Nonce words, coined for the occasion

Social media commentary was focused on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's use of complexifier, which came up when he explained, “My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me.” The question echoed through cyberspace: “Is complexifier even a word?” 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters/File
Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin and CEO of Amazon, speaks about the future plans of Blue Origin during an address to attendees at Access Intelligence's SATELLITE 2017 conference in Washington, March 7, 2017.

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote a blog post accusing the National Enquirer of attempting to extort him over sexually explicit photos, people had questions. Many of these questions were about his vocabulary. 

Merriam-Webster reported that searches for “apoplectic” were up 1,300 percent after Mr. Bezos used the word to describe how the tabloid’s publisher felt about his attempts to discover who leaked his texts. (Apoplectic means “angry enough to trigger an apoplexy – a heart attack or stroke.” Pretty angry, in other words.)

Social media commentary focused on his use of complexifier, which came up when he explained, “My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me.” The question echoed through cyberspace: “Is complexifier even a word?” 

This question is a slightly strange one. No one on Twitter is wondering what it means – even if you have never seen it before, you can guess that it refers to something that makes things more complicated. It is constructed according to rules of English word formation, just like the more familiar intensifier or purifier. People seem to be asking: “Is it in common use, or did Bezos make it up?” Is it what linguists call a nonce word

A nonce word is one coined for an occasion, “for the nonce.” Sometimes these solve a problem, substituting for a word a speaker cannot remember or that English lacks, but often the words result from people playing with language. Playwright Aphra Behn coined the term “agreemony,” for example, as the harmonious opposite of “acrimony.” The -fy and -er suffixes are particularly productive of these words, as most English-speakers have no trouble inferring their meaning. You can guess that the old Renaissance insult “Frenchify” means “to make something French-like, to invest with French qualities,” even if you have not encountered this word before. “Frenchifier,” in turn, is easily identified as “something that makes another thing French-y.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a list of -fy nonce words: lawyerfied, apefy, drowsify.   

Complexifier, though, is not a nonce word made up by Bezos. It probably began life 70 years ago, when a few people thought, “What’s the opposite of simplifier?” Now it has become a business term. A simplifier is characterized as a person who focuses on important tasks; a complexifier wants more information before making a decision, and sends really long emails. It appears frequently enough in business jargon that it is a neologism, the next stage in a nonce word’s evolution, when it has gained popular currency and is finding its way into wider use. 

Could Bezos have said, “My ownership of the Washington Post makes things more complicated for me”? Yes, but then we would have missed this pleasant perplexifier.

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