The “-ification” of Everything

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A half-formed thought feels worse than an empty head—the tip-of-the-tongue sensation, the inkling of a there there without the foggiest notion of how to get, well, there. Especially dire is when the “what” that we wish to articulate feels half-formed itself, something observable yet emergent, for which the masses have yet to find language. But all we have is language, of course, and so we must muddle through, reaching for a word to serve as a placeholder for our idea until something better comes along. Some would say that finding new language is the work of scholars, but in the age of the Internet we may have lost track of who is leading whom. However provisional, the placeholders sometimes stick.

For example: I spent last month hunting for a new apartment in Chicago. All I wanted was a unicorn: an old building in a historic neighborhood, with humane updates and classic fixtures. Instead, I was confronted with a drab and seemingly ubiquitous new aesthetic. Like any U.S. city, Chicago has been beset by the constipated whimsy of as-seen-on-TV home renos: gray floors, gray counters, and the pallid ingenuity of an open floor plan. The look is “inoffensive, inexpensive, innocuous,” as Amanda Mull described it recently in The Atlantic. Call it, as the headline of that piece does, the “HGTV-ification of America.” Have you noticed it, too? Not the gray laminate but that suffix: “-ification.”

I see it cropping up everywhere. In addition to “HGTV-ification,” The Atlantic has covered the “flu-ification of COVID policy.” A recent piece in Esquire considers the “merch-ification of book publishing,” and the Daily Beast, writing on the Netflix docuseries “Harry & Meghan,” declared the “Gen Z-ification of the royal couple.” Vox has lately published articles on the “old man-ification” of television, the “Easter egg-ification” of celebrity beefs, and the “ ‘You’re doing it wrong’-ification” of TikTok influencers. Last year, Teen Vogue announced the end of Pete Davidson’s “Kim Kardashian-ification” after the actor, who’d sharpened his look while dating the image-conscious star, wore a hoodie at a film première following their breakup. (The New Yorker has proved reticent on this particular kind of neologism, although, as far back as 2002, the magazine did refer to fears of “le Big Mac-ification” of French life.)

Pundits and politicos are having their fun as well. They’ve been indexing the “Trump-ification” of just about everything since his candidacy in 2015. (Meanwhile, the rap dignitary Chuck D, of Public Enemy, attributed the groundswell of support for Trump to “dumbass-ification.”) During the past few years, the Washington Post has diagnosed the “NRA-ification,” “ ‘alternative facts’-ification,” “hoax-ification,” and “Hitler-ification” of the Trumpian right. And the right has issued its own warnings. Trump’s embattled rival Ron DeSantis likes to decry the “woke-ification” of various institutions including, in my home state of Illinois, law enforcement under Governor J. B. Pritzker’s leadership.

But what piqued my interest in the suffix was the many weirder and more humorous iterations that have recently been enlivening everyday speech on the Internet, which, after all, is where a great proportion of everyday speech now lives. Within my narrow window of the Web, I’ve seen, in the past weeks alone, comments about the “living-room-ification of public spaces” (from the film and TV critic Clint Worthington) and the “that’s what she said-ification of humor” (from the comedian Josh Gondelman); complaints about the “Chicago-ification of L.A.’s gay scene,” the “Pitchfork-ification of leftist politics,” and the “spreadsheet-ification of society.”

At the risk of taking wordplay too seriously, I’ll note that there is a name for what is happening here, grammatically. The word is its own mouthful: “nominalization.” It refers to the process of forming a noun, usually from another part of speech. “Demonstrate,” a verb, becomes “demonstration”; the adjective “intense” turns into “intensity,” “vary” to “variation,” “merry” to “merriment,” and so forth. The suffix “-ification” (also “-ization”), usually attached to words that end in “-ify,” describes change, the process of something becoming different from what it once was, as in “gentrification” or “globalization” or “Californication,” which—before it became the name of a Red Hot Chili Peppers album and then a David Duchovny-led TV series—was used to describe a source of anxiety, among Pacific Northwesterners, about the encroaching influence of their southern neighbors. Of course, “nominalization,” from “nominalize,” is itself a nominalization.

Nominalizations are not something that most of us spend any time thinking about. We repeat the ones we’ve heard or read, making use of them intuitively. We tend to reach for them, in particular, on occasions when we want to demonstrate expertise. Compared with other, “concrete” nouns that follow the usual “person, place, or thing” heuristic—nouns like “bird,” “child,” “table”—nominalizations usually convey abstract concepts: “establishment,” “divinity,” “happiness.” The New Zealand author and poet Helen Sword, in her book “The Writer’s Diet,” published in the U.S. in 2016, argues that an excess of nominalizations can have a deadening effect on language. She offers her own coinage—“zombie nouns”—to describe the way such words can “suck the lifeblood from potentially lively prose.”

Sword, who earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Princeton, has written four writing guides mainly targeting academics and business professionals. “Nominalizations, of course, are nothing new,” she told me when we spoke on the phone recently. She pointed to George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946, in which he diagnosed a certain “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” plaguing contemporary writers. “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” he wrote. By way of demonstration, he translated Ecclesiastes 9:11 into, as he put it, “modern English of the worst sort”: “objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency . . .” The parodic exercise is, as Sword described in the Times, knowingly “teeming with nominalizations,” its inertness especially pronounced beside the elemental sun and bread imagery in the original verse. Nominalizations are often used in a way that “obfuscates meaning,” Sword said. The further writing strays from concrete images, the more challenging it is to comprehend. “Thinking hard is good,” Sword added, but when somebody plies you with nominalizations, “you start to feel like maybe they don’t want you to understand.”

As a proponent of “thinking hard,” and even an occasional offender, I am inclined to defend nominalizations in the same manner in which a dancer might insist upon distinguishing between retiré and passé, with the former describing a held position and the latter a passing through of that position on the way to another—the point being that sometimes pedantry is annoying but not superfluous. I submit, though, that nominalizations can sound lazy and bad and lethally ridiculous in corporate and bureaucratic contexts. Among scholars, it is the kind of habit that prompts lay readers to accuse us of “jargon.” As the Harvard linguist Steven Pinker put it, in an article from 2014, “Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement.” The piece was titled, with admirable plainspokenness, “Why Academics Stink at Writing.”

Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language” in the wake of the Second World War, and, far from just chastising writerly “bad habits,” he was concerned about the way “a lifeless, imitative style” might be used in “defence of the indefensible.” For decades, scholars of discourse analysis have studied how the use of nominalizations, combined with a reliance on the passive voice, can slyly conceal ideological aims and the parties that endorse them. (Consider, for instance, the difference between “end of the federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) declaration” and “Biden ends COVID national emergency.”) But, when I showed Sword my favorite neo-nominalizations, she admitted that “something different seems to be happening.” My examples—“Gen Z-ification,” “S.U.V.-ification,” “bimbofication”—had been nouned from fellow-nouns. Sword explained that that’s “relatively rare” among zombie nouns, which are often formed from verbs and adjectives. Many of the “-ification” source words are proper nouns, in particular—Trump, Kim Kardashian, Goop—but their nominalization refers not to the specific people or brands so much as to whatever values they represent. In a recent issue of The Drift, for example, the writer Mitch Therieau aptly pinpointed what he called the “Antonoffication” of pop music, which he defined, in reference to the hitmaking producer Jack Antonoff, as “the dispersion of the aesthetics of indie rock out from a distinct subcultural enclave and into a general ether.” Where many other zombie nouns sound stuffy (contextualization, systematization), the “-ification” creations are cheeky about their unwieldiness. As Sword put it, “They’re trying to get your attention.”

One of my favorite iterations is borderline incoherent: “the popcraveification of chartdata,” which I noticed in a tweet by a user named @stanyelyah. Parsing this formulation requires familiarity with two relatively trivial online entities—Pop Crave and Chart Data—both of which exist to spew unattributed pop-culture facts into the ether. As one of the lost souls who has skimmed content from both sources, I am in the privileged position of being able to interpret the suggestion that one has become more like the other. Or am I? The ultra-niche neologism both invites and repels my understanding.

Some degree of clumsiness seems intentional. The reporter Kelsey Weekman, writing for BuzzFeed about the Internet’s infatuation with formulations such as “-pilled” (“redpilled,” “tradpilled”) and “-core” (“cottagecore,” “Barbiecore”), noted that “much of the joy in suffix-ify-ing a word now comes from the absurdity of smashing two words together that never would have met in organic conversation.” Indeed, many examples of “-ification” are too idiosyncratic to be worth repeating—I don’t foresee “jeans and a nice top-ification” taking off anytime soon.

It is all the more impressive, then, when such a coinage has staying power. Earlier this year, the writer Cory Doctorow introduced “enshittification” to describe the deterioration of online platforms such as Amazon, TikTok, and the app formerly known as Twitter. The term has since been eagerly picked up and applied elsewhere. (In TechDirt: “Seven Rules for Internet C.E.O.s to Avoid Enshittification.”) “Enshittification” clarifies something about the suffix in question, which is that it rarely announces good news. Nobody wants “app-ification,” “Uber-ification,” “Airbnb-ification,” “Marvel-fication,” or “Walmart-ization,” except, perhaps, shareholders. All of these nominalizations, rather, seem to point to interrelated worries about the monopolizing, homogenizing pattern in which our culture is moving. On the one hand, the words grasp for the precision required to keep up with the swiftly tilting present. On the other, they risk impeding understanding rather than facilitating it.

The quest to describe our convoluted times ultimately leaves us with words that are bespoke but imprecise, which grab attention through novelty but have little to say in the long run. That, too, is nothing new. As Sword told me, “it’s an interesting combination of trying to do something original that is, in fact, already quite derivative. That’s how culture works.” ♦


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