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Word Games: Ryanomics

Here’s what I want to know: has Ryanomics been coined – as Reaganomics was – principally because Ryan (Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential candidate) has an “n” at the end? No one, as far as I’m aware, has been turned into an “omics” between the two mighty proponents of the small state, low taxes for the super-rich and screwing the poor. Blair and Thatcher became “isms”; Bush was an “era” said with a mournful shake of the head; Brown – oh, poor Brown – I don’t think he had time to become anything at all. Osborneomics has half caught on – a signifier for a terrible plan that is clung to beyond all reason – but Cameronomics hasn’t, possibly because the Prime Minister’s grasp of the subject in question is somewhat in doubt. All of these words are examples of that poisonous lexical tic, the portmanteau.

(In its defence, portmanteau has a dream etymology: Lewis Carroll nabbed it from the French – porter means to carry, manteau a cloak – and as Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, it describes how two meanings can be “packed up into one word”). Of late, we’ve had Grexit, fauxprobrium, growsterity, Jubilympics, proalition, noalition, even, oh God, doh!alition: words smashed together in a hymn to ugliness. But portmanteaus don’t have to be so clunky: look at smog, tidying the suffocating cocktail of smoke and fog into one neat syllable.

The name-and-subject portmanteau such as Ryanomics is especially loathsome in the way it elevates someone into a subject, abstracting him out of reality and into history, or at least history by way of academese. (Luckily the likes of Paul Krugman are writing articles relegating Ryanomics to the status of David Beckham studies and golf management: “Ryanomics,” booms Krugman, “is and has always been a con game”.) More interesting than Paul Ryan is the story behind the suffix “ics” – applied to everything from economics to aerobics and stemming from the Greek “ikos”, meaning matters relevant to. Subjects christened before 1500, however, remain in the more stately singular – such as arithmetic and logic. Both, oddly enough, things that Ryanomics could use.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?