Observations from a Swell Guy

George Mikes left his native Hungary in his mid-20s and made a career out of providing a newcomer’s look at various countries. He took on the persona of someone with just enough experience to confidently show the ropes to the even newer arrivals.

His 1959 book “How To Be A Swell Guy” examined life in the United States, including how we folded, spindled and mutilated the language of the day. At the time, it was popular to stick “-ize” on the end of a word in order to make it sound scientific and significant.

“A shoe-polish manufacturer invented the verb to lanolize,” Mikes wrote. “Other shoe polishes just clean your shoes—nicely, cleanly, efficiently—but E. shoe polish lanolizes them. The word has no meaning whatever, but it is quite obvious that everybody would much rather have his shoes lanolized than merely cleaned.”

While Mikes points out the silliness, he also acknowledges that it’s an effective way to squeeze more money out of gullible shoppers.

“If you have fifty thousand dollars to spend, you can persuade people that while other tooth pastes just clean their teeth, Atlantis tooth paste saturnizes them; that any other soap just washes their clothes but Atlantis soap kepplerizes them. And all good people in America would much rather spend their time lanolizing, saturnizing, kepplerizing, constricitating, saharizing, tripodizing and patagonizing than washing and cleaning, because washing and cleaning, after all, are rather dull.”

The Ize Era wasn’t the first suffix trend, and it won’t be the last. The same goes for prefixes. For a while “-tronic” was in vogue. At one point you could make almost anything more attractive if you stuck “cyber-” on the front end. Both “-ify” and “-ster” have had their day. There’s also the related practice of tacking on entire words with no meaning, such as “extreme.”

You can’t stop the next buzzword from infiltrating the language, but you can resist the urge to use it yourself. It’s especially tempting when you are touting a business venture and you want a dazzling trademark to toss around. Something that will sound impressive. Like Cybertronified Extremesterization.

But that kind of thing makes your ideas look silly, not sophisticted, and your writing will look dated when the prefix or suffix falls out of fashion.

Tell me straight out what you are talking about, and win me over on the strength of your ideas.


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