The Science of Silkening Our Language


If you’re a Generation X-er like myself, you may remember the above headline as a parody of the slogan of a shampoo called Silkience. The Science of Silkening Your Hair was the promise with every bottle. I guess the name itself was a portmanteau word that shoved silk together with science in an unholy humentipeding of the two commonly used dictionary terms. The sharp-eyed amongst you will recognisehumentipede as a portmanteau neologism recently invented by me in the previous sentence. And yes, I have sewn together the word human and centipede and thus blatantly ripped off the rather repellent concept invented by Dutch filmmaker Tom Six for his series of Human Centipede movies.

I come neither to praise Tom Six nor mention his work any further, I am here to discuss words and the writing of same.

The science of silkening one’s hair sounds good. It is supposed to bring on thoughts of dedicated lab technicians testing myriad emulsions in different quantities on dry, normal and greasy strands of hair. Like Thomas Edison experimenting with 1600 materials to find the perfect lightbulb filament, the dedicated women and men of the Silkience Institut de Cheveux no doubt worked tirelessly to create the perfect shampoo and conditioner. And who’s to say in the months leading up to the Silkience launch in April 1979, that isn’t exactly what happened behind the scenes at the Gillette company?

The reason I am name-checking Silkience is that the word rubs me the wrong way. It’s taken me thirty-five years to say it, but there it is!  It annoys me as much as the terms advertorial, infotainment or cosmeceutical. These humentipedazzled words are the invention of those who think the language needs more sizzle. And that’s because the people who most enjoy pormanteau neologisms work in advertising where selling sizzle is what they do. There’s a bit of sleight of hand involved in the term advertorial for example. It’s advertising in the form of an editorial. The form gives the advertisement the authority that an editorial has theoretically, although it could be argued that it has, in fact leached editorials of some of their legitimacy. Infotainment. Information and entertainment. Actually, it’s neither. No one in the civilised world has ever sat back and stated, “Well, I was thoroughly infotained!”

I am suggesting, in an English teacherly way, that our language needs extra sizzle like Bernard Tomic could do with more confidence. It’s got sizzle to burn, baby! Many pormanteau words are faddish and therefore date poorly ( just like: “insert topical celebrity reference here”.) Having said that, I will go to war Snake Plissken style with any mofo who tries to remove “brunch” either from the dictionary or the menu.

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