Monday, November 28, 2011

The problem with words without sound semantic underpinnings

Recently, in My Media English Watch in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, I made a passing comment about “coopetation,” a strange-sounding new word proudly coined by Mr. Andre Kahn, chair of the Advertising Board of the Philippines, during the recent Philippine Advertising Congress held in the recently renamed province of CamSur (it used to be “Camarines Sur”) in the Bicol Region. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer news story that even used “coopetation” in its headline, Mr. Kahn was inspired to coin that word to describe the spirit that should prevail among rival advertising agencies. “Coopetition means that even though we compete within the industry we can cooperate for the common good of our members like what we have done here,” Mr. Kahn said. In short, he meant “coopetation” to be a happy fusion of the words “cooperation” and “competition.”

Today, I finally found the time to check “coopetation” with Google and found that it’s not new coinage at all. From what I can gather, that neologism and it variants “coopertition” or “co-opertition” have actually been recoined several times since 1913 to yield the sense of “cooperative competition.” But it looks like it didn’t get much traction outside business circles, even if it finally made it to the Oxford Dictionary after the 1980s as a mass noun denoting “collaboration between business competitors, in the hope of mutually beneficial results.” Surprisingly, though, my Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary hasn’t officially recognized “coopetation” yet as a legitimate English word. Indeed, despite being recoined in earnest several times, “coopetition” definitely had not captured the public imagination over the years in the same way as, say, Sarah Palin’s misshapen “refudiate.” That shoddy neologism of hers has already been cited 284,000 times in Google since she inadvertently coined it on Twitter sometime in July 2010; in fact, “refudiate” even made it to the New Oxford American Dictionary less than four months later.

So, the question now is: Will Mr. Kahn’s purposively coined “coopetation” do better than its predecessor neologisms and fare as well in usage as “refudiate”? We really can’t tell. But way back in 2006, in an essay about the noun “racket” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times, I had tossed around some thoughts about word creation and the unilateral changing of word meanings. It floored me then that the noun “racket” was suddenly being used in the positive sense as an “an easy and lucrative—but legitimate—means of livelihood,” in contrast to its widely accepted negative sense as “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.” I’m now posting that essay in this week’s edition of the Forum as a cautionary tale against word misuse in general and, well, against coinage of English words without sound semantic underpinnings. (November 27, 2011)

When wordplay goes overboard

Going by its dictionary definition, the noun “racket” means “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity” or “a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.” More loosely, it means “an easy and lucrative means of livelihood” and is slang for “occupation or business” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). In whatever sense, though, I have always thought of the word as denoting something socially abhorrent—perhaps even illegal or criminal.

Sometime in September, however, a fellow English-language editor sent me e-mail that disquietingly turned the word “racket” on its head, so to speak. “May bago po akong raket (I have a new racket),” he said, then proceeded to describe the new enterprise he was engaged in. What he really meant was a new “sideline” that was not even remotely illegal or illegitimate, so I found it disturbing that he should use a normally distasteful word for it. Perhaps such loose usage would be acceptable in informal, face-to-face conversations, but it was very unbecoming to be put in writing by someone who should have more respect for language and its nuances.

I had already forgotten that incident but recently, during lunch with a former associate in the English-language editing business, the peculiar usage popped out again when she asked me this question: “Ano ho ba ang raket ninyo ngayon? (What is your racket at present?).” I almost choked on my drink hearing that nasty word again! How could such a serious distortion of meaning gain wide currency in our language? What is it that makes even intelligent, discerning people view illicit, aberrant things as perfectly acceptable?

It didn’t take long for me to find possible answers to these questions. Driving through a main thoroughfare to meet a client sometime later, I came across scores of product streamers that posed the following question (or words to this effect) in big, bold letters: “Ano ba ang raket ninyo ngayong summer? (What’s your racket this summer?).” It appears that the use of “raket” with a positive spin had been legitimized by mass advertising. For shock value and recall, the word had been appropriated to mean “any business” or “gimik” (gimmick)—one that’s easy and pleasurable to do. In the process, of course, the fraudulent and illegitimate aspects of the word had been glossed over (or shall we say even glamorized?)

In this sense, “racket” joins the word “salvage” in having been corrupted in Philippine usage to mean its opposite. The first is from a grim, derogatory word into a respectable, fun word; and the other from a respectable, positive word into an unpleasant, derogatory word. Some of us will probably recall that the verb “salvage” means “to rescue or save [something] especially from wreckage or ruin,” but in the Philippine context, it has become a euphemism for “to kill or assassinate” or “to execute or dispose of a person summarily and secretly.” This usage grew out from a government task force report that inadvertently used the word to describe the extra-legal executions of thousands of Filipinos between 1975 and 1983 during martial law.

(The Filipino writer Jose F. Lacaba, in a note to the Double-Tongued Word Wrester, a website that records old and new words from the fringes of English, makes this observation about this inversion of “salvage”: “It began as an anglicization or Englishing of the Tagalog word ‘salbahe,’ whose meaning ranges from mischievous or abusive (adj.) and a notoriously abusive person (noun). ‘Salbahe,’ in turn, is derived from the Spanish word ‘salvaje,’ wild, undomesticated, savage.”)

It is normal for a society to do all sorts of wordplay, of course, but I think the Philippine use of “racket” and “salvage” to denote their opposite sense has gone dangerously overboard. We must draw the line somewhere to safeguard language and our value systems. As the slogan of my favorite English-language website,, sagely warns, “A society is generally as lax as its language.” (April 24, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 24, 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


  1. From Media Watch:

    “The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Friday bared that drug syndicates are now cloning the credit cards they are using in their nefarious activities.”

    Bared? Is "revealed" or "disclosed" not good enough?

    And why the unaccompanied "Friday"?

    And what's wrong with the simple present tense?

    "The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency disclosed on Friday that drug syndicates are now cloning the credit cards they use in their nefarious activities."

  2. From Media Watch:

    "My suspicion is that the writer thought that the singular proper noun “Batangas province,” being most proximate to the verb “promise,” was its logical subject."

    "Proximate" means nearest, or next before or after (in place, order, time etc). Therefore, "most proximate" is a nonsense.

  3. "Bared? Is 'revealed' or 'disclosed' not good enough?"

    My answer: It's a matter of choice and style. We can't dictate on the reporter.

    "And why the unaccompanied 'Friday'?"

    My answer: Again, it's the paper's journalistic style. Just do it your way in your own writing.

    "And what's wrong with the simple present tense (in the sentence in question)?"

    Nothing. Again, it's a matter of choice.

    Regarding "proximate," the meaning you are insisting on is just one of the meanings of that adjective. It can also mean "very near" or "close." By what authority are you saying that the phrase "most proximate" is nonsense? I suggest you check out your grammar of comparatives; it's very unseemly for anyone to be talking ex cathedra on a matter that's really self-explanatory and nondebatable.