Monday 31 October 2011

On snowtober

A correspondent writes from the USA about the news media’s collective decision to settle on Snowtober as their name on Twitter and in headlines for this weekend’s storm. Why, he asks, did this coinage beat the others which had been suggested, such as Snoctober and Octsnowber? Are there any linguistic reasons?

There are always linguistic reasons. We can rule out Octsnowber straight away, on two grounds. First, it is an infixing coinage - something English doesn't do very much. Most blends are combinations of the first part of word A plus the second part of word B, such as brunch, helipad, smog, motel, and so on. Inserting one word inside another is rare - absobloodylutely. Second, the result of the infixation is to produce an unpalatable 4-element consonant cluster /ktsn/.

Snoctober satisfies the blending preference, but loses out on phonological grounds. The long vowel (diphthong, actually) of snow, rhyming with low, has become a short vowel: snoc rhymes with lock, and as a result the immediacy of the semantic connection with snow is lost.

Snowtober does everything right. It blends in the usual way. It keeps the phonological connection with snow in front of our ears and eyes, and it avoids an awkward phonetic sequence of sounds. This had to be the media choice.