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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | corporatese)

A pure corporate invention. “Jumbotron” was trademarked in the U.S. by Sony in 1989. The first Jumbotron, measuring a cool 80 x 130 ft., appeared at Expo ’85 in Tsukuba, Japan. Much smaller, but still impressive, screens soon showed up at finer stadiums and arenas everywhere. A Jumbotron (42 x 23 ft.) was erected in Times Square in 1990, taken down in 1996. The original giant television screen was actually an array of hundreds of smaller screens, and the technology was quickly superseded. The word itself has passed into the popular lexicon to denote any large video display or scoreboard, closely associated to this day with sporting events. MetLife Stadium, home of this year’s Super Bowl, boasts “four 18’ x 130’ high-definition LED video boards,” which I suppose would be the contemporary term for gigantic video display. Easy to see why most of us say “Jumbotron.”

The name “Jumbotron” is not intuitive. “-tron” goes back to ancient Greek, where it meant “instrument.” I suppose you could say that “Jumbotron” means “instrument of enlarging,” which is what the giant television screens effectively are, but the formation lacks elegance and precision. Even in ancient Greek, “-tron” was added to verbs to create nouns associated with the root verb. (Thus, Woody Allen’s “orgasmatron” from Sleeper, meaning something like “instrument of orgasm,” passed etymological muster, and he gets extra points for avoiding mixing Latin and Greek roots, a common pitfall.) The ready use of the suffix in science fiction may have been influenced by “neutron” and “electron” (cf. “holic“), although “tron” here is not a suffix since in both cases, the “tr” is part of the root (it’s “proton,” not “protron”). But words like “cyclotron” and “magnetron” demonstrate that the old Greek form was alive and well in its original sense in the twentieth century. In the popular culture division, Roxy Music’s song “Ladytron” (1972) preceded Allen’s coinage by one year, and “Tron” came gloriously into its own as the title of a 1982 hacker-fantasy film. Nowadays critics of science fiction may regard the suffix as overused.

The computer age has not put paid to the conversion of brand names to common nouns. (I believe that this practice goes back to the nineteenth century, with “antimacassar” being my candidate for the first instance of a trade name incorporated into a noun.) We all know the list: Hoover, Q-tip, Kleenex, Formica, Velcro, Post-It, etc. “Jumbotron” has become one of the most recent entries. There may not be any actual Jumbotrons any more, now that Sony has stopped making them. But the word has won what looks like a permanent place in the language.

Speaking of appropriation of brand names into everyday language, you don’t hear as much about trade names that turn into verbs. “Hoover” was once used as a verb, but two recent, strictly computer-age, examples have vaulted into constant use: “Photoshop” — which has pretty much replaced “airbrush” and “retouch” — and “Google,” which has replaced “go to the library.”

A few years ago, I took my nephews to a Mets’ game at CitiField. We had ridiculously good seats, right in front of the press box — just got lucky on StubHub (it helped that the Mets were having a lousy year). And what do you know? In the eighth inning a cameraman came to our section, and next thing you know, there we were up on the center field scoreboard. High fives all around!


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