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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

morph

(1990’s | computerese? advertese? | “turn (into),” “transform,” “change”)

History first. This term starts to turn up in LexisNexis after 1990, although it seems likely to have formed part of professional jargon before then in film studios and computer labs. A Gumby-like shape-shifting clay animation figure named “Morph” was invented in 1977 by Tony Hart, a British animator. I came across a stray reference to a toy known as “Morph-o-Droid,” a kind of vehicle that turns into other things, about the same time (1985) as the Transformers socked the culture in the eye. These characters all were capable of changing form; if you knew your Greek, “morph” used to refer to form (or shape) wasn’t much of a stretch. I first learned the term as a combining form, not an independent word, as in “ectomorph.” Experts agree that our use today is no more than a shortening of “metamorphose.” But don’t look to caterpillars to provide an analogy; “morphing” as we know it is an exquisitely artificial process.

It’s tempting to see “morph” as a synonym for “transform,” which can also be used transitively or intransitively (oddly, however, “transform” seems to have a definite bias toward the transitive, while “morph” goes the other way). But it’s a little more specific. “Morph” almost always carries the idea of changing from one distinct image to another through a series of defined and visible stages. And it meant that by 1994, when it was chosen as a word of the year by the American Dialect Society. That was the year it plunged irrevocably into the mainstream — more on that in a moment.

The term was nearly always associated with computer graphics or digital animation in the beginning. Films like “Willow” and “Terminator 2” used visual sequences that amounted to primitive CGI, involving gradual transformations from one image to another, and technicians seem already to have been using the word, although I’m not sure when they started. (According to the Hollywood Reporter (1993), computer scientist Tom Brigham was responsible for “‘the original concept and pioneering work’ involved with the technology,” which he demonstrated first in 1982. But what did he call it?) I suspect the word arose solely because the need for it arose; once morphing became relatively simple after some technical advances, we had to have a word for it. I have no real evidence for the surmise, but I’ll take it until something better comes along. Such an origin myth suggests that the term comes from computerese.

But the ancestry of a new word isn’t necessarily what puts it on the map. “Morph” did get some early exposure in writing about movies and computer software. But the twin evils of advertising and public relations probably did more to spread the word. A rather lengthy quotation from Advertising Age (September 23, 1991) makes the point: “Advertising is in the grip of Morphing Mania. Morph, short for metamorphosis, is a captivating computer animation process that enables us to watch one shape, one image, speedily transform itself into another, and another, and another, in seemingly endless progressions.” The next year, the proposed mascot for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was known as the “Whatizit” (later “Izzy”), which could transform itself instantly into all sorts of things, and commentators (most of whom deplored the design, to put it mildly) frequently used “morph” or a form of it to describe the protean creature. Finally, in 1994, along came the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (someone — William Bennett, perhaps — must have noticed the uncomfortable proximity to “morphine”), a popular television show and then a can’t-do-without set of action figures that Christmas shopping season, which powered the new word solidly into everyday use. The Power Rangers were kids who turned into superheroes — the emphasis wasn’t so much on a change in form (although one did take place) as on becoming a different sort of being. Now, “morph” often is used casually to mean simply “change.” A pair of recent headlines (techcrunch.org and financial writer Jim Cramer, respectively) make the point: “As Mobile Devices Morph into Wearables” and “How Perfect Stocks Morph Into Lemons.” It turns up as a noun every now and then, too.

About ten years ago, I was startled to encounter this word in a text by a writer I knew as an upholder of traditional grammar and diction, who scorned those who adopt every new word that comes down the pike. He used it — without gloss or quotation marks — to describe an image changing through stages into another. In that narrow sense, I don’t think there was a precise, brief equivalent before 1990 or so.

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