Friday October 6, 2006

The Variety -er

As I've mentioned before, the subject of one of my generals papers (which has been accepted, to my initial gratification and now increasing alarm, for LSA 2007) was about phonesthemes.  Soaking in phonesthemes for a couple of months has predisposed me to be on the lookout for sound-meaning correspondences in the English lexicon that might or might not be morphemes, depending on how you squint at them.  One such pattern seems to be found only in slanguage, the dialect peculiar to Variety magazine: the suffix -er meaning  'work of entertainment'.

Variety's writers famously use a large number of idiosyncratic jargon and abbreviations—see the aforelinked page for an extensive, though not exhaustive, list.  The most famous example of Variety-speak is probably the 1935 headline "Sticks Nix Hick Pix", which means roughly "country audiences reject motion pictures about country people".  [Aside: This headline has always struck me as nearly perfect, but I've always wondered why it wasn't "Hix Nix Stix Pix".  Maybe hicks was considered too derogatory to use to refer to actual audience members rather than fictional movie subjects.  The headline was changed, by the way, to the almost-as-good "Stix Nix Hix Pix" in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and my version actually gets a few Google hits, so I'm not the only one who sees room for improvement.]

Some of the Variety terminology has leaked out into the rest of the language, including sitcom and sex appeal.  Among the less widely-known examples of Variety slang is a strange set of words that all end in -er and refer to kinds of entertainment:

actioner:  an action movie
icer:  an ice show
laffer:  a comedy
meller:  a melodrama
oater:  a Western film
romancer:  a romantic movie
sudser:  a soap opera
suspenser:  a suspense film
tooner:  a cartoon
tuner:  a musical

(I especially like the homophony of tooner and tuner.  Betcha that makes Hollywood cocktail parties confusing!)

In all of these words, the -er ending doesn't seem to carry the agentive meaning it usually has when used (very productively) to turn verbs into nouns (e.g. writer).  Several of them might appear at first glance to consist of a verb plus this agentive suffix—icer, romancer, sudser, tuner, and the oddly-spelled laffer—but none of them actually has the meaning you'd expect if that were the case.  An icer, after all, doesn't ice anything, a romancer doesn't romance anything, and so forth.  This also isn't an instance of the agentive suffix being used with a shift in argument structure, as in another bit of Variety-speak: yawner 'a boring show' (that is, a show that makes the audience yawn).  As far as I can tell, the only consistent meaning of the Variety -er words listed above is that they are all works of entertainment from one genre or another.

There's certainly no shortage of meanings for the -er suffix in English.  In addition to the agentive one, the OED lists five more:

  • the non-agentive noun-forming -er of sampler
  • the comparative -er of bigger
  • the -er for verbal actions and documents effecting such actions, as in waiver and disclaimer
  • the -er in frequentive verbs like glimmer and patter
  • the -er in such informal Oxford slang as footer 'football' and rugger 'rugby'

Of these, the "Oxford informal" and non-agentive noun-forming meanings are probably closest to the Variety -er, but none so specifically denotes the output of the entertainment industry.  Is this pattern in the cleverisms coined by the writers of Variety consistent enough to qualify as some sort of root-forming morpheme?  I think it might be on its way, though it'll need to be adopted into broader English usage before I'd expect to see it in the OED.  I guess my advice to -er for getting recognized, then, is the same as the classic advice on how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

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Maybe -er here is really a topicalizer as opposed to an agent proper. I think there are precedents in regular English. Think of keeper, as in, "He's a keeper" (e.g., said of a boyfriend worthy of keeping). The keeper here is to be kept, not one who keeps like a beekeper. Likewise, an icer is one (movie) about ice, and so on.
And speaking of phonesthemes, since you say depending on how you squint at them, how about squeal, squirm, squash, squelch... Is it just me or do a lot of these things involve initial consonant clusters starting with a sibilant or have a liquid as the second consonant?

Posted by: Greg at Oct 6, 2006 8:25:06 PM

I don't quite see the difference between yawner and laffer. A yawner makes you yawn and a laugher makes you laugh, right? The other examples of -er do seem to work as topicalizers, not unlike sports expressions like header 'play made with the head', backhander 'play made with the backhand', etc.

Posted by: Ben Zimmer at Oct 7, 2006 10:54:03 AM

Of course, in British English, tuner is pronounced (using CXS) [t_ju:nEr\], and would not be homophonic with tooner [tu:nEr\]. Also, [t_j] is distinct from [tS)] - if you pronounce tune as choon you sound like a chavy raver.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Oct 9, 2006 1:47:40 AM

And here I was looking for enlightenment by expecting your post to be about the phonaesthemics of -er. Drat.

Nevertheless, I agree with the topicalizing function of -er that Greg proposes. Ben’s point about yawner and laffer is good too, and the function of -er in that case is what I would call causative, not a shifted agentive, although it could easily develop from that sort of thinking.

I disagree with the OED (shocking!) in their analysis of sampler. I would say that a sampler, defined as one who samples things, would certainly be an agentive derivation of sample. For the electronic device which plays arbitrary recordings in response to MIDI commands, the function of -er isn’t salient; the word is semantically extended from the human behavior, so agency doesn’t really matter. This seems to be common in electronics anyway, the extension of human activities to cover the behavior of complex electronic equipment.

Posted by: James Crippen at Oct 9, 2006 10:52:32 AM

I think the meaning of sampler they were referring to is this one:

A representative collection or selection: a sampler of American short-story writers

(via the American Heritage Dictionary)

I agree with Ben's point about laffer—I missed the clear analogy with yawner. I must have been thrown off by the funny spelling. Yeah, that's the ticket...

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 9, 2006 2:01:10 PM