Celebu-word-palooza! Celebu-word-palooza!
Culture

Celebu-word-palooza!

by Mark Peters

November 16, 2008

Dissecting a symptom of our twisted tabloid culture

Infatuated with the lives of the rich and famous? Then you're probably familiar with (or even use) words like, Brangelina, baby bump, and canoodle. In fact, if you supplement your People and Us Weekly subscriptions with the gossip blogs, you've likely added celebudrunk, celebu-menace, celebumoron, celebu-shambles, celebu-trainwreck, and celebu-whatever to your vocabulary, too. Since 2003, this newer group of cute and cutting terms has become as inseparable from fame as paparazzi flashbulbs.The prominence of celebu- is more than an unholy union of tabloidism and wordplay; it's the subject of academic study. David West Brown, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, tackled the phenomenon this fall in the linguistics journal American Speech. His paper, "Paris Hilton, Brenda Frazier, Blogs, and the Proliferation of celebu-", looks at how the fertile, funny, and vicious blogosphere nurtured a prefix that follows celebs around like a purse-sized pooch-though with considerably less loyalty and love. (Full disclosure: I did some word-gathering for Brown as part of this study--proving that even though I strive to keep my academic snorkel dry, I can't entirely resist the scholarly seas).So how did the celebupalooza start? At first, celebugossip and celebubot puzzled word-watchers. Why not celebrigossip and celebribot? That u was a mystery, until linguist and Visual Thesaurus czar Ben Zimmer pointed out that celebutante-recently popular, but dating back to 1939-is the primordial predecessor of this prolific prefix.Brown writes that celebutante gained some prominence in the '80s, in reference to club-kid culture, before spiking in popularity in 2003 and 2004, as the escapades of Paris Hilton and co. became more popular than sunshine and food. As celebutante spread, celebu- took on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of short-lived words and a few with staying power (see: the perfect storm of tastelessness that is celebutard.)The natural habitat of celebuwords is blogs, message boards, and other webby environs. Brown sees several reasons for bloggy creativity in coining words, which include "minimal institutional intrusion" and "emphasis on individualism and personal voice." In other words, with no big brother reading over our shoulder, our inner child is free to use the weirdest and wildest Crayolas in the box; we can actually call the Golden Celebutwit Triumvirate-Britney, Lindsay, and Paris, for the celebu-impaired-the Golden Celebutwit Triumvirate.Speaking of the names used to refer to Hilton and her ilk-celebuturd, celebubrat, and celebu-ex-con are a few of the nicer ones-there is something about this trend that bugs: I like nonce words more than any man should, but terms like celebuslut and celebutramp ping my sexism-dar with all the subtlety of a falling boulder.But can a prefix really be sexist? Or did I put too much crack on my cornflakes again? Brown says celebu- has a couple meanings: "You can have a celebuhouse, celebucar, or celebudog," he explains, "and those things could be simply be associated with fame, neither male nor female, neither for better nor for worse." The other meaning, he points out, is "decidedly gendered in its application (primarily to young, famous women) and can be pejorative, sometimes ugly in the coinages it spawns."Of course, on a list of misogynist atrocities, unequal prefix use wouldn't crack the top 800. But it doesn't take a women's studies major to look at our fascination with celebubabes behaving like celebufreaks and see that something's a little off in our treatment of women. Mocking celebrities is as American as eating an entire bag of gummy bears in one sitting, but let's be fair in how we make fun of the rich and noxious.Don't let the nastiest celebumales of our time off the hook. Let's broaden this term. Let's dude it up. We can fight for gender equality and make up ridiculous words at the same time! It shouldn't be hard to find celebuwhackos and celebuboneheads aplenty in the gene pool's Y-chromosomed half.Suggestions, please? (Note: Bonus points will be awarded for celebu-names that don't involve Tom Cruise-as in the Olympics, degree of difficulty counts).(Photo from Flickr user Sebastian Fritzon)
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Celebu-word-palooza!