Morphological IPR

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Yesterday afternoon, Josh Marshall titled a post "Neo-Hooverite Republicans". About an hour later, Matt Yglesias posted a sort of snide blogospheric RIAA letter:

A clever coinage from Josh Marshall. Why didn’t I think of that sooner (or this)?

Matt's point, apparently, was that he used the words neo-Hooverite and neo-Hooverism back in October, and so Josh should have credited him for the invention.

Well, no doubt Matt did invent those terms. But informed readers will suspect that he probably wasn't the first one to do so.

It doesn't take an unusual creative leap to associate Herbert Hoover with the idea that the national government should avoid intervening in a fiscal crisis. Nor is there much linguistic skill required to manage morphological processes like those involved in adding -ite or -ism to a name, to denote a "a disciple, follower, or adherent of a person or doctrine", or "a system of theory or practice" based on that person's ideas. Prefixing neo- to indicate a "new, revived, or modified form of some doctrine, belief, or practice" is likewise not exactly the invention of the transistor or the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

So it's not a surprise that a quick check of the NYT archive reveals that back in March, Mark Klein, M.D., commenting on Andrew Ross Sorkin, "The Hand Behind the Deal", NYT, 3/25/2008, wrote:

Even this neo-Hooverite administration was smart enough to know absent a bailout of the banks, we could have easily ended up with a catastrophic global depression.

But Dr. Klein wasn't the first inventor of this term either, at least not if neo-Hooverite and neo-Hooverism are taken as a package deal. More than 35 years earlier, Milton A Miller of Stanford, in a letter to the L.A. Times published 2/14/1973, wrote:

I will be very blunt in my assessment of President Nixon's "neo-Hooverism" policy of curtailing social welfare programs, and his emphasis on laissez faire and individualism. They failed 40 years ago, and today they are not only archaic, but incompetent as well.

And in fact, Mr. Miller can't take the neologizer's credit either.

On June 30, 1929 — a mere six months into Herbert Hoover's term, and four months before the Great Depression began on Black Tuesday, we find "neo-Hooverism" used in a story in the L.A. Times:

Wait, what? After briefly surveying neo-Platonism, neo-Darwinism, neoclassicism, and neo-Malthusianism, Mr. Hunt explains:

Today I am thinking of still another use for the little Greek prefix — presumptuous, I am ready to concede, but, as I interpret the situation in America, highly apropos. I venture to play the role of neo-logist to the extent of proposing the perhaps not-too-euphonious yet most meaningful word, Neo-Hooverism.

The whole world gratefully recognizes the unique and commanding service of Herbert Hoover in organizing relief work for starving Belgium during the earlier period of the World War, and his masterful work in feeding starving peoples in Europe following the armistice. But it was as Food Administrator for the United States that his beneficent activities evoked the term "Hooverize" so familiar to all Americans. "Food will win the war!" was one of our most effective slogans — we were more than willing to deny ourselves the extra spoonful of sugar or the extra slice of wheat bread for the sake of the boys over there. With astonishing rapidity it became a mark of loyal citizenship to waste nothing and to clean up the dinner plate — in other words, to Hooverize.  Hooverism did, indeed, help to win the war.

In time of war Hoover was preparing for peace. Today he is acclaimed as California's most distinguished citizen, worthily holding the highest position of trust among men. His exalted character and lofty ideals stand approved by the sober judgment of mankind. "His voice" — to employ the words of another, "is ringing around the world, and mankind is with him."  As in days not so long gone by he pleaded as Food Administrator for sane and loyal conduct to help win the war, so today — from the exalted station of Chief Executive of the republic — he is pleading for loyal and sane conduct to help preserve the peace and promote the righteousness that shall bless and prosper the nation. With unfeigned earnestness is he pleading for the peace of the world and for reverence and obedience to the law, in the absence of which free government must perish among men.

This is the Neo-Hooverism.

I have no idea what in the world Mr. Hunt is talking about, unless the last sentence of his essay gives a clue:

Help Hoover: preserve peace, prohibition and prosperity.

So this is rather like the theory that life began on Earth pretty much right after the magma solidified — almost as soon as Herbert Hoover was elected, some academic economist invented the term neo-Hooverism. And like most of his counterparts today, the economist in question seems to have been entirely without a clue about what was coming towards him just a few months in the future.


  1. John Cowan said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 2:08 am

    The suffix -ism has, in addition to the sense you give, an older but still current sense in which it refers to an act rather than a belief. Baptism, for example, is normally 'the act of baptizing' rather than 'the belief in baptizing', although the latter sense is also available in such cases as infant baptism, which may mean either the act or the doctrine.

    In particular, hooverize means 'to economize in food', as NID3 tells us, so hooverism is 'the act of economizing on the use of food'. However, it may also be understood as meaning 'the acts of Hoover', in which case neo-Hooverism would be 'the new acts of Hoover', namely those he has done (and will do) as President rather than as Food Administrator.

    In short, this is not a useful predate for the modern sense of neo-Hooverism. Miller 1973 stands as the earliest use.

  2. John Cowan said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 2:13 am

    Post scriptum:

    My attention has been drawn to BrE hooverism 'fellatio', apparently < hoover v. 'to suck' < hoover n. 'vacuum cleaner' < Hoover 'a brand of vacuum cleaner'. That may provide an amusing, if inaccurate, subtext to current talk of neo-Hooverism.

  3. Tim Silverman said,

    December 5, 2008 @ 9:30 am

    I can confirm that "hoover" (n) is in widespread use in Britain as a normal alternative to "vacuum cleaner" and "hoover" (v) as an alternative to "vacuum" (v).

    Nothing to add to the content of the post—claiming priority (wrongly!) for use of a normal morphological process is silly.

  4. James Wimberley said,

    December 6, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    ML: "I have no idea what in the world Mr. Hunt is talking about.."
    The 1929 article recalls entirely accurately that at that time Herbert Hoover's main accomplishment had been as a very successful wartime and postwar relief administrator. The writer was using neo-Hooverism to hark back to this genuine achievement, and suggest that goodwill and hard work are sufficient bases for public policy. They weren't. This original meaning is dead. The current usage harks back to Hoover's passivity in response to the 1929 crash and the slide into the Great Depression.

  5. Merri said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    I disagree with Mr. Cowan : the suffix -ism for an act can't be added to a person's name.

    Apart from that, one might argue that the word "Hooverism" existed as soon as Mr. Hoover became known to the person in the street -at least in Esperanto.
    It has been said that, in this language, any word resulting from an application of any 'legal' morphological process to a known word intrinsically exists, even if not already used. The coinage process is so regular and automatic that 'possible' words in a way already exist. (call me neo-Platonist)

    So, any Esperantist who had heard about Mr. Hoover would be ready to use or hear the words :
    Huverismo (Hoover's doctrine)
    Huverano (partisan of Hoover's actions or doctrine)
    and also
    Novhuverismo (new Hooverism)
    contrasting with
    Prahuverismo (ancient Hooverism)
    Ekhuverismo (original Hooverism)

  6. John Cowan said,

    April 7, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    Merri, I think you are right in general, but -ism gets used in all sorts of ad hoc ways, as the OED says. Consider Daltonism 'red/green color-blindness'.

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