GOOD

Wordgeddon


In times of panic, suffixes of doom run riot-and help us cope.

Hyperbole has never gone out of style, but the tools of the exaggerator change with fashion. Judging by the popularity of words like Barack-alypse, blog-pocalypse, Conficker-geddon, smarm-a-geddon, and snow-mageddon, the winds of language change have blown squarely in the direction of apocalypse and Armageddon. Bloggers, journalists, tweeters, and other writers are constantly stitching parts of these words onto whatever is causing end-of-the-world stress at the moment.This gloomy trend gained steam last winter, as snowstorms raged across the United States, and with them words like snowgeddon and snowpocalypse. Then the economic pickle produced bankageddon and a-stock-alypse. Recently, the swine flu brought this trend to new heights; I think oinkmageddon is my favorite, though a-pig-calypse isn't bad-non-coincidentally, both were used by Stephen Colbert. Other hammy neologisms include a-pork-a-lypse, pigflu-pocalypse, ham-a-geddon, and hamthrax, a yummy play on anthrax. Even Ragnorak-a less well-known term from Norse mythology, which refers to the final battle between the gods, monsters, and everyone else-gets in on the act with pignarok. Where there's bad news, bad suffixes come out to play.But these words can appear in less catastrophic contexts. Some are coined for humorous purposes only, such as ap-sock-alypse and bra-mageddon, two clothing-related crises that probably do not herald the end of days. As a former summer camp counselor, I was particularly pleased to find the word tire-swing-pocalypse. And as a lifelong fan of zombies, robots, and dinosaurs, I have to admit a zombie-robot-trex-alypse sounds so awesome that it might be worth the destruction of everything I hold dear, with the exception of the four-week-old malti-poo puppy I recently met, who helped me understand the word cuteageddon for the first time.Usually, Armageddon is captured by -geddon, -ageddon, or -mageddon, while apocalypse can be carved up into -lypse, -alypse, -calypse, or -pocalypse. Less often, apoco- is used to make words like apoco-babe and apoco-beach, and it's common for apocalypse to be altered by a mid-word substitution, as in a-cop-alypse, a-crap-alypse, and a-GOP-alypse. Armageddon is less resistant to becoming that kind of sandwich word, but I did find an example of ar-meh-geddon, which nicely combines slang terms for catastrophically awful and historically lame. Visual Thesaurus grand poohbah Ben Zimmer says, "For blends of this type to be successful, it helps if they have a distinctive multisyllabic structure. Then a stressed syllable can be swapped out with a monosyllabic word (snow, pork) and still retain enough material for people to recognize the original form (X-mageddon, a-X-alypse). And of course, making a metaphorical link to the end of the world only heightens the drama!"Though apocalypse and Armageddon are used interchangeably in this trend, they used to have distinct meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the original sense of apocalypse as "The ‘revelation' of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos," which sounds like a good isle to avoid. Not until the late 19th century did the term start to mean "a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm. Also in weakened use." I feel safe in saying a-taco-lypse and French-fry-pocalypse fit under the rubric of weakened use.Armageddon was originally a place. The real meaning was "The place of the last decisive battle at the Day of Judgment; hence used allusively for any ‘final' conflict on a great scale." So Armageddon kind of works like heaven, hell, Hollywood, Compton, New Jersey, and Gary, Indiana-the name of the place comes to stand for the stuff that goes down there, in this case, the Biblically ordained catastrofrak at the end of the world. (By the way, catastro- is catching on too, but that's a story for another column).I'm a little behind in my prophecy reading, so I can't say if any of this was foretold, but I'm damn sure the popularity of these words is no accident. Because of the never-ending news cycle, and the scare-mongering it engenders, every fresh crisis feels like the end of the world, whether it's a blizzard, a recession, a computer virus, or whatever. These handy word parts allow us to express that we-are-doomed feeling while making fun of it at the same time. By using -geddon or -pocalypse, we can say "Oh God, we're toast!" and "Oh God, we're being ridiculous!" at the same time. That is an attractive combination.As long as we live in a "scare first, inform later" world, there will always be a something-geddon and an oh-god-what-is-it-now-alypse around the corner. So when the world is ending-or you just wish people would stop saying it is-don't forget the suffixes of doom when you're stocking up on duct tape and canned goods.
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