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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

mockumentary also mocumentary noun [C]
/mkjment()ri/
a film or television programme made in the form of a documentary but containing fictional subject material

'But the biggest success has been The Office. The mockumentary set in a Slough paper firm has become one of the most talked-about programmes of the season in the American press and has been showered with praise.'
(The Guardian, 5th January 2004)

'Riding high on the success of its Golden Globe-winning mockumentary The Office, BBC America is introducing U.S. audiences to yet another contemporary British series set in the workplace.'
(Associated Press, 24th February 2004)

The term mockumentary, a blend of the words mock and documentary, was coined in the late nineties to refer to a style of television or film drama cast in the form of a documentary, but with essentially fictional subject matter. Early in 2004 the word established itself further in journalistic spheres across both sides of the Atlantic, amidst media interest in the BBC TV series The Office, which made history by being the first British comedy programme to win a prestigious Golden Globe Award in the United States.

In fact the idea of making films or dramas in mockumentary style goes back several decades, originating with directors like Woody Allen, who in 1969 made a film called Take the Money and Run, which chronicled the adventures of Virgil Starkwell, a bungling bank robber. Several hit movies have subsequently adopted a mocumentary approach, including many films of the eighties and nineties such as This is Spinal Tap, Bob Roberts and the cult horror movie The Blair Witch Project.

The related term rockumentary (also sometimes spelt rocumentary) was coined in 1984 by film director Rob Reiner in reference to his mocumentary style movie This is Spinal Tap. A rockumentary is a documentary film or television programme that relates to rock and roll music or its musicians, as exemplified by Woodstock, a groundbreaking 1970 film that featured the Woodstock music festival. Reiner's film, This is Spinal Tap, was a parody rockumentary, a mocumentary about a fictitious heavy metal rock band, aiming to satirize bands like Led Zeppelin.

Another nineties neologism which manipulates the word documentary is the term shockumentary, used to refer to a documentary programme or film which contains footage of accidents, violence or other scenes designed to shock. Typical examples of shockumentaries are those broadcast by satellite television channels like Fox TV, programmes with titles like The World's Scariest Police Chases, Plastic Surgery Nightmares and When Good Pets Go Bad. Often deemed to be downmarket television in bad taste, these programmes take the idea of 'reality television' to the extreme, though again have their origins in a genre of filmmaking which substantially predates reality shows: the so-called Mondo movies of the 1960s, which sought to present taboo and sometimes very violent subjects in a documentary style that enabled them to get past film censors. A related phrase in use since the mid-nineties is adrenaline television, which refers to live television broadcasts of dramatic and often violent events.

The term stalkumentary has also been used since the late nineties to refer to a programme that 'stalks' (closely watches or follows) or attempts to find a particular person. An example is the 1998 film Kurt & Courtney, which investigated the death of Nirvana rocker Kurt Cobain, eventually coming into conflict with his widow, Courtney Love.

The term jockumentary is sometimes used to refer to a documentary about sports or a sportsperson. Modern jockumentaries are thought to have taken inspiration from Olympia, a 1938 Nazi propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The word jockumentary was coined from a blend of documentary and the North American slang word jock, which from the mid twentieth century has been used to refer to a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and good at sport, especially a young athlete.

The success of mocumentaries like BBC TV's The Office is largely attributable to the widespread acceptance during recent years of reality TV as a broadcasting genre. Reality TV originated in the United States in the early 1970s with the programme An American Family, closely followed in 1974 by a British counterpart, The Family, which followed the lives of a working class family in Reading. Since that time reality TV has emerged as big business for many satellite and terrestrial TV channels, boosted significantly by the immense popularity of reality game shows like Big Brother and Survivor during the last decade.

The original idea of reality TV was that it focussed on the lives of real, ordinary people, but with the increased exposure of celebrities the term celebreality (a blend of the words celebrity and reality) was coined in the early nineties to refer to media coverage of the real life of a celebrity, or to describe a game show format in which a celebrity takes part in real life situations. Reality TV seems to have created a bizarre paradox, making 'real' people become celebrities and making celebrities appear 'real' by exposing aspects of their lives and personality.

In 2000 the noun dramality was coined by Mark Burnett, creator of the Survivor reality game show in the US. The term is a blend of drama and reality and refers to a TV show which combines aspects of drama and reality programming. Dramality is the latest of a wide range of phrases that have been coined since the early nineties to refer to reality broadcasting, descriptions such as crack TV, nonscripted programming and peeping-Tom television.

Those of us who find the current obsession with reality television really annoying, but at the same time are secretly bound by a compulsive desire to watch it, may be the victims of irritainment. This word, a blend of irritate and entertainment, was coined in 1995 to refer to broadcasting which is highly irritating but nonetheless rather compulsive, as illustrated in the following citation (O.J. refers to the O.J. Simpson trials which were broadcast in the US in 1995):

'Irritainment: Annoying entertainment and media spectacles you're unable to stop watching. O.J. is a prime example.'
(Wired magazine, Issue 3.06, June 1995)


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.