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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(2010’s | advertese | “endorser,” “influence”)

I came across this word in the arts world, of which I am a loose member, but of course it is far more common in the realm of advertising, particularly on social media, where influencers have grown a multi-billion dollar business. It’s a nice word for “shill.” As in the old days, they may be celebrities, but they may just as well be previously little-known people (and who knows? maybe the occasional bot) who have developed a potent on-line presence. The work is done by cultivating a following on Facebook, or Amazon, or somewhere, and convincing some brand to pay for plugging its products, if you don’t have a brand of your own. Then influencers weave their spells, convincing mobs of hapless sheep to buy the product just by kvelling over it on Instagram. The more loyalty an influencer inspires, the more dollar signs light up vice presidents’ eyes.

The concept of the recommendation is much older than advertising but has always held an honored place in it. What could be better than finding out exactly what you need from a friend or a respected authority? Like everything old made new again by the internet, such an adviser must have a new name. Am I the only one that thinks “influencer” sounds like a villain of some sort? Like “the fixer” or “deep throat” in a political thriller, a name people utter reluctantly, in a hushed, slightly awed tone.

In the arts world the concept is similar but a bit less crass. Influencers have the ear of the people with money, the people on the board who decide what to program and whom to hire. So if you want to promote something, you need to worm your way into their good graces. This sense is closer to how the word was used in the eighties (when used at all). An influencer was similar to an √©minence grise or power behind the throne. They didn’t get the credit or the spotlight, but they got their way. That idea remained in use in advertese up to the social media revolution, but seeking out the one right person who can make your project happen is quite different from persuading millions to whip out their credit cards.

I’ve covered a number of new expressions that end in “er,” denoting agency of some kind. Some of them have a touch of the poetic: headhunter, rainmaker, -whisperer. Some lack any sort of distinction: deal-breaker, fraudster, server. “Influencer” belongs to a group composed of awkward, hyper-literal formations that strike the ear as bureaucratese or jargon: caregiver, early adopter, facilitator, first responder, warfighter. Adding an “er” suffix is one of those linguistic shortcuts — like pasting “ize” on a noun to create a verb, or adding “ment” or “ness” to go the other way — that help establish that quality. Such affixes are the last refuge of those with no ear or sense for language who just need to come up with a new word for whatever it is. Even the more literate may resort to an “er” nonce word after painting themselves into a grammatical corner.

Influencers have become a thing in recent years, and advertisers have embraced them heartily, as excited articles pile up in trade journals analyzing the most effective means of employing their services, rules to live by, practices to shun. Micro- and nano-influencers have shorter lists of followers but may be potent within those limits; they have begun to attract their due. These things rise and fall, but we seem poised to hear ever more about influencers in the near term, at least.

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