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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

vape

(2010’s | hipsterese? teenagese?)

Primarily a verb, I would say, but available as a noun (short for “vaporizer” or for the practice of “vaping”), or for modifying fanciful store names (there’s one on 14th Street called Beyond Vape). One who vapes is a vaper, which may remind antiquarians of “viper,” a very old word for marijuana smoker. “Vape” was not entirely new when we first encountered it between 2005 and 2010 — 2009 is the first time it shows up in mainstream press sources, says LexisNexis — it had seen limited use before that as short for “vaporizer,” but that was before anyone thought of a vaporizer as a way to ingest nicotine or anything else. For that we had to wait until the early 2000’s, when a Chinese pharmacist invented the battery-powered nicotine delivery device, which heats liquid to form vapor rather than leaf to form smoke. It took a few years, but by 2010 electronic cigarettes had become noticeable. They looked suspiciously like cigarettes — and plenty of people were and remain suspicious — but they produced far less dangerous fumes, though probably not perfectly safe. A few short years later, vaping need have nothing to do with nicotine, and dispensers need not look like cigarettes, though the ever-popular vape pen retains the slim, cylindrical shape. It’s become an art and science and commerce all its own. Shops have sprung up everywhere, and vaporizers have supplanted hookahs as the hip smoking device. I see people vaping all the time now on the streets of New York. Professional worriers have stopped worrying about hookah languages and started worrying about kids taking up vaping.

There are a number of associated terms, of course, (and a legion of brands to match); if you want a chuckle, check out the alphabetical list of headwords on the right of Urban Dictionary’s “vape” page. I won’t try to go into all of them, but here’s one glossary (here‘s another). The medium for the nicotine, flavoring, or whatever you put in your vaporizer is generally called “e-juice” or “e-liquid.” Another term for the device is “PV,” for “personal vaporizer.” Basic tools of the trade have been shortened to “atty” (atomizer), “cart” (cartridge) and “bat” (battery). A souped-up PV is called a “mod” (short for “modified”), which should not conjure up visions of the Mod Squad. A “clone” is a fake, basically, a knock-off or counterfeit. The sensation of a puff of vapor going down is called a “throat hit.” Regular old tobacco cigarettes are known as “analog cigarettes,” though there’s nothing digital about an e-cigarette; the association with e-mail and other computer-spawned e’s is fortuitous.

We are entitled to wonder why vaping became so popular so fast. Much is made of its role as an aid to giving up smoking, with accompanying debates over how safe it really is — debates that continue to rage, though most observers agree that they are less toxic than old-fashioned cigarettes. It seems likely that many vapers took it up for that reason. Vaping is cool rather in the way that smoking used to be: not rebellious exactly, but a bit transgressive, a little dangerous, developing a subculture recognized by the general population. But there’s also the technological factor. Vaping is in because it has produced new gadgets and lots of opportunities to mess around with them. The engineer types like having things to play with, and the techno-buffs revel in the latest improvements. There’s also the rage for anything new that occupies a surprising number of our fellow citizens, which I have cited before as a powerful force behind new concepts and expressions in our discourse.

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