MED Magazine - Issue 20 - June 2004

New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

Delia power also Delia effect noun [U]
/ dili pa, dili fekt/
an endorsement of a particular product by a television presenter which causes a sudden rise in the sales and popularity of the product

'Now Delia power has struck again, for within hours of making a sticky fruit cake on the first programme of her third series she caused supermarket shelves to empty of prunes and condensed milk.'
(Girton Parish News, February 2002)

'Appearing on the daytime talk show has been akin to winning the lottery for new writers as Winfrey's endorsement has the "Delia effect" on novels '
(The Guardian, 8th April 2002)

Britain first witnessed the Delia effect as far back as the 1970s, when the cookery writer and presenter Delia Smith talked enthusiastically about a particular type of lemon zester, resulting in a nationwide shortage of the implements. In more recent years the influence of Delia power was so strong that the BBC sent lists to the food industry forewarning them of the products that would be featured before the cookery programmes were broadcast. The sudden surge in popularity of a product after it is featured in a TV programme or film is a common phenomenon, not confined to cookery or Delia Smith, and consequently the coinages Delia power and Delia effect have been adopted in other, non-cookery contexts, as illustrated by the second citation above.

Observation of the mainstream use of these terms and other coinages centred around the TV presenter Delia Smith, led to the inclusion of a group of entries based on the noun Delia in the 2001 edition of the Collins English Dictionary. Analysis of a 418 million word corpus of spoken and written English revealed over 700 references to Delia, justifying inclusion of entries such as a noun Delia, meaning 'safe, reliable recipe', a noun compound Delia dish, defined as a dish 'from a recipe or in the style of British cookery writer Delia Smith', and a related phrase doing a Delia, which refers to the activity of preparing a Delia dish.

In linguistics, the noun Delia could be classified as an eponym or appellative. An eponym is the name of a person which has become identified with a particular object or activity, a classic example of which is the noun sandwich, based on the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Creative use of proper nouns in the process of English word formation has been in evidence throughout the decades, and even centuries. For instance the noun compound Davy Jones's locker (a graveyard at the bottom of the sea) was first used over 200 years ago. The origins of this phrase are uncertain. Davy Jones is thought to denote an evil spirit of the sea, but there is no definitive answer as to whether a man called David Jones ever existed as a basis for the phrase. It is hard to imagine Delia Smith sinking into similar obscurity, but who knows, maybe 200 years from now people will be asking similar questions: was there actually a woman called Delia Smith, or does the name merely denote a sense of reliability and success?

There are many other examples of proper nouns used in established idioms and phrases in English, e.g.: keeping up with the Joneses, Hobson's choice, the real McCoy. We accept such terms into our general vocabulary and don't generally know or concern ourselves about who exactly Hobson or McCoy were. By contrast neologisms based on proper nouns almost always feature people in the public eye, politicians and celebrities of sport, film and television, etc.

Political figures feature heavily in neologisms on both sides of the Atlantic. An example from American English is the noun compound Adlai Stevenson moment, used in the context of the recent war with Iraq. This refers to a dramatic presentation of proof of some kind of wrong doing, and relates back to an attempt by American politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson to convince the world that the Soviet Union had positioned nuclear missiles in Cuba, when he dramatically revealed a series of black and white aerial pictures in a 1962 presentation to the security council. In 2003, the term Adlai Stevenson moment was used amid speculation about the threat posed by Iraq. Predictably, many other recent neologisms centre on George W. Bush, such as the term Bush Knew, used to describe a conspiracy theory surrounding the September 11th attacks. Over in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the inspiration for an entire word family. From Blairism as an ideology comes an adjective blairist and a transitive verb blairise (with spelling variant blairize). Blairite is an alternative adjectival form, which can also be used as a countable noun to refer to one of his supporters. The term blairista has been coined to refer to political co-workers or general supporters, and female members of the cabinet have been described as Blair babes.

It is not always proper nouns relating to people that are incorporated into new words. Sometimes place names are used, such as in the uncountable noun Floridization, which is used to describe a phenomenon whereby the percentage of senior citizens in a particular area increases. In the US state Florida, a very high percentage of the population are over retirement age, hence the inspiration for the term. Names of companies are also used. For instance the term Enronomics has been coined to refer to dubious economic policies, and relates to the Houston-based company Enron, which was at the centre of a series of scandals involving irregular accounting procedures. The term has spawned a range of rather tongue-in-cheek derivatives, such as Enronic, Enronitis and Enronish.

As we have already seen, proper nouns are not confined to appearing as part of larger noun phrases or idioms, but can also be used as word components or morphemes. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s has inspired a range of terms on both sides of the Atlantic incorporating the names of individuals involved in subsequent scandals. For instance in the UK a few years ago there was talk of Camillagate in reference to tapes of telephone conversations between HRH Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and more recently Cheriegate concerning Cherie Blair's association with Carol Caplin. Similarly in the US, Monicagate has been used to refer to President Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky and Paulagate to refer to allegations of sexual harassment by Paula Jones. In fact the suffix -gate, itself based on the proper noun Watergate, has been used so productively in coinages describing scandals (e.g.: Whitewatergate, Dianagate, Irangate, etc) that the noun Gatemania has been coined to refer to its overuse!

As the suffix -gate illustrates, even parts of proper nouns can be a productive source of neologisms. A classic example from the twentieth century is the prefix Mc-, based on the name of the well-known fast-food company McDonalds and usually indicating that something is vulgar or of poor quality. Examples include nouns McJob, which refers to a low-paid job with poor working conditions and McMansion, which describes a large, opulent new house which does not fit in with its surroundings.

Another productive affix based on a proper noun is the prefix franken-, used to describe something as genetically modified. Franken- derives from Frankenstein's monster, a grotesque fictional creature from a 19th century novel by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein's monster was assembled by a mad scientist using a variety of macabre materials. The idea of something being created in an unsavoury way is carried over into the word frankenfood, coined in the early nineties to refer to genetically modified food products. This spawned a range of derivatives referring to different types of food, such as frankenfruit and frankenfish.

Many coinages based on proper nouns are ephemeral, only lasting as long as media and public interest in the individuals they are based on. For example twenty years ago, this article would probably have talked about Thatcherite, rather than Blairite. Similarly, twenty years from now, Blairism and its derivatives are likely to have given way to a whole new set of terms based on whoever is the political focus at the time.

Among the coinages that really become established in the language are those based on individuals who have a timeless quality, such as the fictional character Frankenstein's monster. Providing the issue of genetically modified products remains significant, terms like frankenfood stand a good chance of survival, since Mary Shelley's novel will exist for future generations. Other coinages likely to persist are those that are still understood long after the individuals on which they are based have sunk into obscurity, those words that have become so strongly associated with a particular meaning that knowledge of the individuals themselves is no longer important for understanding. It remains to be seen whether the noun Delia and its related terms will have this kind of longevity!


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