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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

spoiler alert

(2000’s | internese? journalese? | “stop reading now,” “I don’t want to give away the ending, but . . .”)

The earliest use I found in LexisNexis, and it’s a toothy one, dates from 1994 in the Washington Post. The reporter noted, “on movie buffs’ discussion lists, for instance, there is wide use of the term ‘spoiler alert,’ which is a warning inserted before any comment that would give away a film’s ending.” Early internet slang, that would make it. The phrase wasn’t fully part of the language until 2000 or so, I would say. 2003 is the year it blooms on LexisNexis. That’s when it started popping regularly up among squares, though even at that late date, quotation marks and glosses were not unusual.

“Spoiler alert” seems to have ushered in the use of “spoiler” to mean that which divulges a significant or startling plot point. No less an authority than American Heritage first recorded it in the fourth edition (2000): “The third print edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published in 1992, gives four common definitions for ‘spoiler.’ The fourth and latest edition, which came out in 2000, adds this notable fifth definition: ‘a post to a newsgroup that divulges information intended to be a surprise, such as a plot twist in a movie'” (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, November 5, 2003). I learned the word in childhood in the context of late-season baseball games in which one team was in playoff contention and the other was not. If the latter defeated the former and kept it out of the playoffs, it was a spoiler. This definition applies as well in politics and other varieties of competitive sport.

I’m glad to say that “spoiler alert” has always had solid ironic potential, regularly used to signal a particularly predictable or hackneyed development as well as the genuinely surprising. The phrase took a big boost from the rise of home videorecording, followed by streaming of previously broadcast television shows and TiVo. You saw the show last night, but your water-cooler buddy didn’t — so you may have to clam up. Not like the good old days, when everybody watched it at the same time.

Another, even newer, word “spoiler alert” reminds me of is “reveal,” now hearable as a noun. The reveal is what the spoiler alert (I typed “spoilert” just then — why not?) warns you away from. It’s nothing but a sloppy way to say “revelation,” as far as I can tell. What the hell. Verbs become nouns; nouns verb themselves. It all slops around in a grammatical slumgullion, and our once-proud linguistic distinctions and differentiators disappear at an ever greater rate. In a century, we’ll have about a thousand words left coupled with a rich repertoire of grunts, that being all that is left of our once-proud language. Of those thousand words, I’d guess fifty will have come into existence after 2014.

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