A few problems with the Flintstones, et al.

Recently, I’ve wondered about certain coinages that are happening or have happened in the past. For example, last night on Fresh Prince, he offered his “black book” of beauties to a professor who was going through a divorce. Will called it his chicktionary (spelling is of course probably off, but who’s actually an authority on its spelling?). But the thought didn’t come to me last night, it’s actually been bugging me for quite some time. Another great reference for such occurrences is Flintstones. Without spending a lot of time searching online for references from the Flintstones, the one example I do remember is from their flick, Viva Rock Vegas. As I was walking downtown several weeks ago I saw a sign on a local store (the exact phrasing I don’t remember) and a word on it was Kidventure. Anyway, you see the point.

Now, I ask how these coinages came to existence? I’m not saying that when the average person walks down the street and hears or reads such words they won’t know what they are in reference to (which is another excellent topic to be discussed at a later date), but how are they put together the way they are? There’s no sense to them, really. Let’s take a closer look.

When we examine the morphology of dictionary we find three morphemes: dic(t) ‘to say’; -ion- ‘state of, result of’; -ary ‘pertaining to; connected with’. Dic(t), here, we can see has absolutely zero relation to gender (male, female, dude, chick, etc.). So all that aside, we can clearly see how you throw those three together to form a word like dictionary, fine. Two question come up for me, though: (i) how is it decided that dic- will be omitted and replaced with chick-, and (ii) what are the rules for such formations?

Well, what else could we try? [A * denotes not ungrammaticality, but rather awkwardness in sound]

*Dudetionary
*femaletionary
*maletionary (this has a strange hint toward missionary)
*penis(t/s)ionary
*vaginationary

At any rate, I think we can begin seeing a pattern of sound in relation to the real word. The prefix must end in a velar plosive [k], which would then be followed by a postalveolar fricative [∫]. But again, it goes beyond looking at what requirements are needed for this transformation to happen. What exactly are the constraints? Why doesn’t it go at the end, e.g. dictionchick? What is it about the two morphemes fused together, -tionary, that causes immediate thought and relation to dictionary? The same is true for the other words I’ve listed: Rock Vegas and kidventure. Where exactly in Las and the letter a do they decide that that would be a good place to replace it with words to fit some real-world description? The instance with the letter a could actually be the prefix ad- ‘to, toward’, but still, what does that seriously have to do with the word adult? I also don’t believe that the ad- in adventure has any reference to ‘adult’ or ‘kid’; it’s just there to form and complete and meaningful word without any “hidden meaning.”

I suppose what I will try is to just throw tionary into a conversation and see what people can construe of it. Language isn’t rocket science, but sometimes it seems like a close descendant of it.

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3 Responses to A few problems with the Flintstones, et al.

  1. ronucogi says:

    You’re a self-professed student of language but have never heard of portmanteaux? Or wordplay?

    To address the “mystery” of your examples:

    Chicktionary: A rough definition of ‘dictionary’ might be ‘a collection/listing of words (with useful? info on); ‘chick’, slang for ‘woman/girl’, is obvious in context. The middle and terminal sounds of the syllables “dic” and “chick” are identical. So ‘chicktionary’: ‘a listing of girls (with info?).
    (I don’t think the reverse construction ‘dictionchick’ works because the parts modify each other in different ways (‘a chick who’s obsessed with diction’? a la ‘superman’) and it lacks the elegance/fun of the dic-/chick replacement that’s key to the success. Plus it’s singular; ‘chick’ at the beginning of words is established as plural, sort of ‘for/of women’ e.g. chick flick, chick lit (which also work via rhyme.)

    Viva Rock Vegas: “The Flintstones” is rife with puns based on its fictional Stone Age setting. “Viva Las Vegas” is a well-known phrase. In my California English, the vowels in ‘las’ and ‘rock’ have the same pronunciation (and both begin with liquids too) so that’s a fairly simple substitution.

    Kidventure: End of ‘kid’ and ‘ad-‘ are similar, ‘adventure’ is still easily inferred (even if it isn’t, ‘venture’ has the same root so it works), ta-da, ‘adventure for kids’.

    It’s just phonology/phonetics/morphology, right? The originators of these terms are not thinking “Is the resulting construction logical in terms of the etymology of the source words?” If they were to consider it, it might be something like “This word sounds similar to that piece of that word, and the meaning of both is still understood when the former replaces the latter, so I’ve just saved space and been clever to boot.” People like novelty; writers like wordplay. The reactions to these sort of neologisms ranges from “Stupid” to “Oh, I see, cute” to “Hey, that’s nice, I’ll use that” and it becomes part of the language.

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