Following up on Nancy Hall’s discussion of the Lutfi > Lufti transposition, I’m just as curious about the growth in the same setting (i.e. celebrity journalism) of the combining form celebu– [səlɛbju], as in celebu-wreck and celebu-freak. One Google search on {celebu*} also yields celebu-world, celebu spawn, celebu-wishes, celebu-goo, celebu-shambles, celebu-trend, celebu-architect, celebu-campaign, celebu-moms, and celebutantes.

The essential question is, why use the linking element /ju/ between celeb and the second element, when the source of celeb (i.e. celebrity) has material available to add to the blend: e.g., why not celebri-freak rather than celebu-freak? (Mind you, forms with celebri- do exist … for examples, one need only look as far as Nancy’s title, which includes celebritology. Other forms are harder to track down; the search term {celebri*} is flooded with actual celebrity, but I did find celebrilooks and celebritards.) Still, there is a wide range of forms with celebu-.

As with Lutfi ~ Lufti, celebu– could have a convergent set of non-competing explanations for its genesis. I’ve thought of a number of potential accounts, summarized as the following:

  • a simple preference of the segment [j] over [r];
  • a preference of the “simple” onset of [bju] (analyzing [ju] as the nucleus) over the complex onset of [brə];
  • a dissimilatory avoidance of [r] in the first element because of another [r] in second elements such as –freak and –wreck, generalized to any combination using celeb-, regardless of the segmental structure of the second element;
  • an upper limit on maximization of the source of the first element, so that celebu– is OK but celebri– is too much.

But another question is, why use [-ju-] as a linking element, when [-o-] or [-e-] would do? Several more thoughts:

  • a general intrusion of [-ju-] into Latinate and mock-Latinate vocabulary, as in nucular < nuclear, and bubbular as a playful replacement for bubbly;
  • a general replacement of [-re-] with [ju] in Latinate vocabulary, especially where /b/ is adjacent, as in defibulator < defibrillator;
  • a cute analogical extension of [ju] you as a combining element in products and services such as Help-U-Sell.

Some bigger picture questions … these alternative explanations don’t necessarily compete, in that that finding evidence for one account doesn’t preclude the role of any of the others. In other words, these are independent but convergent influences pushing the combining form towards being celebu-. And meanwhile, this is obviously not a categorical phenomenon, as the alternatives like celebrifreak or celebofreak are not phonologically illicit. I wonder if there is a link between such gradient patterns and their convergent explanations.

Update 2/9/08: Benjamin Zimmer discussed celebutante and celebu– as a combining element at length on Language Log just over a year ago, where he shows celebutante (for which debutante is the source of the –u-) to be the first of these blends. See also Patrick Wynne’s comment below (and my follow-up) regarding the same issue. Benjamin’s account also includes some additional motivation for the perseverance of the –u– element in later celebu-blends.

3 thoughts on “celebu-blends

  1. Pingback: Media Districts Entertainment Blog » celebu-blends

  2. Patrick Wynne

    I always just assumed that celebu- was simply modeled on celebutante, which is probably the first of the celebrity blends I can recall seeing.

  3. Bob Kennedy

    Indeed, I did some digging with Lexis-Nexus, and celebutante (as a blend of celebrity and debutante) seems to be the oldest of these … the earliest citation is in the NY Times, 4/15/86, by Michael Gross in Note On Fashion: “Mr. Musto, a Village Voice columnist, details the neighborhood-cum-state-of-mind where, he writes, drink tickets are more important than diplomas. He offers tips for dress, demeanor and creative careerism; reveals how clubs and club-bred ”celebutantes” cling to the limelight.” There are several more over the next year, followed by a gap between 1988 and 1994.

    The first non-celebutante blend with celebu- I found is from the 9/3/93 Cleveland Plain Dealer: “The cable shows are in the same posture discounters were in the ’70s – they need credibility. They can’t crack the big names on Seventh Avenue, so they hire Victoria Jackson to hustle skin-care products,” says Millstein. “It’s the irony of the American consumers’ passion for status that these ‘celebutramps’ can get away with it.'”

    Another early blend: from the NY Daily News , 11/13/96:
    “GRAPHIC: Patti Smith Woody Harrelson Jasmine Guy RICHARD CORKERY DAILY NEWS BRIDAL SWEET: Good thing Debra Messing isn’t suffering from celebulite. The “Ned and Stacey” star chose a rather odd way of building up against the cold at the Fashion Cafe Monday.”

    So the early existence of celebutante suggests yet another account for the emergence of celebu- as a combining element. I still think it doesn’t preclude any of the other possible phonological and morphological reasons for its lingering usage (or even the possibility of independent re-coinage), unless it can be shown that a reliably high proportion of celebu- blends refer to celebutantes in particular rather than celebrities in particular.

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