Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Dubloons, loonies and moonies

Recently, I've been thinking about the Mutual Exclusivity bias - the tendency children and adults have to assume one meaning has only one associated word (in other words, to avoid homonomy). This bias seems to work against bilinguals, who have two words for many things. I'll get round to discussing this at some other point. In the meantime, here's an extract from an interesting article by Neil Wick on the tendency for new words for new meanings to converge on a single, conventional form. Wick charts the course of nicknames for the newly introduced $2 coin in Canada. It's worth noting that money is not a normal object - its meaning remains constant in all contexts. However, it's quite a good story:

"Speculation on a name began as soon as the new Canadian coin was announced in the February, 1995, federal budget. On March 3, The Globe and Mail reported that “the ink was barely dry on Paul Martin’s new budget before lock-up wags were bantering around a new name for the $2 coin” and doubloon was mentioned among other suggestions (“We like Ike” 1995). Both The Globe and The Star printed numerous letters hotly debating myriad possible names. One thing seemed beyond debate—writers felt strongly that a name would emerge. The Toronto Star confidently predicted on October 7, 1995, “It will acquire its own nickname” (Aaron, 1995). The Word Play columnist at The Globe implicitly acknowledged a lexical gap on February 24, 1996: “Writers of letters to The Globe and Mail have been diligent about filling this void” (Clements, 1996). One reporter even suggested that the coin needed a name. On February 16, 1996, a Star business reporter stated “All it needs is a nickname— and there is no shortage of suggestions” (Hemeon, 1996). The Mint would have no part in settling the debate. A Globe story on March 23, quoted a Mint spokesperson: “We’re not in the habit of giving names to any of our coins. For us a 10-cent piece is a 10-cent piece.” Characterizing such coin names as too unprofessional to be used by Mint workers, he declared, “The public will have to sort out [what to call the coin] on its own” (Grange, 1996). In spite of the heated debates which still continued after the coin’s launch, a consensus was already forming a month before the launch, as evidenced by responses to The Star’s request for readers to phone in their name suggestions (Stefaniuk, 1996a). Among 57 names and variations submitted by readers, four stood out. Teddy had 11 votes, Toonie/Twoonie/Twooney had 10, and two variants were tied for third place with 9 votes each: Doubloon/Doubloonie and Moonie (Stefaniuk, 1996b). Aaron (1996b) lamented on March 9, that “the horrible term ‘twoonie’ seems to have an edge in public acceptance.” On February 19, 1996, the official launch date for the new coin, Freeman (1996) wrote in The Globe that the new coin “has already picked up a string of unofficial names such as toonie, doubloon, bearbuck, blooney, Doosie and Loonie II.” Meanwhile, a March 14 Star article about panhandlers’ experiences with the new coin (DeMara, 1996) used the word toonie 10 times without remark, prompting an angry letter accusing The Star of “trying to shove the word ‘toonie’ down our throats” (Moshinsky, 1996). “Over here, it’s poly (polar bear – see?) or polies; always was, always will be, The Star’s decree notwithstanding,” the reader wrote. This reader may have overestimated the influence of the paper on public consensus. In fact, if the name depended on a Star decree, dubloon or dubloonie probably would have won out. This was the name used most by The Star in early stories, it was preferred by the Coins columnist (Aaron, 1995) who found toonie to be a “horrible term” (1996a) as already noted, and it was even the personal choice of the chief lexicographer of the new Gage Canadian dictionary (Grange, 1996). Toronto Star art critic Christopher Hume on March 21, 1996, recognized that the lack of a stable name put the two-dollar coin in a different category than that of the one-dollar coin introduced nine years earlier: “By contrast, the loonie has become part of the culture. The word has entered the vocabulary” (Hume, 1996). He called the two-dollar coin “still, annoyingly, nameless” yet he matter-of-factly called it a toonie twice in that same column. By the end of August, Aaron was describing the coin as “affectionately called the ‘toonie’” (Aaron, 1996a), and by September, The Star acknowledged that “its colloquial name ‘toonie’ is part of the vernacular” (Vincent, 1996). In March of the following year, Kesterton (1997) wrote in The Globe that “Fairly quickly and dismissively, Canadians have come to call the $2 coin the ‘toonie,’ despite the many clever terms that were suggested by word mavens …”. Clearly, cleverness alone was not enough. The winning candidate was efficiently short—less than three syllables as with the other coins’ names, incorporated an allusion to the word two, rhymed with loonie, and recalled the familiar collocation looney tunes. Importantly, it started to build momentum in public acceptance early in the process and once established in a few speakers’ lexicons, there was little chance that those speakers would accept alternatives barring major pressure from another stronger group of speakers."

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