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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Super Bowl



You’d be surprised at how many meanings this word has — anyway, I was. They’re all related to the notion of a strap (going back to Middle French and Old High German), and that association holds true even in these latter days. A hundred years ago, its primary meanings were: a strong rope used to help secure ship’s rigging, cord used to fire a cannon, strip of leather used to hold a snowshoe (for example) together, and another nautical reference, which evolved directly into today’s use of the word: the cord a sailor hung his knife on so he could carry it around his neck. “Lanyard” has a few other miscellaneous meanings as well: chinstrap (on a hat), summer camp favorite (the lanyard as craft project seems to date back at least to the middle of the twentieth century), what the referee wears a whistle on (back to the sailors again), military decoration (worn on the shoulder), part of a safety harness. When used to help construction workers secure their tools, lanyards aren’t just for necks any more; they can attach to shoulder or wrist as well. By and large, the old meanings are still active, and probably no less common than they ever were. Around them has sprung up a new field that calls on lucrative forces of the Zeitgeist like security, fashion, and commerce, commerce, commerce. Now we have Lanyards USA, Lanyards Tomorrow, and

If the old meanings are still around and there aren’t any new ones, why an entry? Just my sense that the word has become vastly more popular. It may have meant a lot of things in its storied past, but it always had a specialized air about it. Nowadays, though, you hear it everywhere — everybody from lowly janitors to Super Bowl spectators wears one. And it’s being applied in ways it never was before. Now “lanyard” is what you call the cord or chain you hang your glasses on around your neck; in my youth, plenty of people wore their glasses around their necks, but not on lanyards. It was always true that the lanyard, whatever it denoted, had a strongly utilitarian cast. But not any more; lanyards still serve everyday functions, but they also should match your clothes or sparkle or advertise or say something interesting. An accessory at the very least, potentially more.

The lanyard revolution is more than anything a consequence of our efforts to keep ourselves safe, which has made us ID-happy. Why do you need a lanyard at the Super Bowl, or to get into your office? So you can display your credentials and prove that you belong there. Sure, people carry keys and other household objects around their necks, too, but your standard lanyard nowadays comes with the clear plastic ID-holder, so you never have to dig out your card to show the guard. In the seventies, members of a few professions were using lanyards for that purpose, but now almost any public employee and lots of private ones wear them as a matter of course. It’s a tacit acknowledgment that we have accepted increasing restrictions on our movements in hopes of preventing, or at least limiting, mayhem and bloodshed. Lanyards are an emblem of that loss of freedom, another component of the uniform that the wealthy, ever security-conscious (and for good reason), force on the masses. Adding insult to injury, the bosses and big money want us to regard the badge of servitude as just one more consumer good. If they succeed, we lose again.

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(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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