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04 July, 2009

Letting Marketers Loose on Language

Language evolves. New words are coined; old words change. The end result is the rich and complex lexicon we have today. Some of this growth and change is acceptable and understandable. New words are needed as new concepts arise, as new social activities develop, and as new objects are made. But some of it arises for less acceptable reasons. Sometimes the person who coins a word - and the people who then use it - are ignorant of a word that already exists with the same meaning. Sometimes new words arise from a misunderstanding of an existing word. (Consider the modern use of the word 'showstopper' which has the opposite connotation of the word in its original meaning.) Sometimes a new word arises from laziness (e.g. when people would rather use 'text' as a verb than say, 'send a text message') sometimes from a desire to draw a strained and unwarranted analogy.

In this last category, consider how the suffix '-gate' has entered the language since 'Watergate'. In Australia in the past few weeks we've had a storm-in-a-teacup political scandal the press has dubbed 'utegate' ('ute' being a local contraction of 'utility vehicle' + '-gate' meaning a political scandal). Also consider the experiments underway at MIT to record and analyse the first three years of a child's life in order to track every utterance the child makes along with every utterance it might have heard. This has been called 'the human speechome project' by (a very strained) analogy with the human genome project. It seems that '-ome' is a new suffix which means something like 'scientific endeavour that produces an extremely large and complete data set in some field'.

It is understandable that scientists would want to associate their work with the human genome project. It isn't quite so easy to see why they would coin a word quite so ugly as 'speechome'. It is interesting to look at how we got to this sorry neologism.

The word 'genome', originally meant the
'sum total of genes in a set,' and was coined (in its German form 'genom') in 1920 by German botanist Hans Winkler. It comes from gen, short for 'gene' + om from 'chromosome.' It was Aglicised to 'genome' in 1930.

Looking back, the word 'chromosome' was coined in 1888, also by a German, anatomist Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz. He constructed it from the Greek words khroma, meaning 'colour' + soma meaning 'body.' ('Colour' because chromosomes contain a substance that stains easily for microscopic viewing.)

A recent addition to this family of words is 'proteome'. This is the set of all proteins that can be expressed by an organism's genes in a particular environment, or under any circumstances (more properly the 'complete proteome'). It derives from prote(in) + (gen)ome and was coined by Marc Wilkins in 1994. Notice that the '-ome' suffix has now taken on a life of its own. It is no longer an abbreviation of 'soma' but of 'genome'. It has stared to become like '-gate', a suffix which emphasises a flattering comparison the user wishes to take advantage of, rather than one that contibutes to the interpretation of the word.

And so we come to 'speechome'. This was probably coined by marketing people at MIT within the last couple of years, simply to aggrandise the project which bears its name. Marketing people, like journalists, use language to sell things. They don't care about etymology - or indeed meaning. They have other rhetorical motives for choosing words than to educate or inform. Now that '-ome' is in the hands of marketers and journalists, expect it to move farther and farther away from the sense in which it was originally conceived.

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