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Puns, put-downs and fresh coinages from the white-hot furnace of e-culture

June 16, 2009|DAN NEIL

What do you call the loss of productivity caused by too much time spent on Facebook? "Social notworking." A steeply devalued retirement account? "201(k)." A painfully obsolete cellphone? "Brickberry."

These linguistic dispatches from the land of cooler-than-you come courtesy of wit-mongers Cramer-Krasselt, a Chicago-headquartered full-service agency with a tidy billion dollars in annual billables. C-K's notable accounts include Corona beer, AirTran Airways, Levitra and Porsche -- which sounds like a recipe for a wild weekend in Fort Myers, Fla.

For the second year, the firm has published its Cultural Dictionary of the zeitgeist-iest words and phrases, pulling together -- as only an office full of droll and snarky hipsters can -- the slang, puns, put-downs and freshly minted coinages from the white-hot furnace of electronic culture. It's pretty hilarious.

To wait impatiently while the SMS system catches up, for example, is to be "textually frustrated." "Baling out" is F-bombing a helpless underling a la Christian Bale; "Blago" here appears as an expletive, as in "Holy Blago, Christian Bale really Blagoed the pooch!" Some entries are simply Web wastrels, such as "pwn" (to triumph utterly over another) and "gr7" (pretty good, but not gr8). Hit your teenagers with these and watch their eyes narrow with suspicion, or is that respect?

And yet many of C-K's entries offer real insight, even wisdom, to a consumer culture constantly trying to figure itself out.

The first question, though, is why an ad agency would bother. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure famously wrote, "There is no thought without words" . . . sort of. Actually, he wrote, "La pensee, chaotique de sa nature, est forcee de se preciser en se decomposant." Which I translate as, "Thought, naturally chaotic, becomes concrete and precise in the framing of language."

To put it simply, the entity that can seize language and ideas -- new, fresh, emergent and copyright free -- can use that language to persuade, to sell. New words are the lingua franca of the attention economy.

"We do the dictionary primarily to educate our clients about our consumer behavior research," says Margot Bogue, senior vice president and assistant director of brand planning for C-K. "And to make ourselves as relevant as possible."

"But there are so many heavy things going on," Bogue adds, "there's something to taking a lighter tone."

Of course, all agencies with the resources for it conduct deep-think consumer/culture research. C-K's Cultural Dictionary is actually a collection of leftover coolness from research for its white paper titled "Shifting Times: What Brands Need to Know to Navigate Today's Economy." In the paper, C-K identifies "societal trends" such as "sin vs. salvation spending," which is the conflict between fiscally responsible and hopeful (luxury) spending. Coinages such as "econnoisseur" and "enoughism" -- beautifully self-evident in meaning -- help put words to consumers' downsized materialism.

The dictionary is organized around rubrics including politics, ethics, the economy, the environment and technology. The entries came from lots of sources, from focus groups to "words overheard on a train," Bogue says. The book begins with the most seismic new brand in modern times, the Obama event, which is part and parcel of what C-K identifies as "renewed citizenry." It's interesting that Barack Obama's name has spun off new coinages like sparks from a grinding wheel: "Bamelot," "Barackintosh," "Barackstar," "Obamalicious" and other forms of Obamamatopoeia.

The dictionary's chapter on ethics reflects, the agency suggests, the deep disillusionment in once-blue-chip institutions, and so, "Goldman Sacked," which refers to someone being canned from the investment banking business. "Madoffing" means scamming someone. To be "Spitzer'd" is to be caught doing a hypocritical act (by the FBI, maybe?). It's worth noting that the disgraced and hapless executive is quickly becoming a stock character in advertising.

On the other hand, a search for new heroes is embodied in the phrase "Land it like Sully," a reference to the hero of US Airways Flight 1549, Chesley Sullenberger.

The economy chapter offers poignant neologisms such as "precession," the good times before the current downturn, and "returnment," which refers to going back to work after retirement.

In the environment chapter, there's evidence of rising cynicism about "green" poseurs: e.g. "ecosexuals" ("individuals who select their partner based on their shared environmental concerns") and "scuppie" ("an urban professional who is socially conscious"). If I were an ad copywriter, I might look for ways to turn that cynicism into an advantage.

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