Wednesday Words: The Word That Upsets ScarJo and More

NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary includes useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

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David McGlynn

The word that upsets ScarJo: ScarJo

Even the most fabulous people on this good earth don’t get to choose their nicknames. This, certainly, is a lesson that has been learned by actress Scarlett Johansson, who does not like her economic nickname ScarJo. “It’s a laziness,” she told USA Today. “People can’t actually say the whole name? It’s just bizarre.” Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t “like, ‘DaDay’,” she said. “So Cate Blanchett is not, like, ‘CaBla’?”

Notably, she chose examples that sound like baby-talk, which makes them seem ridiculous, but she’s also missing the point: celebrity nicknames like Brangelina (for power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) or Becks (for soccer player David Beckham) are more about playfully expressing familiarity than taking the easy way out. In other words, ScarJo is kind of being a wet blanket.

(LIST: Top 10 Worst Movies of 2011)

A nickname for nicknames: stable-names

A stable-name is the familiar name given to a dog or horse who has a much more fantastic moniker on the race track. Essayist H.L. Mencken provides some examples. “On a list of entries a fast mare may appear as Czarina Ogla Fedorovna, but in the stable she is not that at all … but maybe Lil or Jennie,” he writes. “And a prize bulldog, Champion Zoroaster or Charlemagne XI on the bench may be plain Jack or Ponto en famille.” Take this year’s Kentucky Derby runners. There’s “Midnight Interlude,” whom one imagines is simply called “Snack” around friends. And there’s “Comma to the Top,” who is most likely known as “Apostrophe.”

(Yet another) Word of the Year: pragmatic

Merriam-Webster cited pragmatic as the word of the year, but unlike most annual word winners, it wasn’t an editorial choice. Their word is determined by the amount of times users looked it up on their website, because that ostensibly reflects “the interests and attitudes of visitors.” Pragmatic, they announced, had an “unprecedented” year in terms of popularity, which makes sense. It’s a word associated with thriftiness and solutions, both of which were hot topics in a year characterized by a problematic economy. Pragmatic describes what we wanted ourselves and our leaders to be — rather than summarizes 2011 itself. Here’s hoping we having a better time getting there in 2012 (particularly now that people know what the word means).

Runner-up: ambivalence

Ambivalence, describing the simultaneous experience of two opposing emotions, came in at No. 2. (This is a close cousin of’s chosen Word of the Year, tergiversate.) Capitalism and socialism were also on the list — certainly a good distinction to have one’s head around. And some French talk just made the cut at No 10. Après moi le déluge — meaning roughly “after me, the flood” — was associated with the congressional supercommittee’s super-failure to reach an agreement for deficit reduction. The phrase can be interpreted as “After this, the trouble will come,” or “The trouble will come after us, so who gives a rip?” In any case, it’s a fine bit of lingo to use when you’re imitating someone pompous, and are tired of saying “Let them eat cake.”

Neopolism of the week: agripander

Neopolism is the word we use around here to designate a neologism with a political bent. And Joe “Primary Colors” Klein used this particular neopolism to describe the tendency of politicians to promise Iowans anything in the run-up to the caucuses. “Among the hallowed traditions of latter-day presidential politics is the full-body agripander in the Iowa cornfields,” he wrote in a recent column. “Every four years, the local populace demands obeisance to extravagant crop and ethanol subsidies, and the presidential hopefuls inevitably respond with paeans to the family farm and renewable energy.”

Similar terms to describe niche political behavior could be homopander, Hispanipander and abasement. Yes, the latter is already a word, but in this case it would mean saying anything, unscrupulously, to please one’s base. Admittedly, self-abasement might be more appropriate.

Word to use this week: boondoggle

Klein calls ethanol subsidies “boondoggles of the highest order” — using the ever-enjoyable combination of fun-loving noun and stuffy phrase. A boondoggle is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a trivial, useless, or unnecessary undertaking; a wasteful expenditure. A boondock, meanwhile, refers to rough country, while a straight-up boon is a favor or gift. And, good Lo’ willing, there was once a time that Daniel Boone found himself in the boondocks in the midst a boon-less boondoggle.

READ: Wednesday Words: Readers’ Choice for Word of the Year