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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

wow factor

(1980’s | journalese (film)? advertese? enginese? | “appeal,” “oomph,” “oohs and ahs,” “brilliance”)

Inasmuch as “wow” and “factor” both have relatively long and complicated histories, perhaps we should begin there before considering their union. “Wow” appears to go back to a Scots interjection, which could be laudatory or derogatory, and our modern understanding of the word emerged even before the beginning of the twentieth century; by 1925 it was going strong as an interjection and available as a noun or verb. The interjection is far more common than the other two today and probably always has been. “Factor” is an even older word that early in the twentieth century meant “gene,” basically (allowing for evolution in our understanding of genetics); now it is defined much more generally as “element or constituent, esp. one which contributes to or influences a process or result” (OED), especially if it’s important and its action is not well understood. “Factor” preceded by another term to denote a particular substance or catalyst is quite common in medicine; “Rh factor” being a longstanding example. “Risk factor” no doubt started life as a medical term but now flourishes in other fields. “Factor” became popular in Hollywood during the seventies, when it followed “Delta,” “Neptune,” “love,” and “human” (twice) in film titles (they all had to do with science fiction or espionage). And, to complete the picture — or the confusion — “wow factor” was used occasionally among stereophiles before 1980 to talk about irregularities in playback speed of tape decks and turntables, as in the phrase “wow and flutter.” So it seems the stage was well set.

By the mid-1980’s, the phrase started turning up in writing about entertainment (particularly films and television), computer software, merchandise more generally, and even service industries like banking. One early exponent was marketer Ken Hakuda, who used “wow factor” in 1987 to talk about his success in selling toys which he freely admitted were not useful or valuable except as a source of mindless fun. He used the term to refer to a highly visible feature of a product or its packaging that makes a strong, immediate impression, causing shoppers to whip out their wallets. That quality of impressiveness constitutes a common denominator among objects blessed with the wow factor. I’m not willing to take a firm position on the origin of this particular meaning. If I had to guess, I would say Hollywood, but advertese seems like an equally logical breeding ground, and I can’t say it didn’t start there. Because the phrase goes frequently with technological advance (especially when you’re talking about cinematic special effects), it is possible to argue that its source is enginese. While two of the earliest citations found in LexisNexis are due to Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, the very first (1984) was in the title of Miss Manners’s column, of all places. Did she supply the headline, or do we owe it to a forever anonymous editor? By the mid-1990’s, the expression was no longer extraordinary and had shed quotation marks, exclamation points, capital letters, and such tricks of the trade.

If you looked even cursorily at the pre-1980 equivalents listed at the top of this entry, you may have surmised, correctly, that I struggled to find convincing synonyms from the old days. That is because we used to say the same thing with adjectives — e.g., dazzling, eye-catching, awe-inspiring, cool — or verb phrases: knock your socks off, set something apart, jump off the shelves. Many new expressions have ensconced familiar ideas in new parts of speech, which usually is a net gain for the language. More ways to say the same thing reduces monotony and opens up room for small but significant variations in connotation. I’m inclined to consider the popularity of “wow factor” deserved. It’s short and to the point. And the ground meaning is quite clear, though it can imply two slightly different things, just as in the sixties, “wow” conveyed two different levels of excitement. One was the old gee-whillikers gob-smacked elation at seeing anything unexpected and pleasing. The other was quieter, more meditative, as in the pothead grokking the universe as he exhales. No squealing or jumping up and down, but the profound sense of something worthier than oneself that must be absorbed and appreciated with a drawn-out “wow.” “Wow factor” has always leaned more heavily in the direction of the former sense, but it can shade toward the latter sense as well, and seems to do so more often as time goes by. Not that the two meanings are all that far apart.

It has occurred to me to wonder if we should hear this expression with a whiff of the tawdry or meretricious. Given its early use and likely origins, it’s not hard at all for an old snob like myself to inflect it this way. But that would demand an ironic edge that I rarely or never hear when the phrase is used. A “wow factor” is a good thing that will impress the audience, sell the product, or make something stand out. The idea that there must be something cheap or slutty about it never seems to have taken root.

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