In recent months, while blogging for New York and finding myself at a loss for words, I have referred to things as being “New York-y.” I have described certain of Herman Cain’s bon mots as “harass-y.” I can’t bear to check how many times I’ve reached for the ad hoc suffix, but I fear it’s a skyscraper-y total.
I’m hardly alone. Slate has asked, in a marvelous bit of tautology, “Just How Wes Andersony Is the New Wes Anderson Trailer?” Jezebel, mashing up two Internet-isms, added -y to a favorite feminist metaphor and declared a racy Calvin Klein ad, “sure to inspire pearl-clutch-y local news stories.” Per Gizmodo, Microsoft’s vision of the future is “futuristic, natural, and metro-y.” Which made me wonder: Just how blogg-y are we bloggers? Are we all getting lazy, as we write under the time pressure that comes alongside the stylistic freedom you enjoy while producing copy for the web? Or is this tic a product of a broader change in the language?
Depends how you look at it. If shorthand like -y shrinks the collective vocabulary, that’s only in line with how language may be contracting across the globe. According to research from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, words are going extinct these days faster than they are being created. Researchers suspect auto-spell-check is partly to blame; it makes typists stop to question and ultimately find substitutes for newfangled coinages (like spellcheck, which in verb form can earn the squiggle from Microsoft Word). Another factor must be the way social media turns private correspondence into part of the public conversation. A new app, Blurtt, takes this to its latest extreme, encouraging users to essentially communicate via visual Internet memes. “Forget emoticons, boring Facebook updates, long drawn-out messages to get your point across,” reads the promo copy. To convey amusement, you might Blurtt a picture of a smiling, languorous kitten. To convey ironic detachment, you Blurtt … whatever.
Viewed in the flattering lowered lighting of the shadow cast over the written word by the existence of Blurtt, -y no longer looks so end-of-world-y. Still, there’s the part of me that led me to want to become a writer, that took disproportionate pleasure in finding the precise word to deploy. I could have done better than harass-y, right? Leering. Skeevy. Caddish. Plenty of options were there waiting for an airing.
But maybe the word I really wanted was harass-y. I was aiming, after all, to convey that Cain was displaying certain characteristics of a person allegedly engaged in a very specific thing; notwithstanding the gravity of the accusations against him, I also wanted to signal that I wasn’t taking Cain seriously, even as modern media realities mandated that I cover him. That Lucca study, by the way, showed that the words we do coin these days spread more quickly, suggesting eagerness for new ways of describing our new experiences. Maybe if the existing language were more flexible-ish, it would be easier to keep up with that demand.