Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Friday, 27 February 2009

February 2009

February's Friday the 13th has been and gone, but it coincided with a new arrival in the long-running series of Friday the 13th films, which are characterised by gory onscreen murders and crushingly predictable release dates. This latest instalment, however, flagged up a subtle shift in language (or, at least, marketing speak). No longer are cinematic series sustained by mere sequels; they are now dynamically re-energised by reboots, presumably in order to chime semantically with the marketeer-envisioned computing/gaming mindset of a younger audience. Perhaps this is not unreasonable, as they usually feature a younger cast. More dubiously, remakes are now reimaginings, implying that the auteur theory was considered when producing not only expensive blockbusters, but also less ambitious exploitation films.

The exploitation genre has intriguing etymological origins. Its main synonym is grindhouse, a term that dates as far back as the 1920s, and was so called after the more shabby cinemas dedicated to low-budget fare, featuring explicit content that the more upmarket venues could not offer. Exploitation cinema reached its peak in the 1970s, and while there may be little of interest to lexicography within, say, the 86 minutes of Shriek of the Mutilated (1974), the etymologies of the assorted subgenres (microgenres, even) covered by exploitation are worth investigating. Both splatter and slasher films have more guessable origins, but others are 'loan' words from foreign languages. These include mondo (meaning world, after the documentary Mondo Cane, which kickstarted a series of explicit documentaries — or shockumentaries, if you will — on tribal customs) and giallo (meaning yellow, from the yellow covers of the pulp crime novels providing inspiration, and often source material, for the films) from Italian. Meanwhile, Japanese provides chanbara (literally sword fighting, a less critically respected subset of jidaigeki, the period drama).

While some believe (mistakenly) that the word exploitation refers to advantage being taken of cast members, it actually has more to do with financial returns than oppression. As legendary exploitation producer Roger Corman would tell you, such films are purely commercial exercises, exploiting both their explicit content and a specific target audience. The most obvious example is Blaxploitation, aimed at African American audiences of the 1970s. Variants of the genre are easily identified by the use of the suffix -ploitation, and the Corpus throws up such examples as sexploitation (no imaginative leap required) or Mexploitation (a regional variant from Mexico). Rhyme is not a requirement, however, as shown by Ozploitation (from Down Under) or carsploitation (involving cars – you get the idea). More pertinently, the suffix -ploitation has escaped the grindhouse ghetto and is now used to describe any entertainment subgenre with a readily identifiable target audience. So, teensploitation has become established enough to spawn the even-more-youthful tweensploitation. The -ploitation suffix is now as associated with material tailored to an obvious demographic as is the suffix -gate with political scandal.

Perhaps dictionaries have cornered the lexploitation market?

Duncan Black - Editor

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

January 2009

Porn reborn
Porn is everywhere. Not the flesh-coloured, top-shelf variety, although there is certainly a fair bit of that around – I'm talking about something much more exciting: the word itself. Porn is popping up in all sorts of unusual places, but these days people are using it to describe things farther and farther removed from sex. This linguistic perversion first came to our attention with property porn, which appeared in 2002 as journalistic shorthand for all that drooling over imposing Victorian semis, exposed bricks, and so on, that was so prevalent in the Sunday supplements. And just the other day I stumbled across its latest mutation when a critic dismissed Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's Dickensian blockbuster, as 'poverty porn'.

So, in the interests of lexical analysis I took a deep breath, had a quick glance left and right, and typed the word 'porn' into the Collins Corpus to see what other terms are placed immediately before it in today's English. At first the results seemed a bit of an anticlimax. The vast majority of examples were, as any sane person might expect, concerned with old-fashioned, maiden-aunt-offending pornography; the word one place to the left either set out the content of the porn in question, or the method of delivery. I need not go into details about the full range here, except to report that the most intriguing was character-driven. But closer inspection did reveal some unusual collocates in the property porn mould. It seems that in a modern broadsheet article you might come across bike porn and car porn (magazines and features about expensive consumer items), torture porn and gore porn (films such as the Saw series and Hostel), docu-porn and doom-porn (documentaries that portray natural disasters, physical deformities, etc, with morbid relish), and, topically, climate porn and financial porn (sensationalist doomsaying about the planet and its finances respectively).

What's going on? Ten years ago food porn meant Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, and maybe even Marlon Brando. Now it's Nigella and those breathy Marks and Spencer adverts. These days you could interpret kitchen porn any of three ways - and only one of them would plausibly involve nudity. Like all language change it's a gradual evolution. It's a simple enough leap from, say, a girlie magazine to property porn, with its glossy pictures of unattainable fantasy. Climate and financial porn are just borrowing the word's unsavoury reputation to suggest a sense of unhealthy and indecent relish in the subject, while the more visual poverty and docu-porn perhaps fall somewhere in between.

At the moment the Collins English Dictionary definition of pornography is strictly literal, but there's more than enough evidence for us to reword it to cover this figurative use.

There now, have I used the magic word enough times to improve our search-engine rating?

Cormac McKeown - Head of Content