy Friedman recently identified a rather bizarre advertising trend of taking an adjective, implying (but not providing) a -ness or -ity suffix, and emerging with a presumably supercharged noun. Examples include such slogans as “Rethink Possible” (AT&T); “Welcome to Possible” (Mindtree); “Welcome to Fabulous” (ULTA Beauty); “111 Years of Extraordinary” (Bergdof Goodman); and “The Future of Awesome” (Xfinity).

In a related development, comedians have grown partial to talking about the funny, a commodity that’s usually brought. A recent article from The Wrap presents Chris Rock’s views of current comics: “Compared to greats like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, they just aren’t bringing the funny.” A monthly cabaret show in New York, meanwhile, is called “Benjamin Walker’s ‘Find the Funny.’”

There’s also a fair amount of verb-to-noun functional shifting, otherwise known as anthimeria, going on. Talk-show producers are judged on their gets; poker players look for tells. My department presented an ask to the dean and is hoping for a really good hire, but we’ll have to wait till spring for the reveal.  In commerce, Anthropologie has a holiday promotion it’s calling “Today’s Great Give.”

Lately I’ve been noticing yet another noun fashion. An example is the headline below, from the Web site Engadget:


It’s that word devices, used here and generally to refer to laptops, smart phones, tablets, e-readers, and whatever else has or is about to come down the tech pike. Its appeal is the opposite of the I-know-it’s-not-true-but-it’s-too-good-to-quit notion of Eskimos and their hundreds of words for snow. We indeed have names for all these machines, which we feel are as essential to our lives as snow is to the Eskimos in the story, but sometimes, we want to talk about them generally, hence, device. (I’m not sure it’s possible to demonstrate I’m correct about the word’s current popularity. However: Device appeared 2,889 times in The New York Times in 2008 and more than twice as many times this year, which isn’t over yet.)

There’s another reason for device’s appeal, I think. Professionals or experts in a field often have their own word for what’s known to the masses as something else. This term of art takes into account small but critical differences (between, say, a tablet and a Kindle) and also, crucially, makes you sound in the know. Staying with the tech field, I remember back in the 90s being struck that the IT guy in my department called our computers “machines.” By contrast, “computer” was so clearly something a civilian would say.

A comparable development in health care is the popularity of the word procedure, which has an insider’s sound and has replaced surgery or operation in the public parlance. At play here as well is the euphemism factor; procedure feels one or two steps more removed from flesh, blood, and pain, um, make that discomfort. (Regular people have also adopted—from nurses and office staff more than doctors—meds and social, as in social security number.)

Nothing is more important in our culture than money, though talking about it directly continues to be seen as somehow untoward. As a result, euphemistic and generalized alternatives have bloomed like the desert after rain. Resources is a big one in academe and business, wealth, funds, and assets in personal finance. Treasure has become oddly popular in reference to government, especially concerning war spending. It always puts me in mind of pirates.

Some other examples of vogue vague nouns:

  • Vehicle (for car, SUV, minivan, pick-up, motorcycle, etc.).
  • In the cosmetology business, product is what you put in your hair. In the entertainment business, it’s anything you put on a screen or through headphones. The people who create the product are the talent.
  • In the worlds of words and the Web, the word for product is content.
  • Document is a word that used to be brought out only in formal contexts, to refer to, say, a business contract or an act of Congress. Now I perpetrate a document when I compose a grocery list on my device.
  • So key to our lives are cookies, cupcakes, donuts, and such that baked goods has become a thing.

That’s it for me: I’m out of content. See you next year.


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