Word watch: Fads

Fads define a particular moment in our popular culture, as Australian National Dictionary editor Dr Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 explains.

The fidget spinner, the latest craze to hit our stores, was pitched as a stress-relieving toy that can help us cope with anxiety, much like the stress ball.

It speaks perhaps to the sense that world events are causing us heightened stress, but it also appeals to those of us who fidget, by giving us something to do with our hands.

Fidget, a word with an unclear origin, is first recorded in English (as a verb, fidge) in 1574, attesting to a long history of observing fidgety people. In 1668, John Dryden wrote in his play Secret-love: ‘What is it that makes you fidg up and down so?’

Last year’s fad was Pokémon Go, an augmented reality gaming app that generated its own language of pokégyms, pokéballs and pokéharvests. The game revisited a 90s craze for the central character Pokémon (‘pocket monster’) of the video games of the same name.

Pokémon Go’s appeal was rooted in nostalgia for some, while for others it was the novelty of the game’s augmented reality.

Fads and toys come and go, from pet rocks to furbys. There are also a number of fad activities, which in recent years have been popularised through social media. These have included planking and owling.

Dance crazes, from the twist to the Macarena to dabbing, have also been a recurrent feature of our popular culture.

Yet few of these crazes stick around for long or affect the language in other than an ephemeral way. Exceptions to this are some of the popular toys of the postwar period, notably the frisbee and the yo-yo.

Both have had a remarkably long life – frisbee continues to be a popular activity (with variations such as ultimate frisbee, canine frisbee and frisbee golf), and the yo-yo enjoys perennial revivals as well as being a competitive activity.

Both frisbee and yo-yo have moved into our language: we can describe something as being shaped like a frisbee, and we use frisbee as a verb. As a verb, it can be used not only for the literal but also the figurative act of throwing something: ‘We frisbeed this dilemma to Dr Andrew Leigh MP, the federal member for Fraser.’ (Canberra Times, 7 January 2016)

Yo-yo similarly has found its way into our vocabulary as a verb for something that moves up or down or from one point to another, and as an adjective to describe something or someone: ‘Traders are enduring yo-yo activity on the Australian share market this week.’ (The Australian, 7 April 2017)

A craze has to have longevity and widespread popularity to really affect our vocabulary. We will wait to see if fidget spinners stick around to shape our language in any lasting way.